ECPA

TechCrunch’s “CrunchGov” grades Congress on tech, pilots legislative crowdsourcing platform

In general, connecting more citizens with their legislators and create more resources for Congress to understand where their constituents and tech community stands on proposed legislation is a good thing. Last year’s Congressional hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act made it pretty darn clear that many technologists felt that it was no longer ok to not know how the Internet works. Conversely, however, if the tech world cares about what happens in DC, it’s no longer ok to not know how Congress works.

In that context, the launch of a policy platform by one of the biggest tech blogs on the planet could definitely be a positive development. TechCrunch contributor Greg Ferenstein writes that the effort is aimed at “helping policymakers become better listeners, and technologists to be more effective citizens.”

The problem with the initial set of tools is that they’re an incomplete picture of what’s online, at best. CrunchGov won’t satisfy the needs of tech journalists, staffers or analysts, who need deeper dives into expert opinion, policy briefings and data. (Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation already offer those resources.)

Will “grading” Members of the House of Representatives on TechCrunch’s new Congressional leaderboard lead to them being better listeners? Color me, well, unconvinced. Will an “F” from TechCrunch result in Reps. Smith, Grassley, or Blackburn changing the bills they introduce, support or vote for or against?

Hard to know. True, it’s the sort of symbol that a political opponent could use in an election — but if Reddit’s community couldn’t defeat SOPA’s chief sponsor in a primary, will a bad grade do it? Ferenstein says the leaderboard provides a “a quantified opinion” of the alignment of Reps with the consensus of the tech industry.

Update: as reported by Adrian Jeffries at The Verge, this quantified opinion is based upon TechCrunch editorial and “data and guidance from four tech lobbies.”

Engine Advocacy, which represents startups; TechNet, which represents CEOs in areas from finance and ecommerce to biotech and clean tech; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major Silicon Valley employers; and the powerhouse conglomerate The Internet Association, which represents Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others.

Ferenstein told Hamish McKenzie at PandoDaily that “We’re saying this is generally the view of many people who read our site.” If that’s the case, it would be useful to transparently see the data that shows how TechCrunch readers feel about proposed or passed bills — much in the same way that POPVOX or OpenCongress allow users to express support or opposition to legislation. At the moment, readers are stuck taking their word for it.

McKenzie also highlighted some problems with the rankings and the proposition of rankings themselves:

On three major issues – net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security – TechCrunch’s surveys found no consensus, which somewhat undermines the leaderboard rankings. After all, those rankings appear to be based mainly on three data points: a Congressperson’s position on SOPA, and his or her votes on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It might be true that CrunchGov takes a data-driven approach to its rankings, but when three data points out a possible set of six are omitted, it’s fair to question just how useful the measure is.

As much as anything else, that speaks to the complicated definition of “those in the technology industry.” The industry is so broad and varied, from solo developers creating social games in their basements to hardware executives wanting to drive profits on their devices, that trying to establish consensus on political issues across a broad section of a relatively amorphous community is probably an impossible task. It also overemphasizes tech issues among the myriad of policy concerns that people working in the industry hold, some of which might seem tangential but are actually inextricably tied to the industry. What of climate change? What of taxes? What of puppies?

Also, applying grades to legislators puts TechCrunch in the same camp as the NRA, Americans For Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club in terms of assessing representatives based on narrow, and politically loaded, interests. It’s a headline-oriented approach that provides low-information people with a low-information look at a process and system that is actually very complicated.

More effective citizenship through the Internet?

I’m not unconvinced these limited bill summaries or leaderboard will help “technologists” become “more effective citizens,” though I plan to keep an open mind: this new policy platform is in beta, from the copy to the design to the number of bills in the legislative database or the data around them.

Helping readers to be “more effective” citizens is a bigger challenge than educating them just about how legislators are graded on tech-related bills. The scope of that  knowing who your Representative, Senators or where they stand on issues, what bills are up for a vote or introduced, how they voted, The new Congress.gov will connect you to many of the above needs, at the federal level. It might mean following the money, communicating your support or opposition to your elected officials, registering to vote, and participating the democratic processes of state and local government, from schools to . Oh, and voting: tens of millions of American citizens will head to the polls in under two weeks.

To be fair, CrunchGov does do some of these things, linking out to existing open government ecosystem online. Clicking “more info” shows positions Representatives have taken on the tech issues CrunchGov editors have determined that the industry has a “consensus” around, including votes, and links to their profiles in OpenCongress and Influence Explorer. Bill summaries link to maplight.org.

When it comes to the initial set of issues in the legislative database, there’s an overly heavy editorial thumb on the till of what’s deemed important to the tech community.

For one, “cybersecurity” is a poor choice for a Silicon Valley blog. It’s a Washington word, used often in the context of national defense and wars, accompanied by fears of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Network security, mobile device security or Web application security are all more specific issues, and ones that startups and huge enterprises all have to deal with in their operations. The security experts I trust see Capitol Hill rhetoric taking aim at the wrong cybersecurity threats.

CrunchGov has only one bill selection for the issue — the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) (H.R. 3523). The summary explains that CISPA proposes more information sharing, has a pie chart showing that “tech-friendly legislators” are split 50/50 on it, shows endorsements and opposition, links to 3 articles about the bill, including TechCrunch’s own coverage.

What’s left unclear? For one, that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) – an “A-lister” who TechCrunch writes “has received numerous awards and accolades from the industry,” supported CISPA. Or that organizations and advocates concerned about its implications for privacy and civil rights strongly opposed it. If you’re a technologist, legislator or citizen, honestly, you’re better off reading ProPublica’s explainer or the Center for Democracy and Technology’s CISPA resource page.

There’s also framing choices that meant a number of bills aren’t listed — and that the Senate is left out entirely. Why? According to Ferenstein, “the “do-nothing” congress made it impossible to rank the Senate, because they didn’t pass enough bills related to technology policy.”

It’s true that the Senate hasn’t passed many bills — but the 51 laws that did go through the Senate in the 112th Congress include more tech policy issues than that statement might lead you to believe, from e-verify to online leak prevention. It’s also moved laws that every citizens should know about, like the extension of the PATRIOT Act, given that provisions affect the tech industry. (Yes, digital due process matters in the age of the cloud: your email isn’t as private as you might think it is.)

Putting a legislative crowdsourcing platform to re-use

Congressional leaderboard and limited legislative dashboard aside, CrunchGov is trying to crowdsource legislation using a local installation of MADISON, the software Congressman Issa’s office developed and rolled out last December during the first Congressional hackathon. MADISON was subsequently open sourced, which made the code available to TechCrunch.

It’s in this context that CrunchGov’s aspirations for technology to “democratize democracy itself” may be the most tested. The first test case will be a bill from Congressman Issa to reform government IT procurement. For this experiment to matter, the blog’s readership will need to participate, do so meaningfully, and see that their edits are given weight by bill authors in Washington. Rep. Issa’s office, which has distinguished itself in its use of the Internet to engage the public, may well do so. If proposals from the initial pilot aren’t put into bills, that may be the end of reader interest.

Will other Congressmen and staffers do the same, should their bills be posted? It’s hard to say. As with so many efforts to engage citizens online, this effort is in beta.

This post has been updated, including links to coverage from Pando Daily and the Verge.

Daniel Weitzner is the new White House deputy CTO for Internet policy

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Image by Elon University via Flickr

There’s a new deputy chief technology officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: Danny Weitzner. He’ll be taking over the policy portfolio that Andrew McLaughlin held. The appointment appears to have been reported first by Julia Angwin in her story on a proposed bill for an online privacy bill of rights drafted by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Rick Weiss, director of communications at OSTP confirmed the appointment and said that they anticipate that Weitzner will start work “very soon.”

With the appointment, the OSTP staff has three deputy CTOs again working under federal CTO Aneesh Chopra: Chris Vein for innovation, Weitzner for Internet policy and Scott Deutchman for telecommunications policy.

Weitzner has a deep and interesting background when it comes to Internet policy. He was serving as associate administrator for policy at the United States Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the principal adviser to the President on telecommunications and information policy. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Weitzner created the MIT CSAIL Decentralized Information Group and was used to be the policy director for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) before he joined . Here’s his bio from his time there:

Daniel Weitzner is Policy Director of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Technology and Society activities. As such, he is responsible for development of technology standards that enable the web to address social, legal, and public policy concerns such as privacy, free speech, security, protection of minors, authentication, intellectual property and identification. Weitzner holds an appointment as Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, co-directs MIT’s Decentralized Information Group with Tim Berners-Lee, and teaches Internet public policy at MIT.

As one of the leading figures in the Internet public policy community, he was the first to advocate user control technologies such as content filtering and rating to protect children and avoid government censorship of the Intenet. These arguments played a critical role in the 1997 US Supreme Court case, Reno v. ACLU, awarding the highest free speech protections to the Internet. He successfully advocated for adoption of amendments to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act creating new privacy protections for online transactional information such as Web site access logs.

Before joining the W3C, Mr. Weitzner was co-founder and Deputy Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a leading Internet civil liberties organization in Washington, DC. He was also Deputy Policy Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He serves on the Boards of Directors of the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Software Freedom Law Center, the Web Science Research Initiative. and the Internet Education Foundation.

His publications on technical and public policy aspects of the Internet have appeared in the Yale Law Review, Science magazine, Communications of the ACM, Computerworld, Wired Magazine, and The Whole Earth Review. He is also a commentator for NPR’s Marketplace Radio.

Mr. Weitzner has a degree in law from Buffalo Law School, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Swarthmore College.

As Angwin reported, Weitzner pushed for creation of the Commerce Department new privacy office while he was at NTIA. In his new role, he’s likely to be working closely with the FTC, Congress and a new privacy office at the Commerce that, according to Angwin, is likely to be run by Jules Polonetsky, currently head of the Future of Privacy Forum.

Weitzner’s appointment is good news for those who believe that ECPA reform matters and for advocates of free speech online. Given the recent role of the Internet as a platform for collective action, that support is worth acknowledging.

For those interested, Weitzner can be found on Twitter at @djweitzner. While he has not sent out a tweet since last November, his link to open government in the United Kingdom last July bodes well for his support for open data and Gov 2.0: “Proposed Government Data Transparency principles from UK gov’t via Shadbolt & Berners-Lee http://bit.ly/b1WyYs #opendata #gov20.”

 

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FTC to release online privacy report, host first Twitter chat at #FTCpriv

This fall, online privacy debates have been heating up in Washington. Tomorrow, the Federal Trade Commission will finally deliver its long awaited online privacy report. Chairman. Over the past year FTC has explored new online privacy frameworks and examined the strength of cloud computing privacy in a series of privacy roundtables.

The FTC has issued a privacy advisory for tomorrow, stating that FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz, Jessica Rich, deputy director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, and Edward W. Felten, the FTC’s new chief technologist, will answer reporters’ questions “about a new FTC report on privacy that outlines a framework for consumers, businesses and policymakers.”

This FTC online privacy report will be one of the most important government assessments this year. Look for widespread reaction to its contents across industry and technology media. Particular attention likely be paid to two events here in Washington:

First, David Vladeck, the FTC’s director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection Protection, will speak tomorrow at Consumer Watchdog’s policy conference on the future of online consumer protections. You can watch live here (if you can stream Windows Media files.)

Second, House of Representatives will hold a hearing on “Do-Not-Track legislation, which would consider whether citizens should be able to opting of from Web tracking

Will online privacy look different by the end of the day? As Jamie Court, Author, President of Consumer Watchdog, wrote in the Huffington Post:

There are few issues 9 out of 10 Americans agree on. A Consumer Watchdog poll shows that 90% of Americans agree it is important to protect their privacy online. 86% want a “make me anonymous” button and 80% want the creation of a “do not track me” list online that would be administered by the Federal Trade Commission.

The release of the FTC online privacy report also comes with a new media twist: According to @FTCGov, the agency’s Twitter account, the nation’s top regulator will also host its first Twitter chat at 3 PM. It remains to be seen how civil citizens are in the famously snarky medium. The agency has suggested the #FTCpriv hashtag to aggregate tweets. UPDATE: Although the White House OpenGov account and FTC tweeted on Wednesday that the chat would be at #FTCpriv hashtag, not #FTCpriv, the chat ended up being at the original hashtag.

Breaking News! Tomorrow we will release our #privacy report & host our 1st Twitter Chat to answer Qs. More details to come. #FTCprivless than a minute ago via web