Internet freedom

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.

What is smart government?

Last month, I traveled to Moldova to speak at a “smart society” summit hosted by the Moldovan national e-government center and the World Bank. I talked about what I’ve been seeing and reporting on around the world and some broad principles for “smart government.” It was one of the first keynote talks I’ve ever given and, from what I gather, it went well: the Moldovan government asked me to give a reprise to their cabinet and prime minister the next day.

I’ve embedded the entirety of the morning session above, including my talk (which is about half an hour long). I was preceded by professor Beth Noveck, the former deputy CTO for open government at The White House. If you watch the entire program, you’ll hear from:

  • Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova, National Coordinator, Governance e-Transformation Agenda
  • Dona Scola, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Information Technology and Communication
  • Andrew Stott, UK Transparency Board, former UK Government Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement
  • Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova
  • Arcadie Barbarosie, Executive Director, Institute of Public Policy, Moldova

Without planning on it, I managed to deliver a one-liner that morning that’s worth rephrasing and reiterating here: Smart government should not just serve citizens with smartphones.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments, for those of you who make it through the whole keynote.

What should be in a “Digital Citizen’s Bill of Rights?”

On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OK) introduced a proposal for a “Digital Bill of Rights” at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. You can watch a video of their conversation with Personal Democracy Media publisher Andrew Rasiej below:

Congressman Issa has posted the proposed Digital Bill of Rights on MADISON, the online legislation platform his staff built last December. The 10 proposed rights are the following:

The Digital Bill of Rights
1. Freedom – digital citizens have a right to a free, uncensored internet
2. Openness – digital citizens have a right to an open, unobstructed internet
3. Equality – all digital citizens are created equal on the internet
4. Participation – digital citizens have a right to peaceably participate where and how they choose on the internet
5. Creativity – digital citizens have a right to create, grow and collaborate on the internet, and be held accountable for what they create
6. Sharing – digital citizens have a right to freely share their ideas, lawful discoveries and opinions on the internet
7. Accessibility – digital citizens have a right to access the internet equally, regardless of who they are or where they are
8. Association – digital citizens have a right to freely associate on the internet
9. Privacy – digital citizens have a right to privacy on the internet
10. Property – digital citizens have a right to benefit from what they create, and be secure in their intellectual property on the internet

Congressman Issa made the following statement about the rights, which could well end up in a bill at some point, as with other proposals on the MADISON platform:

I believe that individuals possess certain fundamental rights. Government should exist to protect those rights against those who would violate them. That is the revolutionary principle at the heart of the American Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. No one should trample our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s why the Bill of Rights is an American citizen’s first line of defense against all forms of tyranny.

But where can a digital citizen turn for protection against the powerful? This question lay at the heart of the fight to stop SOPA and PIPA and keep the web open. While I do not have all the answers, the remarkable cooperation we witnessed in defense of an open Internet showed me three things. First, government is flying blind, interfering and regulating without understanding even the basics. Second, we have a rare opportunity to give government marching orders on how to treat the Internet, those who use it and the innovation it supports. And third, we must get to work immediately because our opponents are not giving up.

We need to frame a digital Bill of Rights. This is my first draft. I need your help to get this right, so I published it here in Madison for everyone to comment, criticize and collaborate. I look forward to hearing from you and continuing to work together to keep the web open.

-Congressman Darrell Issa

As of June 14th, the proposed rights have received 101 suggested edits and 35 community comments. Elsewhere on the Internet, they’ve generated considerably more attention. The proposed Digital Bill of Rights has received widespread news coverage, from the The Guardian to BoingBoing to Ars Technica to The Verge to CNET to The Hill.

A little online history

The idea of an online bill of rights isn’t a new one. Recently, as Evan Rodgers pointed out at the Verge, the Reddit community has been drafting its own digital bill of rights. Earlier this spring, the White House releases a consumer privacy bill of rights earlier this spring, albeit one focused on privacy.

The history of this idea goes back further, however, going back to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace to a 2007 proposal for a Internet bill of rights that came out of a meeting of the Internet Governance Forum to the iterations of a bill of rights in cyberspace that Jeff Jarvis went through in 2010. The idea of “Internet rights as the new frontier has, in other words, been around for a while.

And, for all of the interest around this week’s version, the proposal from Rep. Issa and Senator Wyden itself is relatively non-specific and does not officially recognize the iterations that have come before it. The Internet Bill of Rights that came out of Rio a few years ago, for instance, layered on a few additional (important) points:

“Privacy, data protection, freedom of expression, universal accessibility, network neutrability, interoperability, use of format and open standards, free access to information and knowledge, right to innovation and a fair and competitive market and consumers safeguard.”

There’s also a more fundamental question of how such rights would be enforced, by whom and in what context. In the United States, after all, there’s already a Bill of Rights, and one that’s held up rather well for over two centuries. Focusing on how and where the rights that citizens (digital or otherwise) already enjoy apply online would be a constructive and useful role for lawmakers to consider, particularly given the unprecedented capacity of both governments and private actors to search, surveil and censor humanity on the Internet.

All that being said, it’s significant that this pair of Congressmen introduced them and notable that the they’re taking comments from the online community using the Internet itself.

On Friday, I expect to have the opportunity to ask Rep. Issa about his thinking about a digital bill of rights, amongst other issues related to technology, data and open government. If you have questions or concerns about the proposals above that you’d like posed to the Congressman, please let me know at alex@oreilly.com.

UPDATE: Embedded below are the reactions on Twitter to the question posed in the headline of this post:

A Conversation About Social Media, Open Government and eDemocracy [VIDEO]

If the town square now includes public discourse online, democratic governments in the 21st century are finding that part of civic life now includes listening there. Given what we’ve seen in this young century, how governments deal with social media is now part of how they deal with civil liberties, press freedom, privacy and freedom of expression in general.

At the end of Social Media Week 2012, I moderated a discussion with Matt Lira, Lorelei Kelly our Clay Johnson at the U.S. National Archives. This conversation explored more than how social media is changing politics in Washington: we looked at its potential to can help elected officials and other public servants make better policy decisions in the 21st century.

I hope you find it of interest; all three of the panelists gave thoughtful answers to the questions that I and the audience posed.

Prosecuting whistleblowers is antithetical to open government

As David Carr reported at the New York Times, the White House is using the Espionage Act to prosecute leaks to the media. Dan Kennedy explored the issue of aggressive prosecution further this morning at the Huffington Post. As both Carr and Kennedy observed, this White House has used the Espionage Act six times during this presidency. Prior to 2009, it has been used 3 times in total since it was passed in 1917.

Putting the questions of whether Wikileaks is open government or deserves to be on a list of the top 10 Gov 2.0 initiatives aside, let’s be clear on a critical issue: prosecuting citizens who share information about billions of dollars of government fraud, corruption or criminality undermines open government initiatives.

Open government should not and cannot risk national security, despite what proponents of radical transparency might advocate. If the release of open data leads to such outcomes, the death of open government won’t be far behind. Those that choose to risk the lives of diplomats, human rights workers and service members abroad through willful leaks of locations or cables are legitimate targets of the Espionage Act.

If open government is truly about transparency and accountability, however, whistleblowers whose actions do not meet the standard of putting lives at danger should be protected. For instance, is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state because he went public about billions of dollars that were being wasted in “financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs?”

Last year, I talked with Drake specifically about his case; our interview is embedded below. Judge for yourself whether his actions fit the standard laid out above — and keep in mind the following details from Carr as you watch:

When his agency was about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a software program bought from the private sector intended to monitor digital data, he spoke with a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. He suggested an internally developed program that cost significantly less would be more effective and not violate privacy in the way the product from the vendor would. (He turned out to be right, by the way.)

He was charged with 10 felony counts that accused him of lying to investigators and obstructing justice. Last summer, the case against him collapsed, and he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor, of misuse of a government computer.

While the Obama administration deserves credit for federal open government initiatives, on this count the actions of its Justice Department undermine both the efforts of public servants trying to act in good faith and those of investigative journalists trying to serve the public trust, along with leaving it open to charges of hypocrisy on open government promises or veneration of are correspondents who have been killed abroad.

As David Carr points out, that’s problematic on several levels:

These kinds of prosecutions can have ripples well beyond the immediate proceedings. Two reporters in Washington who work on national security issues said that the rulings had created a chilly environment between journalists and people who work at the various government agencies.

During a point in history when our government has been accused of sending prisoners to secret locations where they were said to have been tortured and the C.I.A. is conducting remote-controlled wars in far-flung places, it’s not a good time to treat the people who aid in the publication of critical information as spies.

Whistleblowers that focus upon waste and corruption, where the risk is primarily to those guilty of bureaucratic incompetence, cost overruns, environmental degradation, safety hazards or rigged procurements, should be people that the White House uses its considerable power to protect, not prosecute. That’s why whistleblower and retaliation protections exist under the law.

If, Ralph Nader said, information is the currency of democracy, perhaps our elected leaders should take action to ensure that those who risk their careers by sharing direct threats to the public interest are not made beggars.

White House releases Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

After years of wrangling about online privacy in Washington, the White House has unveiled a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. A coalition of Internet giants, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL, have committed to adopt “Do Not Track technology” in most Web browsers by the end of 2012.

These companies, which deliver almost 90 percent of online behavioral advertisements, have agreed not to track consumers if these choose to opt out of online tracking using the Do Not Track mechanism, which will likely manifest as a button or browser plug-in. All companies that have made this commitment will be subject to FTC enforcement.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” said President Obama in a prepared statement. “As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy. That’s why an online privacy Bill of Rights is so important. For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure. By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates and policymakers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth.”

The announcement coincided with the release of a long awaited white paper: Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy. (Embedded below.)

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) welcomed the Administration’s unveiling of this “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” calling the industry announcement by industry to respect “Do Not Track” settings in Web browsers is “a positive step for consumer privacy.”

“The Administration’s call for a comprehensive privacy bill of rights comes at a pivotal time when there is a tremendous concern among consumers about their personal information,” said CDT President Leslie Harris in a prepared statement. “While we believe legislation will likely be necessary to achieve these protections, we support the White Paper’s call for the development of consensus rules on emerging privacy issues to be worked out by industry, civil society, and regulators.”

“For five years CDT has pushed for the development of a reliable ‘Do Not Track’ mechanism; today’s Digital Advertising Alliance announcement is an important step toward making ‘Do Not Track’ a reality for consumers,” said CDT’s Director of Consumer Privacy Justin Brookman in a prepared statement. “The industry deserves credit for this commitment, though the details of exactly what ‘Do Not Track’ means still need to be worked out,” Brookman said. “CDT will continue to work through the W3C standards setting process to develop strong and workable ‘Do Not Track’ guidelines.”

As Edward Wyatt reported at the New York Times, however, implementation of these online privacy guidelines won’t be just a matter of adding some lines of code:

Much remains to be done before consumers can click on a button in their Web browser to set their privacy standards. Congress will probably have to write legislation governing the collection and use of personal data, officials said, something that is unlikely to occur this year. And the companies that make browsers — Google, Microsoft, Apple and others — will have to agree to the new standards.

There will be a press conference tomorrow, streamed live from the White House. (Much more to come on this story tomorrow, though given that I’ll be traveling, you’ll be reading it elsewhere.)

A Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

· Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.

· Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.

· Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

· Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

· Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.

· Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

· Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

White House Privacy White Paper

This story has been updated as more statements and news stories came online.

A tale of 42 tweets: Highlights from my first Social Media Week in DC

Last week was “Social Media Week” here in DC. The week featured speakers, panels, workshops, events, and parties all across the District, celebrating tech and social media in the nation’s Capital, including a special edition of the DC Tech Meetup. I moderated four panels, participated in a fifth and attended what I could otherwise. I found the occasion to be a great way to meet new people around the District. Following is a storify of some of my personal highlights, as told in tweets and photographs. This is by no means representative of everyone’s experiences, which are as varied as the attendees. It’s solely what I saw and what lingered from the social media week that was.

Networks of Networks: What Defines Power Politics in the Age of Google? [VIDEO]

The Web changed Washington in one of most powerful uses of the Internet as a platform for collective action the world has ever seen. What does that mean for the future? This afternoon, a powerhouse panel of of big thinkers will talk about the implications of the networked protests that halted the progress of the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act in the U.S. Congress. Susan Crawford, Nicco Mele, Elaine Kamarck, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and the editorial director of TechPresident, Micah Sifry, will speaking at Harvard University at 4 PM ET today. The panel will be moderated by Alex Jones, director of the Harvard Shorenstein Center Director. The livestream is embedded below. If you’re interested, video of Clay Shirky’s 2011 lecture on journalism and free speech is looping on the channel.

Watch live streaming video from shorensteincenter at livestream.com

Hat tip TechPresident.

Why don’t Google and Facebook use ChillingEffects to mitigate censorship like Twitter?

At the request of the government of India, Google India and Facebook have removed content from Blogger and the world’s largest social network after a court order. As Alex Kirkpatrick reported at Mashable, “Indian prosecutors are suing a host of Internet companies on behalf of a Muslim religious leader who has accused them of hosting content that insults Islam.”

If Google and Facebook used Chilling Effects like Twitter, we’d know what content they had censored in India For context, consider Twitter’s stance on censorship and Internet freedom.

While Google’s Transparency Report for India is laudable and impressively visualized, it doesn’t show what content was removed.

As far as I know, Facebook neither posts data of content takedown requests by region nor the content itself. If you know of such data or reports, please let me know in the comments