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February 20, 2014
exploring the links between net neutrality and international development
Cross-posted from the #TABridge blog
When librarians speak out in protest, you know something serious is going on. That's what happened last month amid the public outcry after a U.S. appeals court supported telecom giant Verizon in its lawsuit against net neutrality regulations. The American Library Association said the ruling "if it stands ... will fundamentally change the open nature of the Internet, where uncensored access to information has been a hallmark of the communication medium since its inception." Net neutrality's underlying principle is that the speed, cost and availability of your Internet service cannot change based on which site you try to reach. On a neutral Internet, providers "treat all bits equally," Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman wrote in 2006. The court's January ruling said, in simplified terms, that the Federal Communications Commission was seeking to regulate cable companies and phone companies the same way, even though current regulations impose a clear distinction between the two groups. (Some pro-neutrality critics also believe the latest rules were poorly drafted.) The telecom sector launched yet another threat to net neutrality a few days ago, when the country's two biggest cable providers announced plans to merge into one mega-provider. Policy expert Susan Crawford, the leading voice on this issue, said the merger would only deepen the threat of bias in access to online content. "We can't move ahead as a country," she said on public radio, "unless we have a communications grid that serves all of our interests." In societies that lack tolerance, government accountability or a level playing field for entrepreneurs, the need for equal treatment of content and equal access to bandwidth is especially important. Imagine, for instance, Internet providers in Ukraine or Uganda selectively slowing or blocking access to certain news sources. A "biased Internet" can achieve with censorship what data tools can through analytics and surveillance: the use of hidden systems to control the space between individuals and their perceptions. As Zeynep Tufekci wrote this past week, the same "big data" tools that governments use for surveillance are used to "micro-target" product information and campaign messages:
Companies want to use this power to make us buy products. For political parties, the aim is to attract support based on a tailored presentation of that party's politicians and policies. Both want us to click, willingly, on a choice that has been engineered for us.
Without net neutrality, the ones who own the wires can let the highest bidders block or blast the messages that serve their own agenda. Ryan Singel, former Wired editor, described it this way:
If your cable company now wants to slow down Netflix, it can. If it wants to make Skype calls slow, it can. If it wants to make streaming video from its services lightning fast and free from data caps, while slowing down YouTube and counting that data against your monthly allotment, it can do so.
Advocates and donors working to preserve free speech and free thought around the world should pay close attention as the U.S. battle unfolds and the tools to throttle and channel opinion grow more powerful.
Inside countries less developed than the United States, net neutrality may not be today's top concern. Between limited Internet access, repression of alternative media and a combination of free services and high subscription costs, net neutrality principles can't yet be applied as we understand them in the U.S.
But whether the toll gate has a coin box or an armed policeman, access to "the full Internet" is getting harder to guarantee. Responding to my questions about freedom of online access in Africa, Ethan Zuckerman said Facebook and Google "are - wisely - striking deals with mobile phone networks to make their content inexpensive to access. If they can develop ad models that work in the developing world, they may end up financing a model that looks a bit like the AOL-walled-garden model: content within the garden is free, but pure internet connectivity is costly," which could make it difficult for newer services to emerge.
And poorer customers will suffer more as net neutrality disappears. As Wired's editors put it, "'pay to play' only benefits the privileged." Speaking in January, Susan Crawford warned that free services for poorer users around the world do not eliminate the need for net neutrality:
"For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That's not the Internet--that's being fodder for someone else's ad-targeting business," she says. "That's entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination--a crucial limitation on human life."
Zuckerman, who currently leads the Center for Civic Media at MIT, said even though the African governments in his 2006 example were ultimately unable to block Voice Over IP services (VOIP), the analogy is less clear in a 2014 context. "[I]s it futile to try and stop the powerhouses that are Google and Facebook?" he asked. "Or do we risk a world where the next VOIP is impossible if it threatens Google or Facebook, who might be subsidizing internet costs? I think that second scenario is worth worrying about."
By the way, experts Ryan Singel and Zeynep Tufekci both self-published their above comments on Medium.com, a free site founded by "small media" entrepreneurs from Twitter. Without net neutrality, independent media sources (even ones like Medium, founded with deep pockets) will face a far greater threat from larger corporate competitors.
For more background on net neutrality, see Susan Crawford's site, this round-up by Matthew Ingram on GigaOM, and this letter from the White House responding to an online petition with more than 105,000 signatures.
UPDATE: As this was posted, the FCC announced it would be drafting and proposing new rules under its Open Internet Order, which seeks "to ensure that the Internet remains a platform for innovation, economic growth, and free expression." But observers sounded skeptical in the hours after the announcement, noting the practical challenges to transparency in enforcing net neutrality and the lack of an explicit commitment to "treating all Internet traffic the same."
Illustration by bugbyte/deviantART
December 19, 2013
surveillance outcry a sign of OGP's relevance
An interesting thing happened today in the debate over US and UK berserker surveillance
practices. In a collective protest
, human rights, civil rights and accountability groups sent a letter to the Open Government Partnership calling on member countries to "overhaul privacy laws, protect whistleblowers, and increase transparency on surveillance mechanisms
The way OGP works, governments submit "action plans
" with a roster of commitments to improve transparency, accountability and citizen participation. Many of the plans emphasize improved Freedom of Information, open data and rule of law mechanisms.
OGP has generated a lot of energy. It has kickstarted a conversation about accountability on the international stage and among the 62
participating countries. But it has yet to prove its power
to unleash change. Declarations are easier than prosecutions. Open data portals look good, but data means little without a community
of data-savvy reformers.
So it is interesting to see that more than 100 groups and individuals--including Oxfam, POGO, Privacy International, ACCESS Info Europe, several chapters of Transparency International, leading activist Aruna Roy and tech thinkers I admire like David Eaves
and Katrin Verclas
--all believe that OGP can be an effective forum to push governments to clean up their act on high-tech spying. (See the full letter as a PDF here
The power of technology to improve democracy is a major focus in the OGP, and web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a regular participant, is spearheading the effort to put surveillance higher on the OGP agenda. Berners-Lee's Web Foundation
was created in part to reduce the threats of "government controls" on web activity.
And it's not the first time the open government community has questioned the integrity
of certain OGP countries. Advocacy groups spoke out strongly
when OGP participant South Africa drafted an authoritarian anti-whistleblower law.
An intriguing subplot to this new outcry is that both the OGP and the new journalism project
launched by crusader reporters Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and others are backed by philanthropist Pierre Omidyar
Granted, OGP relies on money from multiple funders
and time and effort from all participating governments. But there's something notable--and very 2013--about one Omidyar project ramping up to speak truth to power while another faces new scrutiny for its effectiveness as a facilitator of government reform. Unless a more explicit conflict of interest emerges, it's encouraging to see Omidyar supporting change from within and from without at the same time.
The Open Government Partnership is, like the name says, a partnership of many governments, so it's hard to predict what sort of response would be the most forceful. But with the United States and the UK as founding and former chairs of the initiative, it's nice to think that they and the current leadership
could take the opportunity Berners-Lee, Roy and the letter's cosigners are giving them to join the fray.
October 24, 2013
treat all data as conversation
Cross-posted from the #TABridge blog
What if data published by governments had tracked changes and comments turned on like a Word document--for every user? That is basically the question asked the other day by Gov 2.0 evangelist Ben Balter
It's a valuable idea, driven by several urgent needs in the open data world: more usable government data, more engaged data users, and a more fluid, accountable dialogue between data publishers and data users. And Balter stands at the forefront
of the issue, having pioneered the federal government's earliest uses of GitHub, the socially-oriented software platform, and now working with GitHub to help lead its new focus on state, local and federal government usage
The vision in his post is lucid and compelling, but the proposal is off the mark. We need better conversations more than we need better annotations. More precisely, we'll get more users to give more feedback that is more useful to more government data publishers if we don't require issue experts (or civil servants) to become more like programmers.
Balter compares open data sets to open source software, which relies on annotations and iterations of code to create ever-improving tools based on loosely-joined collaborative communities of coders.
Being able to track changes at that level of granularity ... empowers contributors to propose and discuss changes with great efficiently [sic], accurately, and precisely. It makes software a team sport. All of a sudden line-by-line code reviews, issues, and pull requests arise to address challenges both large and small.
If governments made their data more accessible and annotatable, Balter says, "rather than posting the data as a zip file or to a proprietary data portal," the open data community could evolve on a faster track--using lessons from the open source community--and build up habits and standards of markup that strengthened the quality of supply and the capacity of those with demands. "Consumers of the data can submit proposed changed to do everything from normalizing columns to correcting errors to making the data itself more useable."
He's right that current challenges in open data usability are slowing feedback loops between, for example, an education ministry posting schools data and education advocates trying to make the most of the data in local advocacy.
But in a world where people had the time and savvy to annotate the way that he pictures, we wouldn't need the system he's picturing: The user/publisher dynamics would already be rich enough to yield more usable applications and more accountable data publishers.
As it stands, most governments are working to fulfill the basic promises
of the open data movement: delivering a steady supply of higher quality data that is genuinely usable. And open data users are striving to improve their own basic data capabilities while maintaining the pressure on government to fulfill its promises.
Since Kenya's government launched its data portal, for example, the number of published data sets has more than doubled, but open data experts have expressed a range of concerns
about the effectiveness of the portal and the degree of uptake among citizen groups
. As Kenya's own ICT champion Bitange Ndemo said last year
, "Right now, we have dealt with just the supply side of data. The challenge now is to build the demand side of data."
Our #TABridge colleague Mikel Maron
has spoken on several occasions about the value and challenges of "distributed version control
" for data tools and the need for stronger user communities
if the open data environment is to flourish. To build those communities, governments and experts need to meet the members where they are. That's what groups like the Open Knowledge Foundation
, the Open Government Partnership
, the Sunlight Foundation
and we at TABridge
are trying to do.
Before creating a new layer of tags, comments and tracked changes on government data sets, however, let's create a new community of curious, competent, confident data users among NGOs and citizens.
Let's expand our vision of open data community outreach from hackathons
to include feedback-athons and train-apaloozas
. We have a language available to us to describe our challenges and imagine better uses of data: conversation.
I'd rather teach government publishers to listen more often than assume they'll find the time, money or permission to build the infrastructure and job descriptions Balter is imagining. And I'd rather set the threshold of skill lower for users with feedback than assume that all the NGOs who need government data can become good users of GitHub
It's worth noting that the open source community Balter looks to for inspiration has itself confronted the challenges
of usability and adapted
. Just because code is open for collaboration does not mean that breakthrough applications or dynamic feedback loops will spring forth. The developer community's embrace of user communities
and user-centric design has deepened and widened the impact of open source code, and continues to push publishers to do better.
So, yes, we should push the open government data community to evolve faster than the open source community did from "open up and win" to "open up then listen" but the best listening and revision platform should be something more human-centric than comment tags and version histories online.
September 15, 2013
keeping in sync as we open up
Advocates inside and outside government are working hard to embrace open data practices. International bodies
and even rock stars
have moved past the question of why
we need open, shared systems of government data to questions about how to build and maintain those systems.
As we form new alliances and secure new policies to enable efficient sharing of data on financial flows, international aid, public services and related sectors, organizations and coalitions must work to link our activities as effectively as we hope to link our data sets.
Transparency and accountability groups like our own are investing staff time, research, and money to join this open data revolution. This moment of innovation may resemble earlier milestones for technology and advocacy, but we need to keep the particular challenges of open data in mind, and to clearly define our responsibilities in the creation of a vibrant, reliable open data ecosystem.
The digital revolutions that gave organizations a human voice (e.g., blogs
) and their supporters a bigger role (e.g., Facebook
) were, from a certain point of view, selfish. One group with one mission could speak louder and reach further
, even if they were the lone voice speaking.
Big data is different: The more that groups collaborate, the more meaning their data has. Like a wiki entry or a potluck meal, it fulfills its purpose as more people add pieces.
So while it's vital for transparency groups and governments to continue opening and disseminating data, we must also create strong channels of ongoing collaboration--not among systems but among people.
This alignment of efforts is already underway at the policy level. In recent months, the G8 countries
, the European Union
and the Canadian government
have each made new commitments to open data practices, following the historic actions of the U.S. Congress and regulators opening up oil and mining payments in the 2010 Dodd-Frank reforms
. The Open Government Partnership says open data is central
to many of the 300 commitments made by participating countries. In the words of Martin Tisné
, former T/AI director and now policy director for T/AI funder the Omidyar Network, "Transparency is now seen as a key pillar of development - a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to enable growth, accountability and social change."
Meanwhile, the tools for linking data sets are gaining adoption beyond the technology community. In the past 18 months, both the United States
and the United Kingdom
moved their public data portals onto CKAN
, a community repository for data sharing created by the Open Knowledge Foundation. The World Bank announced several new initiatives
in June that seek to collect and open up data, including a collaboration with OpenCorporates.com
on private sector data. The World Bank Institute also continues to help define good practices and data-driven tools that support open contracting
by governments. And, as another of many examples, the African Development Bank launched a new Open Data Platform
in July to help "scale up the collection, management, analysis, and sharing of quality statistics relating to the continent's development."
What remains to be seen is how well we as advocates for increased data-sharing and data-driven collaboration can align our own sharing and collaboration. Can we work together regularly, toward measurable ends, and create a functional data commons that uses linked data sets to reveal more than any single group's information can show?
Besides our own initiative, here are three efforts currently underway that seek to join advocates, practitioners and data for productive teamwork:
Launched in 2012, the Open Data Institute works across the private and public sectors to create "untapped markets and business opportunities" for open government data. The institute was founded by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the recently-knighted Sir Nigel Shadbolt, a pioneer in the UK and global open data movements. Among ODI's projects is the creation of a data schema designed to standardize the licensing and usage rules that accompany data sets published online.
During summer 2013, our colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation joined with fellow TABridge members Fundar and Open Knowledge Foundation, along with several other groups, to establish a Global Open Data Initiative, which seeks to increase awareness of open data issues and help governments define open data approaches. As part of this effort, Sunlight recently updated their open data policy guidelines, "a living document created to help define the landscape of what open data policies can and should do."
In April of this year, a diverse group of technology and transparency advocates working on aid (Publish What You Fund), natural resources revenues (EITI, Publish What You Pay, Natural Resource Charter), corporate ownership (Open Corporates), government contracts (World Bank Institute, Open Oil) and government spending (International Budget Partnership) sat down in a first attempt to assess how their individual sets of government and analytical data could become interoperable. Initially conceived at T/AI's 2012 Bridging Session, this first effort to "Follow the Data" was convened by Revenue Watch Institute and Open Knowledge Foundation with support and participation by the Omidyar Network and the UK Department for International Development (DfID).
Since the first "follow the data" meeting, DfID has organized a series of hack days in London, Lagos and Sydney, to get local civil society and developers working together to make sense of data on oil, gas and mining revenues. These experiments have helped to highlight the power of interoperable data to track flows of money from mining royalties or international donations, through to government budgets and local spending. To understand more about the process of linking data, the practical challenges, and the high value of oil and mining data in particular, read these three posts by Tim Davies, Adam McGreggor and Jonathan Gray, all members of the growing Follow the Data community.
If the promise of a rich open data ecosystem is collective wisdom greater than any individual data set can provide, and the tools and rules for reliable linkages are well underway, what does this opportunity demand of us--as campaigners, NGOs, techies and funding groups? What must we do to help bring this crowdsourced picture into clearer focus? And what are the essential elements to making sure that data-driven collaboration will flourish among all groups?
First, we need to create an expectation of cooperation among transparency groups, donors and technologists. We will inevitably compete for funding and have days or weeks on end where the demands of daily work overtake innovation projects and coalition conference calls. But we must establish a norm of shared efforts with agreed goals, real deadlines and cycles of assessment and iteration, where the same groups that collaborated in preparation for Conference A are still thinking together six months later in Research Paper X.
Second, we need to seek and cultivate the will to open up,
not only by finding more champions
within government, but by building the demand for open data projects and cross-sector teamwork among our own colleagues and managers. It isn't only databases that need to open up, it's doors and calendars and minds.
Third, we need to ensure there are steady resources available. Donors need to provide financial incentives not only for technology projects, but for capacity development, community outreach and continuing partnerships among the divergent groups whose combined efforts will be needed if we hope to follow the data to actionable knowledge. And donors are not the only group that need to allocate resources. Organizational leaders need to understand that data projects take real time and don't happen "on the side." And staffers inside NGOs and governments need to accept that these new activities are as important as the work to which they're more accustomed.
With steady cooperation, demonstrable will from participants and leaders, and sufficient resources in time and funding, the open data experiments now cropping up among several groups can develop in a climate that supports more regular, deliberate collaboration.
The more consciously we link our activities and findings, the more seamlessly we will be able to link our data, and the more shared knowledge will result. In the campaign for open data, as in all transparency and accountability work, there's more than safety in numbers, there's power.
September 13, 2013
train to equality being held momentarily
Three ads from the NYC Subway say a lot about state of gender relations.
At least Carrie looks like a freestanding being. Maybe that's why she also looks frightened.
August 14, 2013
detours on way to grammar's house
Chilling and compelling quotes on CNN.com this morning from preportedly verified anonymous online Q&A (I know how that sounds) with abduction victim Hannah Anderson.
Obviously the most important questions are, Is she all right? What really happened? And, of course, Is this account of an ask.fm anonymous Q&A with her true?
I can't answer, but I can say that -- maybe in the interest of speed -- atrocious copywriting errors by CNN itself were left in. Let's get this right, people. It's actual news about something really bad (emphasis below is mine).
Hannah Anderson did what any teenage girl would do after a life-changing ordeal: she discussed it with peers online. ...
Dawn MacNabb, whose son is one of her closest friends, confirmed to the Associated Press that the postings on ask.fm were by Hannah. She said her son spoke on the phone with Hannah on Tuesday and urged her to delete some of the postings.
The California teenager was rescued Saturday after family friend DiMaggio held her hostage for a week after killing her mother and brother. Her frantic search stretched from southern California to the Idaho wilderness ...
The most interesting question is what does it mean when peer-to-peer media can replace news media as a newsbreaking source. In this case, it wasn't breaking news that happened via social media (like we saw with the Hudson River plane landing
or the Abbottabad raid
on bin Laden), it was the press conference.
But just because newsmakers are becoming their own newsbreakers and social tools can now be media tools doesn't mean standard media should stop using words properly.
Since the above was drafted, both errors were corrected. Text now says
, "... whose son is one of Hannah's closest friends" and "The frantic search for the teenager stretched from ...."
July 17, 2013
ford foundation's #courtingchange event
The "mountaintop" vision of civil rights and social justice "remains far away" - Luis Ubiñas, outgoing president of the Ford Foundation. Glad to be liveblogging from this Ford event in NYC today with @goddessjaz @sonalbee and @brooklynsingh.
UPDATE: A view from the bloggers' table and a replay of the webstream below: