Monday, August 16, 2021

Suppressing Civil Society not by Money but by Data

Civil society suppression...the digital way

On August 13, 2021, AlgorithmWatch, a German nonprofit focused on algorithmic accountability, shut down its work on Instagram because Facebook (owner of Instagram) threatened to sue the group for violations of its Terms of Service.

This followed in the footsteps of Facebook kicking NYU researchers off of the platform for the work they were doing tracking political ads. (August, 2021)

The threats to both organizations and the research they were doing is a threat to any independent effort to hold the platforms accountable or to understand what is actually happening on these systems. 

"Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest," said Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at NYU and one of the affected researchers. "Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the 'users' Facebook is talking about are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public."

Facebook controls its Terms of Service and controls who can access what data for independent research purposes. It can stop - and will - anyone doing research it doesn't approve. To tighten its grip even further, Facebook has taken steps to rein in or cut off access to Crowdtangle, a tool commonly used by researchers to make sense of Facebook data.

These are examples of a powerful company threatening and shutting down civil society accountability efforts and independent research - not by money but by data. All nonprofits and foundations should pay attention to this.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021


I walked by this on a San Francisco street on March 16. Then I heard of the murders in Georgia.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Who is deciding?

Alt Headline: Thoughts on Non-public digital infrastructure for civil society. (I've been hosting this conversation on Reclaiming Digital Infrastructure for the Public Interest - the following post explores an example of what happens when we don't do so)


I've been thinking for awhile about how nonprofits and giving are becoming "locked in" on commercial platforms. A lot of giving happens on software from Facebook or GoFundMe, nonprofits use a variety of corporate systems for managing their donations, and people use Venmo/Paypal etc. to move money between people and events. Each of those companies "owns" their aggregate data. For decades the sector has relied on analysis of of tax forms, survey data, and foundation reporting to see big trends in giving - these trends and data are useful to practitioners in the sector, researchers, and policy makers.

But these users don't have access to data from the companies. There are some efforts underway to change this - hats off to GivingTuesday's data commons and the work of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (donor software working group). But, for the most part, we've privatized the data sources for tracking trends in the sector. 

So, nothing new there (though I think this needs to change, which would probably require regulatory action). But a couple of headlines today made me think there's something else going on also. 

Here are the headlines:

From NPQ:

It’s Almost November…Has Your Tax Exemption Been Revoked?

Got a Nonprofit Status Revocation Notice? Don’t Panic—The IRS Erred

From NBC News:

Tech platforms continue to let U.S.-based hate groups use them to make payments

Here's what I asked myself as was reading through those stories - "Wait a second, are we also privatizing the process of sanctioning certain kinds of organizations?" Registering nonprofit organizations and requiring certain reporting is one of the key ways that governments set the bounds of civil society. It is a mechanism tied to certain incentives (tax privileges), enables oversight, opens/closes funding opportunities, and can be used to tighten boundaries on civil society. Its one of the many manifestations of civil society as an artifact of government action. The headlines above made me realize that commercial platforms play an interesting set of roles in that function. 
The NBC News headline isn't the only sign of this phenomenon. Back in 2017, Cloudflare (a web hosting group) "deplatformed" the Daily Stormer, a Nazi website. Prior to that, in a different incident, Amazon, Paypal and Visa cut off payment services to Wikileaks. It's important to recognize both the infrastructural function that these companies are playing (web hosting, payment services) and the effects that their governance decisions have on the sector writ large.