Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The social sector and shiny objects (e.g. blockchains)

Like people in general, civil society organizations are easily distracted by shiny objects. Although I pinged blockchain as a buzzword a few years ago, the frenzied hype of last year's bitcoin boom and bust (probably manipulated) finally brought the idea through to general public.

There probably are good social sector uses of systems that permanently store information and make transactions verifiable by distributed participants. And there's lots of experimentation going on. My rule of thumb? Experiments with commodities on supply chains strike me as a safer place to start. Experiments with information about people strike me as disasters in the making.

Here's why:
  • The ethics of permanently storing information about people are treacherous, 
  • The legal frameworks for information about people are dynamic and diverse, 
  • The governance choices that shape different blockchains are poorly understood, and 
  • The technology itself? C'mon. Are we gonna fall for this again? "Trust me, this software is secure and safe." First of all, that's what the blockchain is - software + rules made by people.
When it comes to the blockchain there is no "one thing," there are many, and they operate under all kinds of rules. Blockchain = software + rules made by people. If you don't know how the software works, what it does and doesn't do, and if you don't understand the governing rules, don't go using the stuff on humans (my rule of thumb).  Blockchains promote encryption and permanence. It's scary how often people think they must be the right solution when the problem they're facing is bad database design, missing data, broken incentives, greedy partners, or oppressive governments.

We do need to be talking with experts from all sectors about if and when and how to use new types of software and governance structures. Software experts can explain what different systems can and can not do. Sector experts know the human and political problem and whether the challenge is one of security, verifiability, corruption, access or any permutation of these and other conditions. Governance experts know how rules get made, dodged, and broken and can advise on designing just systems that can be held accountable. The people who's data might be collected will know their concerns, now and in the next generations (remember, permanence means permanence).

Here are some useful resources from those doing good work on these questions:

Beeck Center, Georgetown University: The Blockchain Ethical Design Framework
Stanford Graduate School of Business: Blockchain for Social Impact: Beyond the Hype

And a funny, insightful video on digital economics, as told through the experience of cryptokitties (and the blockchain).

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Civil society and threats to a free press

It's August 16, 2018 (Forty seven years to the day since President Nixon's administration admitted to keeping an "enemies list" of the American people).

Today, newspapers across the United States are running editorials on the importance of a free press and declaring their outrage at the way the current U.S. President treats and talks about the "media."

I've written before about how the last two decades in the "news business" might hold insights to the current and short-term future of civil society writ large. My previous comments have focused on the effects of the transformation to digital distribution (broke print journalism's ad revenue model), regulatory changes (which facilitated the creation of "news" monopolies in print and broadcast), and the entry of new players with different credentials (blurred the understanding of independent, credible news and opinions/propaganda).

By Robert Seymour - A Short History of the National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine photographic archive.Cholera "Tramples the victors & the vanquished both." Robert Seymour. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Public Domain, Link

It's time to add to this list, and learn from the collective voices being published today by more than 300 papers across the country. The list of changes and threats to journalism now, most notably, include direct attacks from the White House itself. But we also need to pay attention to the "successful" efforts over the last
years to sow doubt and confusion in the information environment, so that even the most careful, vetted, confirmed reporting now exists in a miasma of distrust and deliberate doubt.

Both of these changes - direct threats from the federal government and an environment of mistrust,  distrust, and lies - should be added to the list of realities that face civil society in the United States. (May apply elsewhere as well, but I'm thinking U.S. at the moment)

Direct threats include: The IRS's regulatory change to not require donor disclosure for politicking nonprofits, repeated efforts to repeal Johnson Amendment.

Environment of mistrust include: Oh, come on. You've been paying attention - distrust of the news media is part and parcel of a corrosion of online communications. Once doubt takes over, it takes over everything. We are all communicating into and via an atmosphere where doubt rules. No association or organization should be assuming that their communications won't be manipulated or labeled false by opponents or political by platforms, that facts alone win, or even that their allies are who they say they are.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The nonprofit/volunteer layer of the internet's content infrastructure

I've been thinking about the role that  volunteers and nonprofits play in providing curatorial and editorial support to the internet ever since 2014 when I learned that Twitter was going to "partner" with several women's organizations following the murders in Santa Barbara, California that were carried out by a man in a self declared "war on women."

Facebook's dependence on NGOs to combat hate speech in Myanmar brought this up again. Especially when the NGOs told Zuckerberg, "No, you didn't live up to your end of the bargain."

And then I heard Tarleton Gillespie speak about his new book, Custodians of the Internet, which put to rest any naive fallacies I once held about these companies not actively curating their platforms.

There was also  YouTube's announcement earlier this year that it would rely on Wikipedia entries to help it deal with conspiracy theories. The company didn't even bother to tell the nonprofit in advance (let alone try to consult with the nonprofit as if it might have a say about this plan). This hasn't worked out that well for either YouTube or Wikipedia.  Let's think about this. Wikipedia is run by a nonprofit but the work is done by a global network of volunteers, who - everyone knows - are by no means representative of the global population. YouTube is part of Alphabet, one of the world's wealthiest companies, and is itself one of the world's biggest social networks. It has it's own curatorial teams. And yet, as Wired notes, both Facebook and YouTube are outsourcing their responsibilities to nonprofits.

This seems unseemly even if you just think about it from an economic standpoint - big company relying on unpaid labor? Sounds like exploitation. When you start thinking about it in terms of the health of nonprofits or civil society the exploitation seems even worse.

Just like the open source community has built all kinds of technology that companies rely on, so too are nonprofits providing a kind of critical digital infrastructure in terms of their community voice, commitment to a set of ideals, expertise, and concerns for the vulnerable. Yet the current set of "partnership" arrangements seem destined to throw the nonprofit under the bus - the company saves money, gains reputation, and offloads both costs and liability. The nonprofit gets...what?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Digital identity and civil society

I posted this reflection over on DigitalImpact.org - regular readers of the Blueprint - send me your notes!

For those who don't want to click over (and you should) the piece discusses the technological work being done on digital identities - where you would control yours - and its implications for civil society and philanthropy. Go on, read it.