Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Crowdsourcing Patent Policy Reform

Trolling Effects is an interesting effort at using crowds to build a coalition of the willing to change federal policy. In this case the policies have to do with the patent system, the coalition to be built includes anyone receiving a demand letter from a "patent assertion entity" and organizations interested in innovation, ownership, and idea use in the digital age.

The idea is to develop a database of demand letters and a crowd of peers to help fight off the organizations that issue these letters and change the policies which regulate them.

The project is managed as a project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation with support from a coalition of nonprofits, including 

Not too much of a surprise that nonprofits that focus on internet freedom would turn to the internet to help with policy change. Do you have any other examples of such crowdsourced efforts (not just petitions or email blasts, but crowd-built shared resources?)

HT @juliepsamuels of #EFF for pointing me to this.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Imagining a future with new rules

Orthodoxies are those behaviors we are so accustomed to that we barely think about them, let alone question them. There are many such assumptions that guide our daily lives - cars run on gasoline only, our phone calls are private, and civil society organizations are exempt from taxes. The moments when we recognize those orthodoxies have changed can be disturbing. For example, electric cars and the NSA leaks have done away with the first two orthodoxies above.  Responses have ranged from innovative new auto manufacturers to lawsuits from auto dealers. On the NSA surveillance side, responses range from apathy to acceptance to technological innovation to legal injunctions.

The moment before the change is real, but when we first realize that it might be coming can be disconcerting (or liberating, take your choice). We may be getting there on nonprofit tax exemptions. Discussions and debates have moved beyond the halls of congress and into what remains of mainstream media:

Rick Cohen of Nonprofit Quarterly (rightly says): "Pay Attention"

Concurrently, we're at the early stages of new corporate forms, Congressional inquiries into tax reform, intellectual property challenges against nonprofits, and new norms of digital organizing and governance. Lawsuits protecting our rights to peaceably assemble in digital spheres.

At a meeting this morning with the president of one of the world's largest foundations the two of us wondered how long it will be until we look back at the post World War II era of nonprofit and foundation structures still so dominant in the U.S. and ask ourselves, "remember when?" 15 years? 25 years?

The fallacy is in thinking that the rules that have worked for the last century will stay the same, will work the same, will still be useful or needed for the next century. Some might. Some won't. Some shouldn't. Regular readers know that I spend my time at Stanford thinking about these rules. I also spend a lot of time noticing what others are talking about. Others are starting to talk about changing the rules of civil society.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Freedom of Association and Digital Civil Society

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
So reads the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, written by James Madison during the 1st U.S. Congress, as part of an effort to get the newly independent states to ratify this Constitution. All this happened between 1789 and 1791, but the ideas behind these rights have much deeper roots. Gordon Wood in The Idea of America traces them back at least to the ancient Romans and Greeks. The Amendment has a more proximal predecessor in the Virginia colonial Congress's Declaration of Rights, passed in 1776 during the American colonies were still at war with Britain.

I've been reading and re-reading as many historical interpretations of these ideas as I can. Why? Because the rights they protect are very much alive and under threat today. Civil society - much of which is organized through nonprofits - depends on people's right to peacefully associate with whomever they choose without fear of being watched or tracked by others. There is a fundamental need for individuals to know that their privacy is protected, in order for them to come together on behalf of a public purpose.

I'm heartened to see that many nonprofit organizations recognize this, and have joined together to protect the "right of people peaceably to assemble." The case I'm speaking of was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of the following organizations:
  • First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles
  • Bill of Rights Defense Fund
  • CalGuns Foundation
  • California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees
  • Council on American Islamic Relations (National, California and Ohio chapters)
  • Free Press
  • Free Software Foundation
  • Greenpeace
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Media Alliance
  • National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (California)
  • Open Technology Institute
  • People for the American Way
  • Public Knowledge
  • Students for Sensible Drug Policy
  • TechFreedom
  • Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
The case will be known as First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles vs the NSA, but take a good look at that list of plaintiffs. That list is revelatory - environmentalists and techies, drug law advocates and churches, coders, free press advocates and interfaith organizers. There may not be many other things that such groups would agree on. But they recognize that their ability to pursue their diverse (and probably conflicting) agendas and goals depends on their right to exist. Which depends on our right to associate.

Here is the text of the full complaint brought to the court. It argues that association in the digital age needs to be protected with the same guarantees that association in town halls or private homes has been protected. As our mechanisms for communicating and associating have changed with digital tools, so have the means of limiting our rights to do so. These questions are at the very heart of digital civil society, and their resolution will shape how we function as a democracy going forward.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a related case, focused on the rights of individuals to keep their phone records safe from monitoring without search warrants. It builds on previous cases that have been denied by the Courts because the alleged spying by the NSA was secret and therefore the ACLU and its clients couldn't show standing to sue. The leaking of NSA documents revealed that the plaintiffs' phone records were monitored by the NSA and thus the ACLU's renewed pursuit.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: The Nature of the Future

Reposted from Stanford Social Innovation Review

The Nature of the Future: Dispatches From the Socialstructed World by Marina Gorbis

Near the end of the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) held this past March, I read this tweet: “Somewhere between Musk and Morozov is where the rest of us will find our futures.”
Those few words say a lot about where the boundaries of enthusiasm lie when it comes to all things futuristic. Elon Musk—founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX—is an unabashed proponent of the power of technology to better the human condition. He spoke at SXSW about the potential for building human colonies on Mars. Evgeny Morozov inhabits the other end of the futurist spectrum. An Open Society Foundation Fellow, he has established himself as the reigning curmudgeon of Twitter and a debunker of cyber-utopianism, “solutionism,” and Internet-centrism in every form. As the tweet noted, somewhere between Musk’s utopia and Morozov’s dystopia, the rest of us are trying to find our way forward.

In The Nature of the Future: Dispatches From the Socialstructed World, Marina Gorbis offers one such path. Morozov, no doubt, would find much to dislike about the book; Musk, for his part, would probably question its relatively measured tone. Gorbis runs the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Institute for the Future, where she spends her days helping people think about what lies ahead. That work requires enthusiasm about the future, of course, but Gorbis also brings to it a personal respect for the past. Amid her exposure to the shiniest new gadgets that Silicon Valley has to offer, Gorbis has honed her ability to spot patterns across disciplines while also weeding out (some of) the hype.

The key to understanding this book is that it appears to be about technology, but it is actually about people. The unfortunate neologism “socialstructed” refers to the role that social relationships play in economic and community life. Gorbis starts from a model that has nothing to do with high technology—her mother’s shrewd use of personal relationships to provide for her family when they lived in the Soviet Union. (Gorbis grew up in Odessa, Ukraine.) Bartering, service exchanges, mutual aid: These are age-old human practices that depend on no particular technology.

Gorbis argues that we have entered a transitional period in which those pre-modern practices are returning to prominence—and are doing so in larger, faster, and more inclusive forms. She notes that we are “living simultaneously in two worlds, one in which almost everything is still done through formal institutions, be they corporations, large R&D labs, banks, universities, or governments, and another in which people are joining up to create something new outside of traditional boundaries, in the process displacing these decades-old institutions.”

This is not a new observation. And Gorbis’s explanations for why it is happening (global connectivity) and why now (expansion of broadband and Wi-Fi) are neither surprising nor, in my opinion, complete. There are other factors—from regulatory structures and corporate protectionism to demographic shifts and wealth inequality—that help to explain why we use technology in the ways that we do. But Gorbis is less interested in “How did we get here?” than in “What does it mean now that we are here?”

And in that regard, she does a solid job of describing the huge middle ground that lies between Musk and Morozov—even as her dispatches are all positive and her description skews toward utopianism. When she extols citizen science, crowdfunding, and more-participatory government, Gorbis comes across as similar to many other futurists. A few stories become “data,” three examples make a trend, and countervailing evidence rarely makes an appearance. Even at her most exuberant, however, Gorbis focuses on the human behaviors enabled by technology. She is careful to point out that new forms of inclusivity are not universal. She notes that gift exchanges, reputational economies, and voluntary behavior are not new, and they certainly did not spring forth from the Internet. (In fact, the writer David Bollier and others have argued convincingly that these practices are the mother of Internet culture, not the other way around.)

For social entrepreneurs and philanthropists, the book will be most relevant when it addresses the issue of scale. Gorbis, for example, notes the tension between big investors and crowdfunded startups. But in place of the usual binary choice between “too big” and “too small,” she presents a three-tiered approach to thinking about institutional size and scope. Think of it as the Goldilocks analysis. Some problems are simply too small for established institutional structures to solve; others are too big for those structures to handle. The emerging networks of a “socialstructed” world, therefore, might be “just right.” Gorbis doesn’t focus on the challenges inherent in this framework— such as out-of-sync regulatory systems and the power of incumbents—but neither does she imply that those challenges do not exist.

Gorbis’s modulated approach gives her room to explore stories that have a bit more nuance than the cherry-picked-to-make-a-point examples that often figure in books of this kind. In addition to her experiences as a futurist, Gorbis draws lightly on anthropology, sociology, and political science to help explain her observations. Ironically, the book’s greatest shortcoming (other than its clumsy title) may be the fact that it’s a book. Although Gorbis presents several examples from the future, the innately static quality of the book medium leads her to oversell the positive and to underplay the negative, and it leaves no room for engaging in a conversation about all that lies in between those poles.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Three ways we can reinvent philanthropy

This clip is from the video roundtable held last week on Reinventors Network. The conversation, facilitated by Pete Leydon and Katherine Fulton, included Jacob Harold of Guidestar, Mari Kurashi of GlobalGiving and Clara Miller of The F.B. Heron Foundation. The full conversation is online here.

My comments are focused on the system of philanthropy - individual and institutional, recognizing the digital infrastructure on which it now stands. The panelists had all just been asked to think about how these funds - voluntary, fragmented, and privately controlled - could be directed toward major, rapidly threatening crises such as climate change.