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.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Civil society and platform curation

One of many things that have been made more public during this week's congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg is the way in which the platform curates content. Zuckerberg bemoaned the reality that it's his job to decide who sees what when.
For those who study curation and platforms and internet law this is not new. I'm writing this while listening to Tarleton Gillespie discuss his forthcoming book (recommended) Custodians of the Internet. He's describing the rules, technologies, and people that make up the "moderation apparatus" - the systems that determine who sees what information, when, and from whom. Gillespies argues that this moderation is essential to what the platforms do - it is their value proposition. This runs counter to the longstanding mythos of the open web.

One of the elements of this "moderation apparatus" that Gillespie describes that catches my eye is the role of civil society organizations and nonprofits. Big companies, like Facebook but probably not only Facebook, rely on civil society to do their dirty work. 

In Myanmar, civil society groups that were working with Facebook to take down hateful and violent postings pushed back when Zuckerberg claimed that the company was doing all it could to address these issues. The civil society groups noted that the company was essentially relying on them to voluntarily moderate the site and wasn't providing them with the engineering resources that were needed to do this. They secured a verbal commitment from Zuckerberg to improve the process.

Here's what this means:
  • Facebook was shifting its responsibilities to civil society.
  • Civil society groups aren't equipped for, or paid for, this role. 
  • Civil society groups - by design - are fragmented and contentious. Choosing some of them to do moderation is a value-laden, editorial decision.  
  • Civil society is - from Facebook's perspective in this example - just a low cost, outsourced labor source.  It also, no doubt, shifts liability from Facebook to civil society (not least for the human psychological effects of moderating photos and posts about harm and violence).
Here's what I want to know:
  • How widespread are these kinds of commercial/civil society moderation/curation relationships?
  • How do they work - who's contracted for what? who's liable for what? what recourse exists when things go wrong?
  • What do civil society groups think of this? When might it be a good solution, from civil society's perspective?
  • Some civil society groups - such as Muslim Advocates and Color Of Change - are calling for a civil rights audit of Facebook. Senator Cory Booker took this idea into the hearings. This sort of advocacy and accountability demands of the platforms makes more sense to me as the role of civil society - not doing the work, but demanding the work be done. Your thoughts?
Seems to me this starts to elicit some really interesting questions about role/relationship of nonprofits, companies and government in digital space.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The burden of digital data

This article from India Development Review captures some of my thoughts on civil society and digital data.

http://idronline.org/civil-society-and-the-burden-of-data/


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Remember when....?

Remember when philanthropy, foundations, and nonprofits were unknown? Boy, has that changed - they now play regular roles in news and literature.
  • Senator Patrick Leahy asked Mark Zuckerberg why Facebook had to hear from civil society groups before taking action against violent crimes in Myanmar
    • (editor: Why didn't Leahy also ask Zuckerberg about Facebook's labor exploitation of those groups' volunteers - essentially relying on them as his workforce?)
  • Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI are investigating the President's attorney for foreign payments to Trump's foundation.
  • Meg Wolitzer's new novel features a protagonist who works at a foundation. A review of the novel in Bookforum includes this wonderful line:
    • "...it takes an earnest but compromised nonprofit endeavor as a vehicle for its ideas. With its magical relationship to money, the foundation helps insulate Greer and her beliefs from the world beyond, at least until she must confront the reality of what the suits are doing upstairs"
  • Jonathan Franzen's 2010 novel, Freedom, featured a bird rescue nonprofit. 
I guess not all press is good press. 

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Nonprofits (beyond the EU) and the GDPR

(originally posted on DigitalImpact.org)

Have you noticed an uptick of emails from companies like Slack, Google, or PayPal, announcing new privacy policies and terms and conditions? Why the sudden onslaught of updates? The answer is easy. The companies sending these notices are changing their policies to meet the requirements of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR or just GDPR), which will put powerful new enforcement mechanisms into place, starting on May 25, 2018.

If you’re a U.S. resident, or working at a U.S. nonprofit or foundation you may wonder what, if anything, the GDPR has to do with you? Good question. There’s no simple answer for everyone outside the EU. But just as those companies (all of which are based in the U.S.) revisit their policies and practices because of the new law, it’s a good idea for you to do so, too.

First, the GDPR probably applies to you, whether you know it or not. It’s possible – depending on where your clients and donors live, where your data is stored, or where you provide services – that your organization is subject to fines for not following the new law. In this case, compliance is more than just a good idea, it’s required.

Second, the GDPR is a prompt for a worldwide checkup on safe, ethical, and effective data practices. Many of the GDPR’s provisions align with the data governance principles and responsible data practices that we at Digital Impact advocate for in civil society. Think of the GDPR as providing a framework and set of user-centered guidelines about data that may just align with your mission.
Many resources and consultancies are popping up to help organizations comply with the GDPR.

Digital Impact is here to help you navigate through it. We’re on the lookout for credible, accessible, and affordable resources with particular resonance to nonprofits, foundations, and civil society. In the coming months with help from our community, we’ll be curating new content, holding conversations about data governance and GDPR, and fostering discussion at digitalimpact.org/gdpr.

Check out our starting list of GDPR resources, send us others that you’ve found, and join the community in conversation. Want to share your view on the GDPR with the world? Become a Digital Impact contributor. And if there are topics, tools, or templates you need but can’t find, let us know. Maybe the Digital Impact community can help.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Identity and civil society

Gun violence survivors. The extent and reach of this as part of the identity of millions of people in the  U.S. was on heart-wrenching full display on Saturday, March 24. Thousands of people have survived the USA's totemic mass shootings (Columbine, Aurora, Charleston, Virginia Tech, Pulse, Newtown, Las Vegas, Parkland, there are too many to list). Hundreds of thousands, probably millions of Black people and others in poor, urban communities survive daily gun violence, perpetrated by both civilians and law enforcement. People in these communities have been naming the problem, identifying as survivors, and calling out the epidemic for decades. They survive despite the pain, grief, and identity-shaping nature of the experiences. Yesterday, people from across many different communities - bound by a shared identity that none of them chose - took full hold of the attention of the rest of the country, the media, the world.

Part of the NRA's success for so many years has been that gun owners identify as gun owners. It's not just something they care about, it's part of how they see themselves. This is the argument made by Hahrie Han and other scholars. When an issue becomes part of your identity, you act on it - you participate in civic life, you vote, you hold politicians accountable, you show up.

Yesterday was a full scale display of how broad and big is the group that shares this unwanted identity. The breadth and depth and multi-generational nature of people who understand themselves as gun violence survivors.

Now that we've finally heard it and seen how many we are, perhaps this shared identity will contribute to civic action of a scale and persistence to match.



Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The research I've been waiting for


 

Thanks to The Engine Room and the Ford Foundation - this report clearly shows how the digital ecosystem is now core to civil society, the expertise needed, and the emerging infrastructure to support digital civil society. Read it now.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Civil society as the immune system for democracy



This post is an excerpt from Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018, my ninth annual industry forecast. Read the entire Blueprint series and join the conversation on social media with #blueprint2018.




The logic, theory, and experiences that connect an open civil society with a stable majority-run democracy are well known. Civil society is meant to be a third space where we voluntarily come together to take action as private citizens for the public good. Majority-run democracies need to, at the very least, prevent those who disagree with them (minorities) from revolting against the system. Civil society provides, at the very least, the pressure-release valve for majority-run governments. Positioned more positively, civil society is where those without power or critical mass can build both and influence the majority. It serves as a conduit to the majority system and a counterbalance to extreme positions. It also serves as an outlet for those actions, rights, and views that may never be the priority of a majority, but that are still valid, just, or beautiful. When it exists, civil society offers an immune system for democracy—it is a critical factor in a healthy system, and it requires its own maintenance. Immune systems exist to protect and define—they are lines of defense that “allow organism[s] to persist over time.”

Civil society always struggles to define its independence from governments and markets. Civil society is shaped by laws and revenue streams, but has different accountability mechanisms and relies on voluntary participation. It is distinct from compulsory government rights and obligations, and can often operate in ways that aren’t about financial profit. But to describe the resulting space as truly independent is aspirational at best. While universal human rights such as free expression, peaceable assembly, and privacy provide its moral and philosophical underpinnings, civil society is shaped by the laws of the country in question. These include regulations about allowable sources of financing, public reporting, governance structures, and defined spheres of activity. At the very least, the boundaries of civil society in modern democracies are set by government action.

We are surrounded by big, fragile institutions. Global companies, established political structures, and big nonprofits have purchased, suppressed, or ignored the fluid and small alternatives surrounding them. Fluid, networked alternatives exist and will continue to spawn. For some time now, the fate of these alternatives was absorption by the top or diffusion with limited impact. In each sector, there appears to be a notable change of attitude in the way the small views the big. While corporate near-monopolies and dominant political parties are still viewed by some as the natural and best order of things (see, for example, tech executives and incumbent politicians), the big players in each sector are rigidifying. I sense that this is matched by a new attitude from the emergent, smaller, and more fluid groups who aspire to challenge rather than to buttress.

This is where reminding ourselves of the dynamism of a social economy within civil society is so important. It helps us to keep our eyes simultaneously on emerging forms and on the relationships between them (the nodes and the networks). It’s where we see tech-driven alternatives to party politics, nonprofit or research-driven alternatives to corporate data monopolies, and the crowdfunding of public services. What’s changed is not the level of dynamism among these small, fluid, and cross-sector strategies. What’s new is the confrontational nature they now bring. These alternatives don’t see themselves as mere fleas on an elephant; rather, they challenge themselves to be the termites that topple the houses.

The sense of failed systems can be seen in the rise of autocrats where democracy once ruled, in the lived experience of a changed climate even as a few powerful holdouts cling to their self-interested denials, and in the return to prominence of racist or nationalist factions where they’d been marginalized before. Threats about nuclear warheads catch people’s attention. There is a pervasive sense of uncertainty.

Democracies depend on civil society. Closing civil society often precedes a democracy’s shift into autocracy or chaos. Defending civil society is not just an act of self-preservation. Protecting the rights and interests of minority groups, and allowing space for collective action and diverse beliefs, a cacophony of independent voices, and activities that yield neither financial profit nor direct political power, are in the best interest of elected political leaders and businesspeople.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A digital civil society framework

This post is an excerpt from Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018, my ninth annual industry forecast. Read the entire Blueprint series and join the conversation on social media with #blueprint2018.


The language of the social economy helps us describe a diverse system of institutions and financial flows. The language of civil society helps us articulate the purpose of the social economy and its role in democratic systems. Digital civil society encompasses all the ways we voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in the digital age.

The hallmark feature of civil society in a democracy is its (at least, theoretical) independence from governments and markets. Civil society is meant to be a “third space” where we voluntarily come together on the proverbial (or literal) park bench to take action as private citizens for the public good. Our use of digital data and infrastructure blurs these distinctions and complicates these relationships for a simple reason: Most of “digital space” is owned or monitored by commercial firms and government.

Illustration by Ben Crothers


The conditions that support civil society’s independence have been weakening for a long time and for many reasons. Support for research from conflicted interests has tainted universities and nominally independent research centers for years. News organizations sustaining themselves via ad and subscription revenue are mostly a thing of the past. A small number of big donors have been shown to shape political campaigns, legislative and legal strategies, and the charitable nonprofit landscape. While crowdfunding and crowdsourcing get a lot of press attention, the other end of the scale is shaped by large concentrations of money from a few interests.

Today we must attempt to understand both the analog and digital relationships between these actors. We must examine how these relationships shift when organizations and individuals become dependent on digital tools, data, and infrastructure. These dependencies do much more than accelerate and expand the reach of individuals and organizations. They introduce new forms of activism such as hacking and raise new questions about authority and control between individuals and the companies that run the digital platforms. Most important, these dependencies bind traditionally independent civil society organizations and activities closely to marketplaces and governments in complex and problematic ways.

Our daily use of the most basic tools of the digital age, such as cellular phones, email, and networked printers, means that our activities are bounded by and reliant on the rules and tools of the companies that make the gadgets and wire the world. As we use these tools, our activities are also monitored by the governments that surveil the digital spaces in which our tools operate. Our actions in this space are shaped by the values of the companies that make the tools (even as the companies seek to deny this) and by the way we respond to being watched by both corporations and governments.

Illustration by Ben Crothers

These digital dependencies significantly challenge civil society’s independence. This matters to how individuals and organizations work within the sector. And it matters to democracies that have long relied on the “immune response” provided by a diverse and fractious space where minority demands, rights, and ideas could thrive with some degree of independence.

It is no coincidence that experts see signs that the space for civil society is closing, that those monitoring Internet freedom see rising threats, and that those monitoring the health of democracies fear for the future. We can’t decouple these pieces. Efforts to “save democracy” will depend on understanding how digital technologies have changed the relationships between sectors. I discuss this in more depth in the section on digital dependencies.