Have you seen the movie, The Lives of Others? The 2006 Academy Award winner for best foreign film, the movie tells the story of authors and artists living under the Stasi in East Germany, when everyone spied on everyone else, all typewriters were registered with the government, and there was virtually no way to publicly protest the government. In a world with no privacy, there can be no public action. Privacy, in other words, is critical to civil society.
In February, I wrote this post about why we need rules for how, the heart of American civil society, handle our data and protect the privacy of everyone they work with. Protecting our individual privacy is critical not only as a matter of civil liberties, but to ensure our ability to act publicly. Privacy is critical to civil society.
Given the recent news about the role of the government and big companies in monitoring our online and phone interactions, realizing what we need to do to protect our civil institutions - our ability to freely associate, speak, and publish - seems ever more relevant. I'm not talking about just the work of the civil liberties activists, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Freedom of the Press Foundation. Data privacy should be a top policy concern for all philanthropic foundations and all nonprofits. Their future existence likely depends on it. Defining them by how they use our data is more important now than ever; they may well be our last bastion of protection.
There's a shift afoot. Those who question the power of technology for good are starting to make themselves heard as nuanced contributors to an overall conversation, not just as polemics. This must come as a bit of a relief to some, a headshaker to others, and just more of the "same old, same old" to others. But I think it's worth noting. Perhaps we've passed through the inevitable phase that accompanies each technological shift in history, that in which the tech is either all good or all bad. Now we can begin to really consider the good, the bad, and the need-to-change parts.
We've had a steady drumbeat of "tech is good" for a long time. We (collectively) have been enamored of the ways global digital connectivity lower costs, ease connections, and enable us to express ourselves.
The "tech is good" side has its cheerleaders - some who see only good and some of whom have become more sanguine over time. And the skeptics have their eeyores, those who look into their mobile retina screens and see little more than the death of democracy or the shadow of Big Brother.
And that's how the conversation has gone - cheerleaders versus curmudgeons.Table dancers versus doomsayers.
We're hearing a little more nuance now - George Packer's The Unwinding, Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future, even Susan Crawford's Captive Audience - they all tell stories of tech's influence on our lives that are not unidirectional. There is good and there is evil. There is generosity and there is greed. there is "unfettered disruption" and either "overzealous" or "toothless" regulation, depending on your point of view.
Research and investigative journalism is beginning to inform a discussion previously shaped largely by press releases. Rebecca Skloot introduced us to the new world of medical research and the role of data, personal privacy, and public goods in her heart-wrenching Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Here's a new report on violence and mobile phones, which shows another side to the story of how useful these tools are in developing economies. Bioethicists and humanitarians are raising big questions about the frameworks which will guide our use of these tools. Big companies are slowly responding to user concerns about free speech and hate speech. Drones and wearable technology seem to touch nerves that allow us to re-open discussions of privacy and technology.
Our last charrette at Stanford looked at data in the fields of medical research. Ethical questions were at the fore. This is also becoming true in humanitarian aid. Let's hope the ethics of tech use and data can get the attention they need in the rest of civil society.
Finding solutions depend on how you define the problem. If the
current mess at the IRS is truly a case of civil servants or elected
politicians infringing on the free speech of specific political groups, that’s
a problem for law enforcement and the courts. So far, what appears to have been demonstrated is incompetence and mismanagement, not crimes.
If you define the problem as the blurry line about these organizations engaging “primarily" in social
welfare activities, you can be fix it with a definition - a simple declaration of
percentages, a cap, or a flat rate. That no Congressional committee is holding hearings to do this shows their actual lack of interest in fixing any real problems. These elected officials are the beneficiaries of the line’s
If the problem is that the IRS can’t manage oversight of
these organizations in a timely, impartial, and fair manner, there are two
possible solutions – expand and train the IRS staff or hand oversight of C4s
over to the FEC. The first is highly unlikely in this political climate. The
second solution could improve oversight - at least campaign funding is the FEC's specialty. Doing so won’t stop secret
money from flowing into campaigns, it will just improve reporting on it. So will the DISCLOSE Act or some version of it - and both actions should be considered.
If the problem is 501 c 4s funneling money to political
campaigns without revealing their donors, that’s a campaign finance problem. One solution would be requiring C4s to reveal all of their donors. This this will return C4s to the less-attractive entities they were before 2010. Requiring C4s to
disclose their donors is also slippery slope to requiring all nonprofits to reveal
their donors - which is synonymous with the end of anonymous charitable giving. That's a high price to pay for a fix that won't have any effect on the larger question of secret campaign funding - those campaign funds will just flow somewhere else (such as think tanks) or back to PACS and SUPER PACS.
The problem with all of the ideas above is they address the
wrong issue. The real problem is not with C4s; it’s with campaign finance. At the
root of it all is anonymous money flowing into political campaigns. For this
there are two proposed solutions – first, fund candidates and parties directly and require full disclosure of all such gifts. This is was what
campaign finance looked like before Watergate revealed the cracks in the system
and we responded by taking the first steps to today’s broken system. The second solution is to provide public
money for campaigns and not allow private gifts above a certain percentage. This
is what Larry Lessig has been promoting with Rootstrikers. It's
appealing but even Lessig recognizes it's very slim chances of happening under current conditions (which is why he’s also
calling for a Constitutional convention).
There is a third way that has nothing to do with stopping
the flow of money in but instead focuses on the flow of money out. Most of the
dollars raised go to broadcasting candidates’ messages. If we made air time
(television and radio) free to candidates and campaigns, limited the length of
campaigns to a certain period of time and gave everyone the same amount of
airtime (on those publicly owned, privately leased airwaves of ours) we’d kill
the beast of demand and supply would wither in response. At least until the
industries of campaign consultants and media buyers figure out some way to
save their skins and reroute the funds to the Internet, mobile phones or Google
Glass ads. In which case we go back to the FCC about public broadband.
We should close the gaping hole in the current oversight system that allows campaign donors to funnel money anonymously through C4s. Unless we do so, the rest of the campaign finance system will continue to leak into C4s and the charitable element of the 501C section will continue to be tarnished by the "dark money" tone of the C4s. But let's be real, fixing C4s won't fix campaign finance or any of the problems with the larger nonprofit sector. The C4s as political money launderers are a symptom of larger problems with both campaign finance and the independent sector - fixing them is like the proverbial bandaid.
This post appeared originally on PBS MediaShift
Why would anyone want to attend a party to celebrate the opening of a
virtual repository of metadata? A better question might be — what is a
virtual repository of metadata? In this case, the repository I’m talking
about is the Digital Public Library of America,
which launched on April 18.* Underneath its beautiful website and
inviting tag line, “A Wealth of Knowledge,” the DPLA is a set of linked,
accessible, digital materials from libraries, archives and museums
around the country. It’s one of hundreds of such national or regional
libraries launched in the last several years. And yes, I, and hundreds
of others, had booked plane tickets and hotel rooms and packed my party
clothes to celebrate it.
I see the DPLA as an encouraging example of our emerging digital
civil society. Libraries in their familiar form represent community
centers of knowledge, havens for voracious readers, on-ramps to
broadband, and accessible hubs staffed by expert researchers there to
help you. In the U.S., they rely on tax revenue and philanthropic
resources and are often governed and managed by a robust mix of citizen
volunteers, professional experts, and public servants. They physically
embody the democratic ideals of inclusion, pluralism, participation, and
The digital form evolves from these same ideals, yet must work within
a digital economic frame that is distinct from its analog predecessor.
Digital materials raise deep questions about ownership, permanence, and
access. In its approach to each of these questions, the DPLA is on the
frontier of what building a digital civil society will require. Like The Mozilla Foundation, Creative Commons, and WikiMedia,
the DPLA is a non-profit built entirely around data and people — the
future promises countless more such enterprises. Here are some of the
ways these “digital civil society” institutions matter.
Ownership has at least three levels of relevant meaning — owning
original materials, owning copies, and owning (or governing) the
institution. First, the partners in DPLA own their collections. The DPLA
is a library without books. Instead of a stand-alone collection, it is
the set of common software codes and processes that connect existing
collections and adapts for future ones. And while DPLA has developed
these protocols, the institution’s success relies on them being freely open and used by others.
Ownership in the digital age involves issues of copyright and
copying. Wide-open digital access to books still under copyright is both
legally complicated and a contentious challenge to existing business
models for authors and publishers. Rather than wait for these market and
legal battles to settle, the DPLA chose to launch with public domain
materials and participate in shaping policy and practice as real
readers, writers, and publishers use the site. The approach is to
encourage and uncover the practices that can inform new policies,
perhaps through new authors’ alliance or a new type of “library license.”
Ownership also refers to how the DPLA is managed. While your local
library or library system is probably run by local professionals,
volunteers, and public servants, the DPLA has spent two years inviting
participation and input from authors, museum curators, bookstore owners,
librarians, technologists, readers, public servants, philanthropists,
and anyone else. Wikis and listservs, elections, volunteers and hired
staff, a board of directors from across the country — and every possible
online communication tool to gather input — are being used. The
commitment is to open and transparent governance, drawing from all stakeholders.
The Internet makes things permanent and fragile at the same time.
While digital trails seem to last forever, storage and archiving of
digital goods are considerably less stable than temperature-controlled
rooms of carefully prepared paper. The only thing certain about digital
technologies is their rapid pace of change. Recognizing that it couldn’t
build everything or predict every need, the DPLA has been running
parallel processes of “app labs” and developer challenges
since its inception. We can’t predict where technology will take us, so
the DPLA has built itself to adapt from within while also aligning with
those who can push it along.
Image courtesy of the DPLA and used here under the CC BY 3.0 License.
Unlike your neighborhood library, the DPLA has no books, no reference
librarians, and no building. It also never closes. Its core assets —
the metadata that identifies materials and the software code that
connects collections — are open for use and reuse. The DPLA has tried
from the beginning to be inclusive and welcoming in designing its
software, its governance structures, and its future scope of work — open
meeting policies, bylaws, and draft articles of incorporation are all
on the site. I’m not an expert in the design of digital materials for the visually impaired, but the FAQ offers detailed information on how the site is set up to reach these users.
Civil society as we have known it for centuries revolves around the
use of private resources for shared, public benefit. The structures,
practices and policies that we’ve built to encourage and protect these
actions — largely in the non-profit and philanthropic sectors — are
built on assumptions about ownership, time, and benefits. As digital
technologies change how we own things, for how long, and how we share
them our institutions and governance of civil society will also shift.
The DPLA is an experiment worth watching as it navigates these new
waters and celebrating as it unfolds. When the time comes for the actual
party, I’ll be there.
*The launch party was scheduled to take place at the Boston
Public Library and was delayed because of the bombings at the Boston
Marathon. The DPLA website did launch on April 18 as planned.
More Recent Articles