Results tagged “policy”

NYC's Mayoral Primary: How to Choose

September 10, 2013

Today is New York City’s mayoral primary, where the two major parties select which candidate will represent the party.

Due to my being on the board of the NY Tech Meetup, I got to be part of a small group that interviewed almost all of the major candidates. (Basically, everyone except Anthony Weiner, whose presence I didn’t particularly miss.) If you have the time, I strongly recommend watching all of the video interviews with the candidates. Though they obviously focused their conversation on the fact they were talking to members of the technology industry, each presentation began with a 10-minute talk about their candidacy overall, and the questions that followed weren’t limited to being about technology.

A broad range of representatives from the technology world were present, including people involved in policy, education, entrepreneurship, civic organizations, and even venture capital, well described by Fred Wilson. I am incredibly proud of NYTM for organizing and hosting all of these candidates; When I ran for the NYTM board, my greatest wish was that the Tech Meetup community would become a political force, working as a positive actor in New York City. As I said then, “We must be a community that is able to hold officials accountable.” I think today’s election marks a point where the technology community can truthfully say that we have reached that milestone.

Now the question is what we do with our power. Do we use it to enrich ourselves, or to help our city?

Foot in the Door

Access to the candidates is a powerful opportunity for all of us in technology. From this point on, I’ll diverge from describing what the NY Tech Meetup community has done to representing my own point of view, which doesn’t represent the NYTM board or our members.

As an ordinary citizen, I don’t often get to talk to the likely next mayor of New York City, so I asked the candidates the question that I thought mattered most: Given the success and privilege that the tech sector has seen so far, how would we be asked to serve and give back to our city? I framed the question in terms of how we could help address injustices like our city’s Stop and Frisk policy, but the key point here was that we should be asked what we can give, not just telling what we want to take.

Price of Independence

For me, this exercise is mostly an intellectual one; I don’t belong to a political party, so I can’t vote in the Democratic or Republican primary, and there’s no runoff for independent candidates ahead of the general election. It’s very likely that we’ll see a post-Bloomberg return to having a major party win in the general election, so though I’m friends with Jack Hidary, one of the leading independent candidates, and I found independent candidate Adolfo CarriĆ³n to bevery fluent in the issues of his constitutency, I don’t have much of an opinion about their chances of an upset in November.

Leading Contenders

Before getting a chance to spend half an hour with each of the candidates, my bias amongst the Democratic candidates had been slightly toward Christine Quinn. Though I share the near-universal disgust for her horse-trading to enable Bloomberg’s third term, the prospect of having a true ally for LGBTQ rights in office, and the prospect of our first female mayor were very appealing, especially given that I perceived a lack of substantial policy distinctions between the Democratic candidates. The interview with Quinn also shows her strength, especially during the Q&A: She feels real. She talks like a normal person, and has a great instant rapport with a room in a way that doesn’t feel like a pandering politician. I was impressed, and surprisingly charmed, and her literacy in the minutia of making policy happen in the city is absolutely the strongest of the field. Despite the misgivings many have about her brusque manner, I would have no major qualms about having Quinn as mayor, given the long history of prickly types who’ve inhabited the office.

Another surprise to me was Bill Thompson. I’d been cautiously impressed by his performance in an earlier town hall meeting where I’d seen 3 or 4 of the Democratic candidates speak. He was passionate about housing equity issues that few other candidates addressed. In his NYTM interview, he had by far the most detailed and inspiring plan for using technology to help the city. You can see him outline his 10-point tech plan in the video, but my takeaway from the admittedly impressive plan was more “I wonder who he got to write that for him?” rather than “He has really brilliant ideas about this!” I do respect leaders who are smart enough to get great policy advisors, though, and this put Thompson into my second place overall for desired candidates.

Tech Cred

Any detailed response to how candidates might either help the tech industry or take advantage of tech to make the city run better was well-received, but most candidates generally regurgitated the 7-point policy platform that the NYTM outlined on its site (see bottom of the page). Any deviation from those expected nods to their hosts was very welcome.

One of the few other candidates to do a strong job in thinking of ways to use tech was Joe Lhota, the lone Republican candidate to sit down for an interview. Given that his main opponent is running on the farcical reputation of having built the Gristedes grocery chain (Slogan: “Slightly less shitty than C-Town!”), he’d be hard pressed to not do well in the Republican race. That being said, a close alignment with some of Giuliani’s most indefensible policies, was off-putting, and worse was that he oddly took credit for some MTA open data efforts that I actually helped to launch under his predecessor Jay Walder. Given that Lhota could have easily, and fairly, just focused on the remarkable job that he did getting MTA back up and running after Hurricane Sandy, this seemed like needless stretching for credit with techies.

A Different Perspective

And then, one of the last candidates came up to speak and fundamentally changed how I saw the race: Bill de Blasio. His opening 10 minutes spoke frankly and forcefully about income inequality in our city and in our country, in a way that very few politicians of any stripe have articulated. He mentioned clearly that his children would be the first of any mayor’s to have gone to public school for their education. He articulated a clear plan for preserving our gains in fighting crime while undoing the everyday humiliations of Stop and Frisk. He supports his campaign with public dollars, allowing him to avoid being financially dependent on big donors without being a billionaire. And when I asked the same question about how the tech community could serve, rather than the bland platitudes I got from nearly every other candidate, he answered with specifics about how successful startups could pair with individual schools in order to offer students specific examples of the kinds of careers they could pursue post-graduation.

I get to hear a lot of elected officials talk, and I’m a little inured to the predictable cadence of people telling an audience exactly what they want to hear. Telling a room that has Fred Wilson in the audience, “I’m going to tax rich people” was pretty unexpected. I do not find it at all surprising that, in the weeks since this interview was recorded, de Blasio has seen a precipitous uptick in support for his candidacy. I think it’s well-earned and based on substance.

Do I think Bill de Blasio is the most tech-friendly, tech-literate candidate out of the field of contenders for the mayor of New York City? Probably not. I don't support a candidate based on their blind fealty to an already-wildly-successful industry. But like any of these smart people, he’ll have access to as fine a coterie of technical advisors as he’s willing to embrace.

Get Off Your Ass

Overall, we’re lucky. I don’t love any of these candidates, but given the disproportionate amount of attention that’s been paid to lunatic sideshows in NYC’s elections this year, I’m very glad to see that there’s a deep list of smart, engaged candidates. They all had very good ideas, and none of them were embarrassing to watch when talking about how they’d improve the city.

As an independent, I don’t have much of a vote in city politics, and by the time I do, it’ll probably be too late. But if you’re reading this, you might well have a say as to who we put into office. I think the best choice is Bill de Blasio, and it seems many New Yorkers would agree. But I’m certain the worst choice would be to miss a chance to vote on these candidates, so please do watch the videos, read up on the candidates and issues, find your polling place, and get out and vote!

Further Reading

Five Things Techies Need To Know About Immigration Reform

June 20, 2013

Hello, Americans who work in the technology industry! Did you know comprehensive immigration reform is coming? This is a thing that is more important than the used game policy on the XBox. And you’re a good person who cares about the world, so let’s get you up to speed on this important issue so you can help immigrants who might otherwise be marginalized by bad policy.

  1. Immigration reform is almost certainly going to pass. There’s a well-designed compromise bill for comprehensive immigration reform working its way through the Senate right now, and it gives Republicans enough border fencing and Democrats enough accommodation for today’s undocumented immigrants for both sides to get behind the bill. Now the fact that something will likely pass doesn’t tell us exactly what law we’re going to get, so that’s why we have to get educated about the law. Did you know that the contributions from new immigrants granted status under this bill is enough to make Social Security financially secure? Immigration reform impacts every part of society, so we should read up on it. The best overview of the current immigration reform bill being debated that I’ve seen is from the Immigration Policy Center. (If you find other guides and resources, please share them!)

  2. The tech industry is an important player in this bill, but right now lawmakers are only listening to Facebook. I’ve had a chance to talk to people ranging from progressive senior members of this administration to conservative representatives in the House, and across the board they’ve characterized the advocacy they’re hearing from the technology industry as “those Facebook folks”. They’re talking about Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us PAC (which we’ve discussed before), which is extraordinary because the PAC is ostensibly not part of Facebook, includes senior executives from many other tech companies even including Bill Gates, and has completely overshadowed even efforts like Michael Bloomberg’s March for Innovation. That’s crazy! Bloomberg is one of the most powerful politicians in the country, has a net worth of more than double Zuckerberg’s, is lobbying on the same issue, has heavy hitters ranging from Mark Cuban to Cory Booker backing his effort, and doesn’t support scummy cynical ads like FWD.us, and he’s been outgunned by Zuckerberg’s spending. Do you all trust Facebook to represent your goals for immigration? Is it okay that only giant tech companies and not small scrappy startups are being represented? If not, then you gotta get involved.

  3. Tech’s agenda can’t only be about H1Bs. We have to do better. Everybody in D.C. thinks the only thing people in the tech industry want from immigration reform is more H1Bs. Maybe that’s a great starting point, but given our wealth and power, we have to do more to help every other type of immigrant, all of whom are much more at risk for being ignored or underserved. We must find common cause between immigrants who are Python coders and immigrants who pick lettuce. There’s a narrative describing those who work at keyboards as “skilled” workers and those who work in hospitality or agriculture or construction as “unskilled”, a set of labels that are easily refuted if we try to swap workers between these contexts. W visas for seasonal workers, and DREAM citizenship for children who’ve grown up in the United States matter as much as H1Bs. Even amongst workers who come here on H1B visas, we have to make sure immigration law affords them more respect, dignity and power. H1B workers often end up in a modern equivalent of indentured servitude because they’re not able to switch jobs easily, are forced to accept lower salaries than their peers, frequently aren’t able to bring family members with them to the United States, and presently have no official protections extended to same-sex partners. Some of the issues around same-sex partners and being able to bring family members may be addressed in the current bills being considered, but they’re at risk if we don’t say loudly that these issues matter. We have to care about the lives and working conditions of coders brought in under the new immigration regime because the United States has a long, brutal history of bringing in immigrant classes to work for its biggest industries under inhumane, second-class conditions. We cannot afford to repeat those moral failings again.

  4. We must talk about what we’re willing to give, not just what we want to get. The visa fees that tech companies are going to be paying to bring workers to the United States are likely going to be assigned, either in whole or in part, to supporting tech education for current American citizens. The truth is, it can cost the same to teach a retiree in Atlanta or a teenager in Topeka how to be a programmer as it costs to pay some high-end immigration lawyer to shepherd a candidate from across the Pacific. So we should talk about how the tech titans can help fund better public education, better career transition education, and smarter education policy so that poor Americans can have the same opportunities as people from the rest of the world.

  5. Immigration reform is a huge opportunity for the tech industry to save tax dollars and create value. One of the most compelling parts of the immigration reform bill, from a technical perspective, is the registry system that’s being created for undocumented immigrants, called the Registered Provisional Immigrant system. The RPI platform will begin to systematize the ways these people can work and live in the United States, and it’s a huge opportunity for building businesses and capabilities for companies across the country. But first, we have to talk about how procurement for building RPI is going to happen. (Procurement is a huge reason why technology from government agencies is often so out of date or poorly-designed.) Instead of a single, costly, monolithic proprietary system for tracking RPI residents, we could envision a smart set of open protocols and platforms that would keep the DHS from repeating the technology mistakes that make the IRS so hard to interact with. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s focus on design for things like credit cards is a good model, as is the vast amount of open health data being shared around the Department of Health and Human Services, which is already fueling lots of startups. Some government-defined indicators, like eligibility for school lunches, are already used as guidelines for both public- and private-sector services, and RPI status could be used the same way. Comcast makes a low-cost Internet access plan available to families that qualify for low-cost school lunches, even though broadband has no direct connection to nutrition. But open systems allow smart reuse of the platform, and it’s easy to imagine entire new businesses built around RPI as long as we make sure the tech is open enough to enable them. That means paying attention now and as the bill is implemented, because if we leave it to the current bunch of lawyers in Washington, D.C., this platform will be built by the same old expensive government contractors.

We The People

The most important thing we can remember is that those of us in the tech industry would not have most of the products and services we rely on if not for immigrants. More specifically, we wouldn’t have our jobs if not for having had good immigration policy. Major reforms to immigration law happen about once in a generation, and the biggest milestones in recent times came in 1965 and in 1986. It is no coincidence that those time periods also kicked off huge waves of innovation in software and hardware. To no small degree, the difference between “No Irish need apply” and Google having been cofounded by an immigrant is because we made good immigration policy changes in the 60s and 80s.

Whether your people came here in planes or in chains, everybody except Native Americans has an obligation to make sure future Americans can arrive with dignity and opportunity. Today’s immigrants can be treated better than our parents or grandparents were, and the underprivileged among our citizens today can be extended the same support we offer to talented immigrants. The tech industry is one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and power that’s ever existed in history. To be worthy of the privilege we’ve been extended, we must show respect to the past immigrants who made our success possible, by fighting for the next generations of immigrants not just as “workers” to be harvested, but as fellow Americans to be welcomed.

Taking Flights

June 18, 2013

I read my friend Brendan Koerner's The Skies Belong To Us straight through; On its surface, this is a book that tells a riveting true (not inspired-by-true, but true) story of two young lovers and the fantastic, farcical way in which they pulled off the longest-distance hijacking of an American airliner in history. That's reason enough to recommend that you dive into it.

But what makes The Skies Belong To Us truly resonant and meaningful is the context in which it takes place. As the sixties became the seventies, commercial airline hijackings were so routine that stand up comics cracked jokes about them, and major airlines printed and distributed "what to do in case of a hijacking" handbooks for every plane in their fleet.

I met Brendan in late 2001, in a newsroom that was eventually consumed with stories about 9/11 and its aftermath for months and years. And in all the discussions at the time, not once had I ever considered that part of the fear we now placed as our greatest threat had been so common as to be laughable just thirty years earlier.

Open Skies

The Skies Belong To Us is arresting from its opening, with a cinematic attention to the details of how two ordinary kids from the suburbs got wrapped up in everything from the Black Panthers to Parisian art circles to Angela Davis to the evening news. The acknowledgments thank Spike Lee for his advice, and rewatching "Inside Man" just after reading through Skies reveals that Brendan may have taken a lesson or two in the pacing of a brilliant heist story from his work with Mr. Lee.

Where Skies hit me wasn't merely in its text, but in the profound implications of its story on our contemporary issues. The details are so rich that there's enough context in the book to make these connections, despite the narrative being primarily focused on the cringe-inducingly haphazard hijackers, not the evolution of security culture in the last half-century. Just some of the points that leapt out:

  • During the early 70s, airliner hijackings peaked at a rate of one every week, including the occasional rare double hijacking, when two airliners would be commandeered on the same day by separate, unrelated parties. It's almost inconceivable to picture sentiment about a major issue flipping so dramatically from farce to terror, with the possible exception of communism, which went from mortal danger to ironic punchline over roughly the same time period.
  • The then-nascent FAA tried repeatedly to enact the ubiquitous metal detectors at every airport in America, only to be solidly rebuffed for a decade by the airlines. Though the airlines were of course concerned with cost, there was an argument made on civil liberties grounds as well. It's a stark contrast to the lack of public debate and comment we heard from Internet companies when they were called upon to participate in PRISM, despite it being based on the same "let's prevent this terror" premise.
  • There are early hints of how regulatory capture affects the attitude an industry has toward regulation, security culture and paranoia in general. A key player in the FAA's efforts was Najeeb Halaby, who at the time of the story was administrator of the FAA, but then went on to champion the creation of the Department of Transportation and was later CEO and Chairman of Pan Am when that airline was at the height of its cultural importance. It may be no coincidence at all that the major airlines suddenly became much more amenable to regulation when the revolving door between industry and regulators began to spin at the highest levels of both institutions.
  • Even before the protagonists of Skies, Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, brought skyjacking to new heights of theatricality, the phenomenon had been so pervasive as to inspire action at the highest levels of government. What does Richard Nixon have to do with 9/11? On September 11th of 1970, President Nixon announced a program to deal with airplane hijacking, introducing sky marshalls and called for the use of the then-costly and rare metal detectors.

Too Soon

Having spent a dozen years stuck in a "too soon" mindset, I had never considered a future where the worst-case scenario might be rendered absurd. There are likely dystopian fiction works that talk about 9/11-style hijackings happening routinely, but until now there haven't been absurdist historical novels that look back and remind us: Hey, this shit used to happen like, every day, man.

The introduction to The Skies Belong To Us quotes Virgil and Ghostface Killah, and that catholic perspective on hijacking, the boogeyman of our times, was irresistible to me. Given the fact that I like to read on planes and trains, I can offer no better endorsement of this book than the fact that I repeatedly found myself willing to brave carrying a book with the words "terror" and "hijacking" on the cover through security checkpoints. You should do the same.

Zuckerberg's FWD: Making Sure They Get It Right

May 2, 2013

Mark Zuckerberg built himself a political action committee called FWD.us, and they're diving headfirst into trying to change immigration policy as their first priority. They seem to have good goals, and they've already adopted some extremely polarizing tactics, so I've tried to collect my thoughts here, as informed by a roundtable conversation yesterday which included FWD.us President and co-founder Joe Green. Spoilers: I don't have a simple, easy "It sucks!" or "It's great!" conclusion about FWD.us, but hopefully I've put together enough perspective here to help inform the discussion, provide some specific areas of improvement for the PAC, and offer a useful starting point for the discussion within the tech community of how we'd like to be effective in driving policy, whether specifically about immigration or on any broader issue.

It's already clear that with FWD.us, the tech industry is going to have to reckon with exactly how real the realpolitik is going to get. If we're finally moving past our innocent, naive and idealistic lack of engagement with the actual dirty dealings of legislation, then let's try to figure out how to do it without losing our souls.

The Fundamentals

Mark Zuckerberg wrote an editorial in the Washington Post a few weeks ago announcing the launch of FWD.us, in concert with a list of prominent Silicon Valley supporters. (Post CEO/Chairman Donald Graham is on Facebook's board, hence the choice of platform.) Zuck started by listing top-tier tech execs like Reid Hoffman, Eric Schmidt and Marissa Mayer, went through listing VCs and investors who are well known within the industry, and concludes with former Facebookers Aditya Agarwal and Ruchi Sanghvi, who aren't big names in the industry but are actual immigrants, in contrast to most of the other backers. Shortly after launch, names like Bill Gates, Reed Hastings and Fred Wilson were added as they apparently became financial backers as well.

All those dollars are being spent to support an organization that's pretty small — half a dozen people in Silicon Valley and four people on the ground in DC. ADrian Chen's excellent look at FWD.us offers lots of good perspective on the functioning and funding of FWD.us, but this is an organization that seems to be built with a long-term mission in mind.

I've long wanted the tech industry to engage in a serious and effective way with the policy world. At the peak of the protests against SOPA and PIPA, my dream was that we might black out our sites in protest of torture as state policy rather than simply focusing on self-serving goals. And while we've thus far had limited avenues for participation such as the White House's innovative petition platform, we obviously haven't played in the serious realm of policy before, either with our attention and interest or with the greasing of palms that actually makes legislation happen in DC.

So if we've got a practical organization working on meaningful problems and that's what I've wanted the tech industry to do, why am I so concerned? Let's take a look.

This is Zuckerberg's Game

Move Fast and Break Things

I come by my skepticism about Mark Zuckerberg sincerely. This is a man who's an absolute radical extremist when it comes to issues of identity and privacy. He ignores his own privilege when making decisions that impact the lives of billions of people around the world. And his single greatest credential for engaging in civics or the public sphere was stage managed by Sheryl Sandberg in response to an unflattering movie portrayal. Worse, his donation to those Newark schools has yet to yield any substantive results, despite its extravagant scale. There's very little to indicate that Zuckerberg's ability to make a popular social network translates into effective policy advocacy. Worse, his extremism in regard to people's personal information and identities as seen as some esoteric tech concern, and not as a serious threat to civil rights and personal freedom with significant political implications.

Mark Zuckerberg already has tremendous political impact, but it's in realms that most people in mainstream society don't yet identify as being political, including Zuckerberg himself.

But folks like Joe Green (From NationBuilder and Causes, and President and Co-founder with Zuckerberg of FWD.us, though the site lists him as "Founder") and Daniel Shih (a Rhodes scholar Stanford Grad who worked as a policy analyst for Joe Biden) are much more credible and intentional political actors than Zuckerberg. Both of these guys have engaged with policy for some time, and to their credit they also have reasonable credentials for being sincere in their desire for meaningful immigration reform. So let's look at what they're doing right and wrong.

The Good

  • Lots of money: FWD.us seems to be backed by a real, serious investment of tens of millions of dollars that they're willing to spend on advancing their agenda. This isn't a casual slacktivist effort by a few techies who want to meet with politicians, it's enough funding to support a protracted engagement in Washington, D.C. That's progress.
  • Pragmatic tactics: They're trying to win, by doing pragmatic things like ad buys in the home districts of congresspeople who are both on the fence on the immigration issue and at risk in upcoming elections. For too many years, geeks have tried using ineffective, unrealistic tactics to influence politicians, but spending money the same way that real, grown-up industries do is important. It's especially key that the spending be accompanied by education of elected officials about issues and how an industry functions — these basic methods are what power successful lobbying efforts from teachers' unions to military contractors, oil companies to pharmaceutical companies.
  • Multi-faceted reform: If I take Green's statements yesterday at face value, then FWD.us doesn't intend to focus just on the narrow immigration challenges for engineering professionals (so called "skilled" immigrants), but on comprehensive immigration reform, encompassing border security for conservatives and paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to appease progressives. This is the claim I'm most skeptical about, but they've repeated this breadth of commitment explicitly, and unprompted, in several different meetings so I'm cautiously optimistic that the intention is sincere.
  • Transparency, kinda: Much of the criticism of FWD.us has been about their willingness to fund politicians on both ends of the conventional political spectrum (more on that below). But the reason we know FWD.us backs both the obviously conservative Americans for Conservative Direction and the ostensibly-progressive Council for American Job Growth is because there's actually a surprising amount of information available about where FWD.us is sending its money. Who knows if this will stay true now that their transparency has been used to criticize the PAC, but thus far at least, it's a surprising amount of visibility into where the funds flow.
  • Proactive, not reactive: We've seen from SOPA/PIPA, and to some degree from later efforts like the CISPA actions led by the Internet Defense League, that geeks are willing to try and stop legislation that they think is bad. But long term, staying on defense all the time doesn't get any points scored, and so I'm happy to see any tech-led initiative that's aimed at actually creating good legislation, not just stopping bad laws.

What Sucks

Given my skepticism about FWD.us in general, and about Mark Zuckerberg in particular, it's surprising how many positive aspects I've found to the organization. Naturally, I've found just as many negatives to the organization:


  • No standards for what's beyond the pale: This is slightly different from the primary criticisms from the tech industry. Much ink has been spilled by those concerned that FWD.us is funding ads promoting drilling in ANWR or building the Keystone XL pipeline; TechPresident's Sarah Lai Stirland ably describes the reaction of geeks, which ranges from baffled to disgusted, a perspective well articulated by Josh Miller of Branch. But Green made a smart case for the pragmatic strange-bedfellows approach that FWD.us is taking on backing candidates, so my concern is more nuanced: What positions won't be supported by FWD.us? We know they'll go counter to most of their ostensible constituents (and a few of their financial backers) on issues like oil drilling, but what about marriage equality? There clearly must be some standards, but are they documented, and if so are they by consensus of all the funders of FWD.us, let alone by consensus of the industry the organization claims to represent?
  • There's no admission of "collateral damage": Green used the phrase "collateral damage" to refer to the important issues that might get sacrificed in favor of a single-minded (at present) focus on immigration reform, and it seems relevant. If we compromise on marriage equality and bring in a new crop of immigrant workers but many of them aren't able to bring their spouses, how can that be considered success? FWD.us needs to communicate clearly to those of us who it would like to enlist in a grassroots community about where it draws the line. Will they back ads that promote the border safety plank of the immigration reform bill by using images or language that vilify people of color? What cost is too high?
  • The case for H1B increases is not solid: Within the technology industry, it's been taken as an article of faith for some time that we have a talent shortage in the United States, and that there aren't enough STEM graduates here in the U.S. to meet the industry's needs. I had accepted this conventional wisdom as correct without questioning it for so long that I was deeply disappointed in my credulity when this recent Economic Policy Institute report provided a well-supported set of evidence that we actually don't have a talent shortage. We reflexively talk about overseas talent as the solution to a tech shortage, but we seldom talk about whether there's evidence for that "shortage". The Atlantic's Jordan Weissmann outlines the issue well, and he's been on this beat for a while with pieces like this article from February. FWD.us needs to either clearly demonstrate that this shortage exists, or explain why these findings don't apply to the technology industry that it is trying to serve.
  • What will we do for these workers? Even if we concede that there's a talent shortage, or if we simply accept that it's a good goal to have smart immigrants coming to the United States, almost no part of the conversation from FWD.us has been about how they'll help improve conditions for the workers who come to the country on these visas. H1B workers live in a costly, stressful limbo for years on end, with little control over their professional careers and with their personal lives often being stuck in suspended animation. Immigrant workers of all sorts, whether in the technology industry or in so-called "unskilled" trades such as agriculture or the hospitality industry, have significantly less control over their working conditions, wages and negotiations with employers, and meaningful immigration reform has to give a worker a life where they're not living as an indentured servant to a company that can essentially threaten them with deportation-by-firing at any time. FWD.us must address the issues of dignity and respect that immigrant workers are often denied.
  • You're the richest people in the world, and this is what you work on? Despite FWD.us's protests that they're working on areas such as education and science funding (both of which I care about a lot!) it's hard to believe this is the most important issue that this group of incredibly powerful and wealthy people can support. Essentially they're pushing an agenda that will make a number of super-rich people slightly more rich, while providing some legitimate jobs and opportunities to people who'll never substantially participate in the profit-taking that FWD.us's benefactors will enjoy. It'd be easier to believe that FWD.us will be a positive force if we knew the full breadth of its agenda.

How to get this right

There are a lot of good intentions, and a lot of grave concerns, about FWD.us. Here's what they can do to address these issues, making the PAC both more effective and less fraught with risk.

  • If FWD.us wants to "win", how is "winning" defined? Provide a clear public list of which policies the organization wants to impact, which bills or proposed legislation they support, and which causes or debates they won't use to achieve their goals.
  • Don't concede to politicians that you have to support their most cynical, extremist issues. Maybe pragmatism requires FWD.us to back a candidate that is against background checks for guns; Sometimes life has these compromises. But instead of funneling dollars into a campaign vilifying a reasonable compromise on weapon reform, FWD.us could simply pay money for conventional attack ads against the candidate's opponent on other policy grounds. Starting with zero spine on non-immigration issues that Silicon Valley cares about is going to make it impossible to go back and fix things later.
  • Stop bullshitting about whether this is Zuckerberg's personal agenda or Facebook's corporate agenda. The stated claim this is a personal from Zuckerberg, but given his dominant control of the company what's the difference? If Facebook is blocking ads that protest FWD.us on the grounds that Zuckerberg is intrinsically part of Facebook's brand, then it's pretty clear what the reality is. Acknowledge that this is both company policy and Zuckerberg's personal focus.
  • Relatedly, Zuckerberg is focusing his social, technical and political powers on a set of goals, but he's never identified those goals nor been made to answer for his extremist, radical principles. This is critical especially because of Zuckerberg's backing of Chris Christie — are tech's biggest names being used to prep a policy platform for a future Presidential campaign? It's easy to overlook, but given the number of big names involved, there are undoubtedly tech execs who are going to contribute to FWD.us simply to ensure that they're seen as part of Zuckerberg's A-list. That's a hell of a commitment given how opaque Zuckerberg's overall agenda is.
  • Finally: What are they going to do when the coalition falls apart as FWD.us starts to succeed or fail. What if a candidate who's against foreign aid for preventing malaria asks for an ad from FWD.us? Is Bill Gates going to let his money be spent backing that politician?

One of Mark Zuckerberg's most famous mottos is "Move fast and break things." When it comes to policy impacting the lives of millions of people around the world, there couldn't be a worse slogan. Let's see if we can get FWD.us to be as accountable to the technology industry as it purports to be, since they will undoubtedly claim to have the grassroots support of our community regardless of whether that's true or not.

Further Reading

And some related pieces from my own archives here:

  • The history and future of web protest, outlining how the tech industry needs to be more proactive after its initial success in fighting SOPA and PIPA. This is also echoed in Ignoring it won't make it go away, where the reflexive libertarianism of Silicon Valley culture again rears its ugly head.
  • Zuckerberg's history of being blinded by his privilege to the serious social and political consequences of his extremism on privacy and identity underpins The Facebook Reckoning. This reached its apotheosis two years later when Facebook made it official at the end of last year that users have no say in site governance policies, by ending user voting on its terms of service.
  • And as a broader look at ways we can impact policy in addition to direct lobbying, there's How the 99% and the Tea Party can Occupy WhiteHouse.gov, which is about exactly what it sounds like.

Making the Tech Industry a Force for Good in NYC

January 22, 2013

In today's Wall Street Journal there's a detailed look at how New York City's tech industry is looking to influence politics in the city. I'm happy to be quoted in the story, but wanted to offer more context about some of my comments.

When I ran for the NY Tech Meetup board just over two years ago, I had a few simple goals:

  • Make the NYTM community reflect NYC, in all its diversity of gender, ethnicity, identity and economics.
  • Recognize we're in competition with other cities, especially in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, for talent and innovation.
  • Broaden the definition of our "technology" community to include those in the maker movement.
  • Develop the political power necessary to hold elected officials accountable to the technology industry.

It's that final point which is most important. We need tech to become a political power. And just a year after these goals were described, Mike Bloomberg came to speak at the NY Tech Meetup. One year after that, Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States spoke at the NY Tech Meetup. Just a few days after that, both major candidates for President of the United States sent the NY Tech Meetup community policy statements about how they would better serve our industry.

It's important to note: This is about the technology community, not just the technology industry — many of the most important innovations happen outside of companies. And it's about much more than just the NY Tech Meetup, despite my pride in our organization, because we're not yet as representative within the meetup as we'll need to be to speak for the breadth of NYC's tech community.

Clearly, there's been a dramatic shift in recognition of the political importance of the technology community. So what do we do with that power?

Beyond a Pledge

In the Wall Street Journal story, I'm quoted saying "To make a difference in this and any other campaign, tech needs its Grover Norquist pledge". I said this, but I want to emphasize that I am not endorsing the inflexibility and dogmatic perspective that something like Norquist's anti-tax pledges demand of policy makers.

Instead, my point is that the clarity and coherence of goals as represented by a list of policy priorities can be a useful tool for a community. In our case, having a list of the tech community's priorities both serves to give politicians a clear understanding of what we care about as well as to force the tech community to have a conversation with itself about what we value.

As I mention in the article, the tech industry is not made up of traditional allies; It forms alliances between capital and labor, between management and workers, and even aspires to better connect companies and customers through its focus on design and usability. The crossing of these lines should be seen as an opportunity to pursue goals that are equally important to people of every class or background, and the initial focus on policy for education and access are a promising hint that perhaps this will be the case.

I'm optimistic about the potential for the technology community in New York City to become just the latest community that graduates into having significant political power.

The White House Should Host a Secessionist Beer Summit

November 15, 2012

Even as I was asking the Tea Party to occupy the White House's petition website a year ago, I didn't actually think it would happen. But people are smarter, and better, and bigger than we ever imagine.

That is of course, not how I'm supposed to describe the idea of seceding from the United States, as someone who loves his country. And to be clear: I think talk of secession is a foolish, self-defeating, petulant response to an election, in addition to being unfeasible. I'm enormously glad the conversation is happening, though.

The fact is, if even citizens who hate the United States of America (as secessionists must) find it valuable to engage in an online petition platform maintained by the White House, then that platform is working. There have been many successes for the We The People platform, from stopping puppy mills and no longer using monkeys in military training to coming out against SOPA and PIPA's threats to the Internet to pushing for patent reform. But the people involved in the neo-secessionist movement represent a unique opportunity.

President Obama should sit down for a "beer summit" with representatives chosen by petitioners who've signed the calls for secession, and listen to the grievances which they think require the dissolution of the Union.

secession-map.png

Why A Beer Summit?

It's pretty clear that there are a few hundred thousand people involved in signing the secession petitions, based on a reasonable academic assessment of the signatures. For perspective, that's about the same number of people as work for CVS, or about half as many people as voted for Jill Stein as the the Green Party candidate for President. Even if we assume that the number of people participating has increased a bit as the petitions gain more press attention in the days since that study was done, this is definitely an extreme fringe of the country, and most of them aren't from the states for which they've signed petitions. It isn't an obvious choice for the President to make time to sit down with such fringe interests.

But the teams at the White House responsible for We The People, like the New Media team that built it, or more broadly the Office of Public Engagement which handles the President's interaction with citizens, have put so much effort into making these petitions effective and available that it's clear they want to honor the spirit of the lofty name they've given the platform. They want to do the right thing. They're the ones who got the White House's homebrew beer recipe released in response to a petition in the first place. It's only appropriate that they put that beer to good use.

And the ostensible secessionists would benefit from the clarity that comes with the seriousness of having this discussion at the highest levels. When ordinary Americans (or soon-to-be-former Americans) engage with matters of policy and the Constitution in a serious manner, they almost always step up to the challenge with extraordinary thoughtfulness. That's only an option if a good leader asks them to do so, and I think our President is that good a leader.

Though I disagree with their stated intentions, I also don't resent my fellow citizens who've signed these petitions. I have a soft spot for extremist views in general, and an appreciation for old-fashioned approaches to questioning the way our government works. But more importantly, I think they'll benefit most from seeing that government can work the way we all imagine that it might: People with different opinions can come together in conversation, those with unpopular or unusual views can be heard, and the contrast of perspectives can leave both parties wiser for having engaged.

Beer Summit I

Ascending The Summit

I'm not a pollyanna about this suggestion. I'm sure communications experts within the White House will say "Why on earth would we want to take a political risk like this right after an election when there are so many other problems to focus on?" And the secession sympathizers will ask "Why would we want to talk to the guy that we resent so much that we're talking about leaving the country?"

To those in the White House, I'd say, this is exactly how you show leadership, but engaging in a productive way with those who most oppose you. If you want to phrase it in the odious tactical language of the political class, you can see this as an outflanking move for your political opponents. But on a more human level, it's just an act of empathy that might actually result in a productive discussion.

To the nominal secessionists, it's important to understand this is the only way to take what seems like a petulant, irrational response and elevate it into something more akin to a principled objection. The rigor you'll have to introduce amongst your nascent movement in order to simply pick the representatives to participate in such a summit will do wonders to clarify whether there's real substance to the idea, or if it's just the reactionary and ridiculous response that it seems to those of us who disagree.

In short, both sides benefit, even though the conventional wisdom on both sides will be to avoid seriously engaging. I think those who make a platform like We The People do so because they believe in the principles it epitomizes, and I believe those who use such a petition platform do so because they believe the people should be able to exercise those principles.

So, go forth and do it. I'll happily send along some pretzels to go with the beers.

Tech Now Has Its Own RIAA. Meesa Scared!

September 20, 2012

Today marks the launch of The Internet Association, a laudable effort from a number of prominent Internet technology companies to address our industry's historic lack of engagement with the policy world by creating a lobbying group with a coherent platform and formidable backing.

I'm happy to see such as serious effort from companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Amazon, Ebay and AOL to address our industry's concerns through direct engagement with lawmakers. As Clay Johnson so wonderfully said, Dear Internet, It's No Longer Ok to Not Know How Congress Works, and it would seem from the Internet Association's existence that at least some major companies on the Internet agree. It's especially relevant to me because, by tech standards, the amount of investment it takes to create industry-friendly policy is so small; The total lobbying dollars that the entertainment industry spent advocating for SOPA and PIPA was somewhere around $94 million in 2011. That's roughly how much profit Microsoft Office makes in a week, or how much profit Apple as a company makes every day.

Yes, I hate the pernicious effect of money influencing policy for our major industries. But If Apple could spend a single day's profit and out-lobby the entire legacy entertainment industry, it seems like it'd be a good investment. Then we can move on to fixing the broken business of government and think about the future of web protest.

So, I'm in favor of the tech industry getting more organized in talking to policy makers. But part of me is scared shitless about the Internet Association. Because industry associations that start out with benevolent intentions to protect the freedoms of innovative young industries often become instruments of regulatory capture and innovation bullying as those industries mature. To understand how a well-intentioned effort like the Internet Association can evolve into the unrecognizable form that the RIAA and MPAA have taken for the music and film industries, we should spend some time with our old friend Jar Jar Binks.

Where Weesa Going?

The convention is to hate Jar Jar Binks for his role as a buffoonish Stepin-Fetchit-meets-mincing-nelly stereotype, or for representing George Lucas' insistence on CGI taking the place of plot development, or for demonstrating that a ham fist is able to wield a sledge hammer when it comes to hitting you over the head with infantile punchlines. The more evolved amongst us hate him for doing the impossible and making fart and poop jokes unfunny.

jar-jar-senate.jpeg

But I quibble with Jar Jar on grounds of policy and governance. It's often overlooked, but Jar Jar Binks created the Empire.

You see, the motion to grant Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers was introduced to the Galactic senate by Senator Binks. Which is to say, the government in the Star Wars universe went from being an elected republic to an autocratic empire due to a wartime policy change which Jar Jar introduced with the intention of protecting people in the most efficient way possible. Who could have anticipated that the Chancellor was also Darth Sidious and that he was grooming Anakin Skywalker to become Darth Vader? Certainly not meesa!

Which is all a roundabout, nerdy way of saying that sometimes when we create institutions under times of duress in order to protect ourselves from outside attacks, those institutions can get corrupted over time, with unintended consequences. One day you're worried about protecting your trade federation, the next day you're slogging through the trash compactor on a Death Star. One day you're still reeling from the onslaught of SOPA and PIPA, and the next day you're seeing how far you can push things with laws that will help your industry.

How We Avoid The Dark Side

The good news is, the journey from annoying pseudo-Rasta sidekick to destroying planets takes a few decades. What our tech industry doesn't often think about is that protectionist industry groups like the RIAA and MPAA started out with important, positive goals. The MPAA wanted to encourage filmmakers to have more artistic freedom, and did much to liberate movies from the oppressive censorship of the Hays code, leading to the flourishing of artistic creativity during the 1970s that we still revere today, including Star Wars itself.

Similarly, the RIAA has fought for artists' rights and their free expression a number of times, along with leading efforts in its earliest days to ensure consistent, high-quality reproduction of audio recordings. So it's no surprise today that most of the policy platform from the Internet Association is utterly reasonable proposals. I'd endorse the overwhelming majority of the Association's goals as stated today.

But if I like a lot of the people and companies behind the Internet Association, and I want most of their policies to happen, why am I raising the specter of the Dark Side in talking about them? For a few reasons:

  • We need to drive attention to the Internet Association at a time when our industry is distracted by passing events like the launch of new phones.
  • We must be mindful of the policies being advocated on our behalf by the companies we all work with — how many of us who care about the future of tech have even read what's being argued on our behalf?
  • Our legislators are going to expect that we agree with the policy positions of the Internet Association that claims to represent us; If that's not true then both the Association and Congress need to hear about it.
  • The Internet Association will likely have a lot of success in the next few years, since our industry is popular with regular people and politicians and provides a lot of jobs; This means the natural tendency that trade groups have toward regulatory capture or policy overreach will be accelerated as IA starts to get traction in Washington.
  • Have we considered how independent groups like Fight For the Future remain an important and vital part of the conversation, so that we have non-corporate policy influencers who'll advocate for users, not just companies, when considering the future of the web?

Making the IA a Force for Good

I am bullish on the Internet Association's work and mission in the short term. I think they will have tremendous impact with lawmakers and policymakers in the short term, even if the tech industry continues its usual habit of ignoring the policy world at large. I am inspired and satisfied by the fact that many of tech's biggest players are willing to work together like grownups. (Of note: Apple and Microsoft have not signed on to IA; We'll have to wait and see what that means.)

But our industry also has a habit of being self-centered and not particularly inclusive. While we're not abusive of intellectual property laws in the way of the movie and film industries that come before us, those industries would argue we're more abusive of traditional intellectual property rights than they are. Our culture values free speech to an extreme, which is admirable, but doesn't value protecting children or the vulnerable from the negative effects of free expression, which is a shortcoming. We are often myopic about the international and geopolitical implications of our platforms, preferring to pretend that content platforms can somehow be "neutral" about what they share or publish, instead of acknowledging that there are real-world impacts to what people do online.

These aren't the Internet Association's obligations to fix, but they are our entire community's responsibility to be aware of and watch as IA grows in size and power over the years to come. Let's watch IA closely, so we can celebrate the way they fight for us and provide a policy framework for our continued success. Let's appreciate that we can't keep growing our tech industry without being serious about the way technology interacts with law and policy.

And then, finally, let's be at our most mindful after we've got a few wins under our belt. Every other industry in the history of our country, and of capitalism broadly, has become abusive of its power once its titans band together into a trade group and start making laws. Maybe, if we're disciplined and vigilant and persistent, we can continue the tech industry's tradition of innovation and be the first industry that refuses to use its lobbying group as a system for protecting us from the disruptions of the next generation of innovators.

Politics is a Business. A Big, Broken One. Let's Fix It.

February 24, 2012

I'm an idealist. I want all governments to work in an ideal, uncorrupted state. But I'd settle for the governments which I live under to work in a way that were at least a bit more responsive and transparent. But part of the reason that doesn't happen is because most of the people I see interact with government based upon their feelings about various governmental institutions, rather than the facts of how it actually works. So here are a few key truths:

  1. Anybody who says "The Government" did something is ineffective at best and just plain ignorant at worst, because there is no monolithic "government" any more than there is a monolithic "The Media" or "The Business". Knowing, and embracing, complexity is necessary for those of us who'd like to change the system.
  2. Money drives an enormous amount of the actions of elected officials. This is not perceived by most elected officials as corruption, but rather as a simple fact, a fact about which they are neither shocked nor surprised. You cannot shame someone about a fact they readily concede.
  3. The reason money drives many actions of elected officials is because it's used to get votes, mostly through the purchase of advertising. It's not because politicians are trying to get rich. Politicians are already rich; That's why they can run.

But if these simple statements indicate that the current system is broken, how come this is the one area that's obviously broken that most tech entrepreneurs aren't trying to fix?

So We're All Doomed?

When I say the political system is broken, it might make it seem like I'm some pessimist decrying that the whole thing is hopeless. But I'm not! Because first, I don't think the process of using our electoral system as a multi-billion dollar media subsidy is going to be sustainable forever.

More importantly, the inescapable motivation for the enormous amounts of money saturating our political and electoral processes is that politicians want votes. It's what lets them become incumbents, a fancy political term that means "ruler for life".

Here's the tricky thing, though: Networks, sometimes, can trump money.

Networks Over Dollars

Now, it's not always the case that enormously vested interests with bottomless pocketbooks can be overcome simply by people banding together through newer, smarter, faster networks. But we've seen it work a few times. Early communities that sprung up around blogging and Craigslist were just trying to meet their own needs, but ended up massively disrupting the wealthy, powerful newspaper and magazine industries largely by accident. You know the same story happened to the industry formerly known as the recording business, too. And those disruptions happened without even trying.

When new technology-based networks are still young, they can be massively disruptive without even intending to be. So what would it look like if we disrupted one of these broken-ass, frequently corrupt, largely inequitable networks on purpose? Well, I can think of no industry in better need of that sort of upheaval than our policymaking infrastructure, at the local, state and federal level. We've let many of the organizations that make up these governmental institutions become unmoored, making many decisions not based on fact or effectiveness, but based on decisions shaped by the money chase that elected officials are obsessed with.

Who's Going To Step Up?

The thing is, there is a ton of opportunity in this disruption that's going to happen. Social networks will reshape electoral politics and the world of policymaking in the next half-decade, and it's just a question of who does it, and on what terms. Even in just the few short years since Expert Labs was formed, we've had to change some of our fundamental assumptions; According to the world we were living in when we started Expert Labs, the widespread, incredibly effective and surprisingly rapid protests against SOPA and PIPA should never have been able to happen. Yet they not only happened, they happened without primarily relying on financial sponsorship of alternate candidates as their primary point of influence.

In short, they used the network to overcome the traditional money-based ways of influencing politics.

The funny thing is, I'm not actually demonizing the fact that money and businesses have a role to play in how the political system works. In fact, as Clay Johnson eloquently explained, we should all do well to be more versed in how political fundraising and policymaking intersect. It's absolutely essential to know the ecosystem around web-based political influence if you want to understand its future.

Going Gaga

Perhaps one of the most overlooked parts of this evolution is that there are going to be new winners. Not just new candidates getting elected to office (although that's great, too!) but new companies which succeed in building thriving new businesses by serving a more responsive, engaged electorate through social networks online. In fact, I'm proud to advise one of the most prominent and promising of them, Votizen, which just got a pretty formidable set of investors who share my optimism that a better political infrastructure is also a good opportunity for building a business that helps make the world better.

I'm not the sort of person who usually ends up advising companies backed by "hot" Silicon Valley investors. (Or Ashton Kutcher. Or Lady Gaga's manager.) But putting aside my own picky preferences about how the tech industry runs, I want this one to work. I want our tech industry to see as much potential, as much excitement, as much glamour, and far more meaning in fixing politics and voting and policy as they do in fixing the way we listen to music or organize our photos.

Because even after Votizen succeeds wildly in getting people to band together to vote more effectively, with more focus on the issues they care about and the facts that impact those issues, we've got a lot of other work to do. We still have to get the smartest, most creative people in our country involved in the hard work of advising policy makers. We have to get regular folks to understand that the drugs that treat their family members' cancer, the highways they drive on to go see their kids' ball games, the parks they go to on the vacation days that they're mandated to have — all those things are the product of government, even with its current inefficiencies and imperfections. Hell, we have to have every big institution, whether it's government or business or academia or religion, to make itself accessible and malleable by all of us who are affected by their decisions.

Today, though, it's easy to criticize government, or to just complain about it. But bitching about government isn't like bitching about the weather, where we can't do anything about it. In fact it's the opposite — government is made out of the only thing we really can change: Ourselves. So let's get to work.

Questions for the Republican Candidates

December 11, 2011

I think we've had more debates in the past few weeks for the Republican candidates so far than are typically held in the entirety of an election season, but the questions have generally been completely obvious, yielding only the usual expected platitudes.

In hopes of both making the debates more meaningful and encouraging the selection of the best possible candidate to rise to the top, I've been regularly tweeting out questions during the various debates, usually under the #GOPDebate hashtag.

At the behest of a few Twitter followers, I've collected many of the questions I've asked so far on this post. I'd love to see more of your questions along similar lines, but please note: I'm interested in asking sincere questions which could actually be posed to candidates on television, and am trying to predicate my questions on actual positions held by actual candidates. In that spirit:

Military & Foreign Policy

  • Do you pledge not to pursue war crime prosecution against the Taliban when they waterboard our soldiers?
  • Why does it make America safer to find new ways to discharge soldiers who voluntarily served our country with honor?
  • Why was President Obama's handling of Libya so much better than Bush's handling of Iraq?
  • Why is it a bad idea for Muslim nations to practice theocracy but good for the U.S.?
  • Why would your foreign policy be the opposite of President Obama's plan which killed Bin Laden?

Immigration & Citizenship

  • Why would the U.S. be better with an immigration policy which would've kept Steve Jobs from being born here?
  • Do you believe our lack of federal requirements for gun registration is a magnet for undocumented immigrants?
  • Why do you think the English language can't compete in the free market & requires a socialized language policy to subsidize it?
  • Will you support liberty by making the identification requirements for employment and gun purchase the same?
  • How much will it cost to deport all of the undocumented immigrants you'd like to kick out of the country?
  • Would you support a deterrent tax of 100% of all income on CEOs of corporations which employ undocumented workers?

Values & Ethics

  • When your oath of office is in direct conflict with the Ten Commandments, as when "Thou Shalt Not Kill" contradicts our current war policy, which commitment will you keep?
  • What Sharia laws do you support other than criminalizing homosexuality, shaming assault victims & legalizing theocracy?
  • When you order the mass execution of women who've had abortions, should the death trains be run by state or fed governmentt?
  • If you believe the death penalty is moral & effective, will you support the death penalty for corporations which break the law?
  • Are you strong enough in your faith to say you don't want the votes of those of us who are atheists?
  • Will you pledge that your administration will not buy any oil from companies that believe Earth is >6000 years old?
  • What is an issue the Heritage Foundation is incorrect about? What is an issue Rush Limbaugh is wrong about?
  • Will you defend marriage with a 100% tax on all revenues for publicly-traded corporations whose CEOs break their marriage vows?
  • When you slash funding for the NIH, how will you notify parents that their children's cancer treatments are being ended?
  • If Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima all happened at nuclear plants that had regulatory standards to meet, how will eliminating the Department of Energy make our nuclear plants safer?

General Knowledge & Qualifications:

  • What is the difference between Shia & Sunni Muslims?
  • How much does an average family of 4 pay for health insurance in a month?

That's it so far. Please do let me know when you hear one of these questions being asked to the candidates.

How the 99% and the Tea Party can Occupy WhiteHouse.gov

November 9, 2011

The conventional wisdom is that the American people are too cynical, too jaded, and too burnt out on politics to ever engage with the actual governance of our country by getting involved in discussions of policy. I don't believe that's true; I think if it's made engaging and accessible enough, ordinary citizens will directly engage in how policy is made, and improve its workings through their insights and expertise.

The evidence of the passion of ordinary citizens is ample; people have been taking this energy to the streets, for a few years in the form of Tea Party demonstrations, and more recently through the various Occupy movements that have branched off of #OccupyWallStreet.

But what about making substantive changes in actual regulations happen? Can we leap from posters and platitudes to policy changes? The answer is absolutely yes. And the reason is obvious: Networks powered by technology are having the same transformative effect on the hierarchical, slow institutions of government and public policy that they had on media, communications and information. This was the point of my post a few days ago on our Expert Labs blog:

[T]he White House announced a program to make it easier for Americans who have student loans to meet their monthly payments on those loans; Named "Pay As You Earn", the program promises to offer 1.6 million Americans a bit of a financial respite on their loan service, and to put a few more dollars in their pockets every month.

But what was much less heralded in the story was exactly how this policy change came to be: An ordinary New Yorker had proposed some form of student loan amnesty on the White House's "We the People" petition platform.

Because traditional media cycles understandably focus on the changes to the school loan policy, it's been easy to overlook that the mechanism of that policy change is as interesting as its substance. In short, something remarkable happened here:

  1. A regular citizen, not a lobbyist or politician or CEO, made a suggestion of a smart idea on the White House's petition website.
  2. That idea got promoted through social media, filtering its way out through Twitter and blogs and Facebook.
  3. One month later the administration endorsed a variation of the idea, making it actual policy and helping over a million and a half Americans to have more money in their pocket at the end of the month.

Some Don't Want To Believe

Every time these milestones and successes are achieved, skeptics want to scoff. "Maybe this guy's a plant!" "They're only gonna accept ideas they already agree with." "I bet most of the ideas are stupid." "Why would they really listen to us?"

In this example, we see refutations of many of these objections. Judging by the phrasing (and the fact that no media circus has descended on him), the school loan forgiveness proposal seems to have been submitted by an honest, well-intentioned Staten Island man with no political portfolio. We certainly can't expect that any administration is going to enact policies that go directly against its stated goals (c.f. "elections have consequences") but looking at the other petitions that the White House has received reveals some heartening examples.

For every cockamamie "tell us about the space aliens!" petition or every obligatory "legalize it!" appeal, there are detailed, thoughtful, respectful responses. The White House can't be delighted that those were among the first policy conversations to cross the threshold of earning a response from a policy maker, but there they are.

And this is the key thing: These conversations are visible.

I'm no pollyanna about the Magical Power of Transparency, but I know it has an important role to play in fixing the ways that government is broken. Systems that require policy makers to be accountable even on uncomfortable or inconvenient topics, simply due to the prominence of those conversations, can be very effective at raising the priority of those topics.

This is the power of the network. Not that the White House is going to say yes to every petition that pops up on the site. But that they have to say something about every petition that reaches critical mass. Sure, the cynics have their petitions too. I hope they succeed; If that pointless, spiteful petition earns a response, maybe a few of the people who have cynically endorsed it will have to confront the fact that they were asked for their biggest, most important ideas, and instead chose to invest their time in something that helps no one.

What's Next

There's still a lot of work to do here. The White House, in all reality, doesn't have that much power. There's two other pretty serious branches of government, one of which is often batshit insane and the other of which is fairly unaccountable to things like public opinion. Even within the executive branch, none of the other federal agencies have the public profile of the White House, and few have anywhere near the resources to engage in petitions and social media the way the innovators at the White House New Media team have. (As should be obvious, we're hoping to help with that a bit at Expert Labs.)

But a few clear first steps show that there's potential for something truly meaningful to change about the way we make policy more responsive to ordinary citizens.

Groups like #OccupyWallStreet and the Tea Party and the many other issue-focused organizations whose messages and memberships don't map neatly to our major political parties have an opportunity to route around broken, corrupt systems by making their platforms visible on systems like We the People and the many others that will doubtless follow in its footsteps. Just as importantly, these can be models for independent versions of the same documents of accountability to community, to fill in the absences of similar systems to make state and local governments, and someday institutions like businesses or other organizations, accountable to citizens as well.

I have nothing against marching in the streets. I am inspired by, and admiring of, those who have the passion to do so. But I prefer a more modern version direct action to today's general demonstrations. I hope those who are moved enough to march can be focused enough to build networks that sustain their ideals, extend beyond the boundaries of the communities they already belong to, and connect together unexpected or unanticipated allies in the name of making policy bend to the will of the people who these institutions currently find it too easy to overlook.

How should a White House Quora Work?

January 21, 2011

Summary: The White House is looking to build a web community to get its questions answered, sort of their own Quora, and they're trying to do it the right way. They're asking those who would participate to help shape how the community itself works. They're not trying to create a network from scratch, but instead trying to connect to networks that already exist. And they're not just making a community for the hell of it — they're trying to build one with purpose.

But they've asked for our help, from those of us who build, and know, and love web communities. We're being asked to share our expertise in what does, and doesn't work on successful web communities. Our deadline for participating is on Monday Sunday. Giving them insights into our hard-earned lessons will only take 15 minutes of your time this weekend, and will keep us from having to wonder, "Why wasn't I consulted?"

You can go get started, or read on to find out more.

ExpertNet

The White House is advancing this project under the working title "ExpertNet". (There's no official link between ExpertNet and Expert Labs, except that we at Expert Labs are trying to help in the effort, too.) In short, ExpertNet as it stands right now is a spec for a platform for getting questions answered by experts, similar to what sites like Quora and Stack Overflow do. The project was announced in December, and the deadline for responding was extended for two more weeks, but those two weeks are up on Monday Sunday, and we're running out of time.

Submitting ideas to ExpertNet is as easy as editing a wiki. Many of the key questions they're trying to address are straightforward:

  • Decisions around participation: How do you tap in to existing networks of experts?
  • Should there be leaderboards for things like a Top Ten? I don't happen to think so, but if not, then what are the right motivational methods?
  • How do you get people with the right expertise and knowledge to know about, and use, this network?
  • What's the best way to demonstrate the qualifications of people who submit ideas on such a network?
  • And, from a purely tech standpoint, what tools exist to already perform some or all of these functions? Are they free/open source? (Obviously, at Expert Labs, we think ThinkUp is a great answer for many of these questions, since it was meant to address many of these particular requirements.)

We Have The Information They Need

The community of people who care about web communities have a responsibility to share what we know. We know what works on Quora or StackOverflow, and what goes wrong on Yahoo Answers. We've learned for years from Ask MetaFilter. Andy Baio collected a short list of links to best practices just today. But none of those lessons are obvious to people who've been busy defining policy — they haven't been in the trenches like we have.

And it's important to remember that perspective, because even if we don't help, this thing is going to get built. And if we don't help, it's going to be broken or wrong or weird or a failure. The White House has already done one amazing thing, by defining the budget for the technology as zero. The official notice in the Federal Register says:

To be clear, there is currently no funding identified for building this platform nor is it clear if future funding will be available. Hence, respondents should be sure that feedback, when possible, addresses opportunities for implementing solutions at little to no cost, including multi-sector partnerships.

That's government-speak for "if you're just reading this to see what you can sell to the Federal government, bug off." They've reduced the chance of vendors getting in and taking control of the process, which reduces the chance that we end up with some sort of National SharePoint Network. In short, they've met us more than half way and avoided a major pitfall, and now all we have to do is guide them to the tech they should use.

If you care about web communities, and think the right web community with the proper design could positively impact the way our elected officials work, then dive in. I'll make note of some of the people making valuable contributions to the effort, so that we can track this as it evolves. You can get started by following these few simple steps:

  • Register for an account on the wiki
  • Find one of the relevant topic pages and contribute your insights. Simply adding relevant links could be very valuable here, and of course writing out longer ideas would be great too.
  • Tweet or blog with mention that you are participating in helping with ExpertNet, so that we can let people know what you did, and prompt them to respond. We've been using the #expertnet hashtag.

My Agenda

Obviously, there are some disclaimers to throw in here. I'm an unabashed fan of the ideas behind ExpertNet, and it aligns very closely with the mission of Expert Labs, so we're hoping our work and our tech is a big part of the solution. We're a non-profit and all our work is free, so we're not motivated by anything except the desire to see our efforts go to their best possible use. And one of the sites I've mentioned learning from is Stack Overflow, where I'm an advisor. But I think anyone who cares about these things can clearly see that they are succeeding in getting highly technical questions answered by expert responders, and I hope our government can learn from that as well.

I urge you to join the folks who are participating in ExpertNet, whether it's working on building a platform, or simply coming up with a better name for the project. They're asking for our help, and it's our fault if we don't give it to them.

Freedom, Trust, and Other Boring Software Features

November 24, 2010

Providing more evidence that blogging is something you can get better at the longer you do it, my friend Rafe Colburn put out a brilliant post the other day outlining a third kind of software freedom.

What Apple offers in exchange for giving up Freedom 0 (and they ask not only end users but also developers to give it up) is a new freedom for computer users — the freedom to install stuff on your computer without screwing things up. Freedom 0 is about giving you the right to screw up your computer in whatever way you see fit. Apple’s freedom is about giving you the opportunity to install any of thousands of applications with the knowledge that your phone will work just as well after you install them as it did before, and that you can get rid of those applications whenever you want.

The comments are generally pretty reasoned (funny how thoughtful people attract thoughtful responses), but one of the glaring omissions in the conversation was how much of this ground was covered in Microsoft's work nearly a decade ago around trustworthy computing. The seminal document of the initiative was written by Craig Mundie in 2002, in a white paper that Microsoft later made publicly available. I've embedded it below for review, but it's worth pulling out the few key concepts that Mundie identified as the pillars of trustworthy computing:

  • Security
  • Privacy
  • Reliability
  • Business Integrity

These are notable for a few reasons — while Microsoft was getting beaten up then for security to a huge degree, and reliability to a lesser but still significant degree, the issue of privacy in that pre-social networking world hadn't yet become as significant an issue with users as it is today.

Most importantly, though, the idea of business integrity was considered a core element of how much users would trust the technology that they use. Microsoft was still at its nadir in terms of its industry reputation at the time, and that mistrust of Microsoft led much of the tech industry to dismiss the principles of trustworthy computing almost out of hand, especially as they were linked to the "Palladium" concept that Microsoft was then advancing about hardware security and software certification.

Succeeding Despite Itself

Microsoft went on to make some technological decisions for their own platform work based on the trustworthy computing concept, ranging from halting development on Windows and Internet Explorer to perform massive security reviews, to architecting parts of the .NET platform to embody principles of reliability and trustworthiness. But on the whole, as evidenced by the meager offerings on the current trustworthy computing website, Microsoft has walked away from its effort to market the idea.

In interim, though, the idea of locking down an ecosystem with extremely rigid hardware controls, a centralized software approval or certification authority, and an appliance-like simplicity of experience have completely won the attention and focus of the tech industry. Nearly all of the precepts of Trustworthy Computing have been what the market decided it preferred, and have been the foundation of what technologists strive to create.

Except, perhaps, for the fundamental Trustworthy Computing tenet of business integrity. None of the major players of trustworthy, locked-down platforms seem to want to publicly address that the biggest danger to their own market success, once they've solved the problems of viruses and complexity and software crashes, is how people feel about doing business with them.

Trustworthy computing was truly a worthy vision. Hopefully we'll see new products that are announced with a bullet point saying "You can trust our company and here's why", alongside all the other compelling parts of a trusted experience.

The Docs

Below is Craig Mundie's original 2002 white paper on Trustworthy Computing. There are tons of good parts worth quoting, but I'll close with just one, from the section on Policy:

Once a technology has become an integral part of how society operates, that society will be more involved in its evolution and management. This has happened in railways, telecommunications, TV, energy, etc. Society is only now coming to grips with the fact that it is critically dependent on computers.

We are entering an era of tension between the entrepreneurial energy that leads to innovation and society's need to regulate a critical resource despite the risk of stifling competition and inventiveness. This is exacerbated by the fact that social norms and their associated legal frameworks change more slowly than technologies. The computer industry must find the appropriate balance between the need for a regulatory regime and the impulses of an industry that has grown up unregulated and relying upon de facto standards.

Many contemporary infrastructure reliability problems are really policy issues. The state of California's recent electricity supply crisis was triggered largely by a bungled privatization. The poor coverage and service of US cellular service providers is due in part to the FCC's policy of not granting nationwide licenses. These policy questions often cross national borders, as illustrated by the struggle to establish global standards for third-generation cellular technologies. Existing users of spectrum (often the military) occupy different bands in different countries, and resist giving them up, making it difficult to find common spectrum worldwide.

Related Reading

Ignoring It Won't Make It Go Away

June 7, 2010

Michael Arrington argues, over at TechCrunch, that the startup community should ignore the current administration's entreaties for feedback on tech policy, and instead shoo policy makers away and hope for this best. This advice is naive, misguided and short-sighted and if followed, will yield less opportunity and potential for startups in the future. If the tech industry's innovators ignore government policy, it will instead be decided entirely by those who are uninformed about policy, in cahoots with the monied forces of legacy technology and media companies. Insulting government and dismissing it won't make it go away, and ignores the potential it provides for supporting new opportunities.

The Ostrich Technique

Adobe ignored the fact that Apple could regulate the app store market, and ended up wasting tons of time creating a new release of Flash that would generate iOS apps that Apple would never approve. TweetUp ignored the fact that Twitter could regulate the Twitter application market, and ended up potentially wasting tons of time creating a service that might not be able to build an advertising product that Twitter would approve.

And today, Michael Arrington suggested that startups ignore the fact that the U.S. Government can regulate the entire technology market, putting them at risk of wasting tons of time creating products or services that might be unintentionally or intentionally impacted by policy changes. Worse, he's shortsightedly advocating that there not be a dialogue between startups and policy makers, which might lead to startups missing the potential for building billlion-dollar businesses on open government platforms. Startups from Garmin to Foursquare rely on government GPS data, the Weather Channel turned government weather data into a billion dollar business, and I'm pretty sure health data is next. But not if everybody in Silicon Valley puts their fingers in their ears and says "la la la la la I can't hear you!"

There is no "The Government"

Look, I get it. Tech geeks in San Francisco always want to play more-libertarian-than-thou, and it leads to silly things like saying "the government" as if it's a monolithic entity. That's the same as talking about "the technology industry" as if somebody stringing ethernet cables in Tulsa is the same as Steve Jobs. Michael's lead example of why the current administration shouldn't engage with the tech community? Chris Dodd's cluelessness about venture capital. You'd have be unaware of the distinction between the legislative and executive branch, convinced of the not-quite-proven concept that venture capital is an unmitigatedly positive force for innovation, and ignore the fact that the tech industry is successfully fighting against the legislation in order to make even the most tenuous case that this example has anything to do with the President's agenda.

People in D.C. don't look at the crappiness of the web browser on their Blackberries and make broad declarations that "the tech industry is clueless", they say "This one product has a flaw. Let's find a better one." People in San Francisco need to be at least that thoughtful when looking eastward.

What's my agenda? Well, obviously, I'm the director of Expert Labs, which has as its mission the goal of helping policy makers make better decisions by tapping in to the expertise of citizens, especially experts like the people who start new technology companies. But we are not part of the government — we're an independent, non-profit, non-partisan organization specifically because we think that we can get people engaged in improving policy without having to work for government. Surely even the most diehard libertarian must want to support the idea that as citizens, we don't have to work for government or be a lobbyist in order to positively influence policy.

Now, I don't know Victoria Espinel, the intellectual property enforcer that Michael had such issue with. But I do know folks like Todd Park, who is part of this administration, as CTO of Health & Human Services, and the startup he built is making hundreds of millions of dollars more revenue than, say, the last half-dozen web startups that TechCrunch has covered.

But, most importantly, not liking government doesn't mean it will go away. It just means that only big, slow, customer-hostile tech companies will be the ones influencing policy. In the 90s, Microsoft ignored the entire realm of policy, thinking their hyper-competitive market couldn't possibly be of interest to regulators. Facebook's making that same mistake about privacy right now, not realizing that their continuous missteps and shoddy communications are going to doom not just Facebook, but the entire social media industry, to onerous regulations if they don't get their act together quick enough. And our ostensible voices of leadership are advocating "close your eyes and hope they go away" as a plan of action? It's clearly time for leaders who are in tune with reality when it comes to regulation.

Inevitably, people will point to failures of government as "proof" that government can't do anything right. These same people never point to corporate abuses as proof that corporations can't do anything right. And they'll use the fact that over 90 percent of venture-backed startups fail as a credential. I think all these systems and economies run the way that they do for a reason, and while I won't claim to be the best educated person in the world about all of these topics, I am someone who's worked at a venture-backed startup, started a few businesses, been involved in public policy discussions, and helped lead an effort to involve thousands of people from all walks of life in substantive policy discussions with policy makers in the White House. Talking about policy makers from a position of authority when you've failed to engage with them is even more egregious than simply judging a book by its cover; It's judging all books by one shoddy book's cover.

Quitting Is Not A Strategy

If you care about startups, get involved. Do you think the AT&Ts and Verizons, let alone the Halliburtons and BPs of the world, are going to just let the government leave startups alone? If you have a cool new music startup, and the RIAA sends 100 lobbyists to DC to crush you, and the current administration asks "What can we do to help you innovate?" and your answer is "STOP PISSING ON OUR FLOWERS YOU SOCIALISTS!", how do you think it's gonna play out?

Here's a hint: It doesn't end up with you sitting happily in a rose garden. AT&T is, (as detailed in the video below) funneling millions of dollars into fighting network neutrality, and the inventors and founders who could articulate why that's a bad thing are in danger of forfeiting the game instead of even showing up and trying to play. Stop listening to the people who've already got millions of dollars in their pockets, who already have control over tons of startups, when they tell you not to talk to your government. And stop believing the myth that the innovation and opportunity of Silicon Valley happened because "government didn't intervene". Instead, what you had was a relatively smart set of regulations that formed a framework where some small number of people could get very rich. There's no reason that system can't be expanded and improved, unless the startup community decides that there's no room left for any innovations in policy in the future.

Still not convinced? Please watch Susan Crawford articulate the challenge we all face, in her presentation on rethinking broadband from this year's Personal Democracy Forum.

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