Creating Technology for Social Change

Transparency and Public Space Online at the MIT Knight Civic Media Conference

We’re here at the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media conference here at the MIT Media Lab, where the theme is Insiders/Outsiders. Across the next two days, we’re going to be looking at this theme of institutions and innovators across the areas of government, media, and disaster response. Across the event, speakers will be asking if it’s better to look for change inside institutions or try to transform things from the outside.

Our opening session, which asks What’s The Right Approach to Change?”, features three remarkable speakers who have worked as insiders and outsiders: a congressman who’s been both a fierce critic of the Obama administration and a partner with Democratic legislators; a parlimentarian and activist who’s transformed Icelandic politics, and the former head of an insurgent encyclopedia that’s become one of the internet’s most influential communities.

This post was liveblogged by Chris Peterson,Erhardt Graeff, J. Nathan Matias, Stephen Suen, and Anthea Watson Strong. Willow Brugh created the gorgeous prezi of the talk.

Joi Ito starts out the event by pointing out the extreme diversity and the layers of influence and opportunity represented in the room (attendee list) (Twitter list).

Darrell Issa is the U.S. Representative for California’s 49th Congressional District. He is the Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As the Chairman of the Board of the OpenGov Foundation and co-founder of the #OPEN initiative, he works to increase transparency in government and preserve a free and open internet.

Sue Gardner is executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, listed in the Forbes top 100 most powerful womenfor her work to lead Wikipedia’s blackout response to the US bills SOPA and PIPA. Before Wikimedia, Sue was senior director of, the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s digital division. She expects to leave the Wikimedia foundation sometime in the next six months.

Birgitta Jonsdottir is a “pragmatic anarchist” Icelandic parliamentarian representing the Pirate Party. She has been a press and media freedom activist for many years, and was the chief sponsor of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, now the International Modern Media Institute. She calls herself a “Poetician.”

Issa leads off by saying, “I’m just young enough to talk about the 60s as someone who “heard” about it… I’m just enough of a historian to remember Eisenhower talking about the military-industrial complex.”

Issa recalls SOPA/PIPA and the information asymmetry around its ramifications. “There’s an inability to coalesce behind getting the truth out,” he says, an inability that applies to many bills. All legislation is filled with “what-ifs” that are not well-defined and white papers that can be very one-sided.

It’s important for the public to be able to find out what’s happening with legislation. If you want to find legislation on gun control and type gun, you find absolutely nothing. You have to type “firearms” to find anything. Issa wants to see a world where legislation is put online and all edits and proposed edits are visible for everyone to see, in a way that is accessible. This would preclude manager’s amendments when someone brings a completely new draft of the legislation to the floor, which no one else has seen before.

The people that get together that care about open government, we’re non-aligned, says Issa. The conclusions we will reach will be different in many cases. But the idea that there should be an open and transparent process is the same.

How can we tell if laws passed by government are checked for how well they’re kept or broken by government? Talking about Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, no one is caring about whether the Patriot Act is being stretched beyond its original charge. The need for secrecy shouldn’t be a barrier here, he tells us. “You can’t make everything in government open but you can make the process of review open.”

Earlier this year, the president signed new whistleblower legislation. I have a picture with Obama and we’re all smiling. But he basically signed a law that said “he won’t do… he won’t do… he won’t do….” Intelligence contractors like Snowden are omitted from whistleblower legislation.

If you happen to discover classified information that needs to be shared, you cannot come to a member of congress with material anymore, says Issa. There is a very small number of people you can actually go to.

There is a lot of legislation that the transparency community can demand as a part of this. Will we have better oversight so that you can go to anyone if our laws are being stretched?

I don’t want to have our secrets leaked to the press and public, says Issa. But if we don’t give everyone around the world a place to go where they can be heard by a sympathetic ear, then I believe we’ll have that.

“In our republic, we have to bring to it an exception that everyone in Congress have to be able to hear from whistleblowers.” If we can’t make those changes, Issa says, we’re going to have to continue to rely on the press and public disclosure.

Is there a state within the state, a government that the public isn’t allowed to see, a society like the one we see in Three Days of the Condor, Issa asks us. “There really is a state within a state, although it’s not exactly like the movie.”. Whether it’s the ability of the president to kill Americans based on his decision that the person has crossed a line, or whether it’s collecting data, those powers and activities exist.

You want your government to be much more transparent than it is today. And you want your politicians to be more open than they are today. That’s why Issa is involved in the Open Government Initiative.

Ethan gets onto the stage and asks Issa: If the Left doesn’t trust the government because of big business or Right says it’s against business. Ethan: “So what you’re saying is maybe the left and the right can work together on Open Government?” Issa: “Yes: it’s the center we have to worry about.”

Ethan: I appreciate you speaking about the whistleblowing if there is no public trust. But what you are saying is trust me?

ISSA: No, don’t trust me. Trust that you can find somebody within Congress that is extremely on your side and be able to go to that person, rather than be cubby-holed into the person chosen for you. If you’ve got something to say about things going wrong, you should be able to go to a member of Congress and get something done about it.

When we hear that congress has been briefed about something, Issa tells us that there may at some point have been a select committee behind closed doors that may have been briefed on what Snowden was talking about, but there’s no way to know how well they were actually briefed. That, says Issa, is why we need better government transparency.

Why would a “pragmatic anarchist” decide to join the Icelandic parliament and work from within the system? Birgitta Jónsdóttir starts out by telling us that last time she was in the United States was around the time of her co-production of the Wikileaks “Collateral Murder” video. This time, she was advised not to come to the States by the Icelandic State Department and my lawyers in the United States.

“I have known about all these revelations that have come out in the last few weeks of how far the NSA is willing to go.” In early 2011, she was notified by Twitter that it had been served a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice demanding information on her tweets since 2009. She took the next step and brought the case to court.

“I’ve been a resident of the internet since 1995. That is where all my sacred things are.” Jónsdóttir was the first woman in Iceland to work as a web developer.

Jónsdóttir saw an opportunity to join government and do something from the inside after the Icelandic Economic Crisis. It was an opportunity for positive legal change, like “Patriot Patriot Act” in the U.S. to take back the rights lost in the Patriot Act.

A lot of people expect someone else to do their democratic duties; hand it over as if it’s nothing — they don’t even vote. Jónsdóttir thinks it’s very important that when people wake up to something like we’ve seen in the last few weeks, that they have the democratic and legal tools to apply their power. One of the beautiful things about being an activist inside Parliament is that now she can just corner ministers in the cafeteria and there is no way they can escape me; that’s a lot harder when you are on the outside.

Jónsdóttir tells us, “My first political moment, the Citizens Movement, was about democratic reform and transparency. It was kind of a hit or run. We had a check list.” The party dissolved in 2009.

“Political parties are like the Church of Scientology, they are like cults. They are hard to leave. I’m not for that,” says Jónsdóttir. “I think that’s old school politics. I want to find new ways to do things.”

We know that our systems are not working for us. We understand in Iceland that all of our institutions were failing us. And when we asked them to work for us, it rose up like a lion and defended itself. Now we have huge demonstrations in Brazil and Turkey, they are echoing the same thing all over the world: we want the politicians to represent the people.

Jónsdóttir sees herself as an agent of transparency within the Icelandic government, someone who can can pull open the curtain for the public. I like hearing from Congressman Issa working on transparency in the States.

Most people think that the parliaments have all the power in Europe, but others see it as the rubber stamps of the ministers. Laws are written by small groups within the ministries. Jónsdóttir encourages us all to watch the British comedy “Yes, Minister” to see how it works in our system.

Jónsdóttir emphasizes the importance of government transparency. She quotes whistleblower Bradley Manning: “uninformed people can’t take enlightened, informed decisions.”

If we want to be really engaged in our societies, we have to have the facts. If our legislative system is so complicated that they can’t be understand by the public, we are not going to see change.

Jónsdóttir tells us about the Icelandic bill to support press freedom. The legislation came from a group of three out of 63 in the parliament. We took suggestions from the Wikileaks community and looked at the best laws around the world to put together freedom of information and speech in the 21st century. Wikileaks was a good guide because they had scoured the world for these laws and used them to protect their work in different countries under these different, best laws.

“I want to raise the challenge: Why don’t we do the same thing with our online privacy?” asks Jónsdóttir. “I want to see a global group coalesce around this issue so that our online data is as sacred as our offline data.”

When I was working on press freedom laws with IMMI, people said that it was too complicated. But when we analyzed the issue, it was simpler than people thought. Jónsdóttir managed to get these laws through the Parliament with unanimous vote.

Currentely, she’s working on whistleblowing laws based on U.S. whistleblowing laws. “It looks like that we’ll have to throw it away,” she says.

“Since I have such an incredible group with me here today, I would encourage you to go inside — you don’t have to be there very long, service is just a few years — I encourage you to look into the Pirate Parties.” says Jónsdóttir, who created the Icelandic Pirate Party. “I encourage you to make yourself aware of all the political prisoners of the information revolution including Barrett Brown, Bradley Manning… and possibly Edward Snowden.”

ETHAN: Thank you so much for the challenge around privacy. I want to ask you a deeper question: I got from both you and Issa that you need very ethical people to go into government and act as the conduit to transparency. How did you get confidence in government back after the economic crisis in Iceland?

BIRGITTA: There is only 10% trust in the parliament, but there is a true awakening by the public ot be negaged. The way the politicians can gain more trust is to make themselves open to the public.

But I don’t think people will trust government again in the same way. I think we need to create an entirely new system where the people in power can be much more controlled by the technology available. We are creating this in Iceland right now, called Liquid Feedback.

“If we’re in a fight for a free and open internet, I’m a soldier, and I’m going to tell you some war stories,” says Sue Gardner as she gets on stage. Wikipedia, the organization she directs, is the consummate Insider/Outsider. It’s the fifth most visited site and it’s written by normal people. Wikipedia is a tremendous success story, and nobody expected it to turn into what it turned into.

People look to Wikipedia as a model for what we want and wanted the Internet to be. “The problem is that Wikipedia is pretty much alone. It is not the general rule. It is the exception that proves the rule.”

Wikimedia is a non-profit, something that often puzzles Silicon Valley business-people. Do we ever regret not being a for-profit organisation? No. Gardner tells us that the internet should have a shape like the rest of the world. A city has restaurants and shops and banks, but it also has parks and libraries ans schools. Wikipedia is like a park, it’s been to be accessed and used by everybody.

Gardner worries that Wikipedia is alone in this dedication to public space online. There are two non-profits in the top 25 sites she says: Wikipedia and Mozilla. Of these, Wikipedia is the only one supported by donations. This means that most people are consuming for-profit content online, a fact that worries her.

Gardner tells us the story of the Internet Watch Foundation’s attempt to block all of UK Wikipedia in response to the cover art of the Scorpion’s album Virgin Killer. The internet industry wants to remain unregulated. In the UK, there is the Internet Watch Foundation run by retired police looking to keep child pornography off the internet. They received a complaint about an image on Wikipedia: the album cover “Virgin Killer” by a heavy metal band showing an provocative, violent image of a young woman. When they blocked the image, they made it impossible for anyone in the UK to edit Wikipedia. This went on for five days before the IWF backed down, saying that they still thought it was child porn but that they couldn’t ignore the outrage of the fans of Wikipedia.

The implications of this form of censorship for other sites is worrisome. If the album had been hosted on “Joe’s Album Art,” they would have been censored. While this story was playing out, Amazon was selling this album with the image shown on their site. They took the image off their site silently. They simply pulled the album off their shelves worldwide.

“I spend thousands of dollars on Amazon each year; they are fantastic,” says Gardner. “But they are not about protecting freedom of speech online. They are about doing what is good for Amazon.”

The second largest political party in India protested outside of our conference in Mumbai. Inside India, the maps on Wikipedia were illegal since they displayed the disputed borders, whereas you can only show the official borders in India.

There was a chance our staff could be thrown in jail over this– in 2004, the head of Ebay India was jailed for something a user sold on the site. Luckily the issue fizzled out itself. What we didn’t do is take down the map. Wikipedia doesn’t take sides.

Companies tend to take a different stance. When The Economist magazine publishes a map of India, they publish a different map for the Indian edition from the other editions around the world. Other, smaller organizations may not be able to fight like we do. Many of those players who can will be for-profit companies, and they will put their company and profits before principle.

Where do you look for help? “I still don’t think governments are helping… even if they could help, I don’t know if they would” says Gardner. Government listens too much to the entertainment/copyright industries. They might in the future listen to the giant tech companies who are building large lobbying offices in DC.

“I don’t think civic engagement is going to fix the problem anytime soon. I agree with Larry Lessig that it’s structural.”

Gardner returns to her initial observation. “Beyond Wikipedia, I don’t think there are other large, community spaces being created online. We don’t have the participatory garden of eden that we dreamed about.”

Gardner suggests two books for us all to read:

Reading these books, Gardner tells us, we will see that the insiders are winning. They will keep winning unless things change. Gardner encourages us to talk over the course of the conference about how to create an ecosystem that supports dialog, participation, and sharing.

ETHAN: I find this idea of public spaces online to be a rich and thoughtful discussion. What other public spaces do we need?

SUE: There are lots of interesting things happening but are not getting the traction that they need. Khan Academy is super interesting. There are small projects that deserve to do better. The weighting in the ecosystem is wrong. How people are spending their time does not allow a framework that we already wanted. Tim Wu talks about the dawn of every new communication medium, we thought that they were going to be about sharing all the time. I was watching CNN this morning and was appalled. Everything should be more like Wikipedia: a lot more sharing and information getting out to people.


ETHAN: To Issa, can I get you to engage with this idea of public spaces online and how this engages with the idea of public companies creating a great deal of wealth?

ISSA: It’s a free economy. You can have a website for 2 dollars a month. TV became what people want to pay for. They watched endless Soap commercials to pay for I Love Lucy. Wikipedia is a great site because it creates a great service. One of the questions politicians always have to come to grips with is why aren’t people voting for me? You get the votes you earn. The beauty of the internet is that it’s all public parks; it’s all virtually free. How do we drive more success stories? The next X will be non-commercial if people want to go to it.

SUE: I wish that were true. I’m very conscious of people using Wikipedia as a model proving that it’s possible. When it was founded, it was an early space with land grabs, where that was feasible. I don’t think that is as feasible anymore. I used to wonder what the problem was. Why are we getting more stuff created that is purpose built to serve the public? I think it’s the incentives.

ISSA: So your argument is that no one is building the software not that no one is going there.

SUE: Yes. If you’re an engineer with a great idea, what incentives exist for that? Typically, you can go to investors, who will give you money to create a for-profit venture. Either you work towards an IPO on the stock market, or you try to get acquired by a large company. There isn’t much space for getting support for public goods. Although there are things like B-corps, there are very few incentives and paths for engineers who want to create public goods.

BIRGITTA: One thing that is forgotten in this debate, is where to people go is in part a function of places like Facebook making it different to move your things from it to other more activist spaces. Games on Facebook are is addiction-based like Coca Cola and McDonalds. Although we use Facebook to mobilise people, it’s an unhealthy basis for organising.

We had a chance to build a brand new world online, and now it’s being industrialized and destroyed like our societies.

ETHAN: Is there is a need for a facebook that is a public park rather than about addiction to games about flowers?

BIRGITTA: Absolutely. It’s like watching the Rainforests die. The tension between the IMMI is about a blogger in Tibet, we create a haven so that his stuff can remain up, but we can’t protect that person, but this was not intended for the physical.

ISSA: Sue living in the Bay Area, social responsibility is a big reward. How many know a social responsible software engineer? How many donate 4 hours or more a week of their talent to work on socially responsible projects? Fewer. If people like Zuckerberg donated 4 hours a week, how many more programmers would be there? I think we can get there the same way we go to public parks, they were built often by volunteers at the local level.

Susan MacGregor, assistant professor at the Columbia Journalism School: I wanted to address the point you brought up about access. We don’t have high-speed internet in vast tracts of the United STates. I think it’s a false argument to say that the Internet is this free and open space. Lots of people can’t easily access the Internet. Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. Isn’t there a similar case for the Internet?

ISSA: I’ll be the contrarian again. Ike built the backbone of the highway system because he saw how Hitler? mobilized the roadways for tanks. In 2001, the gold standard for internet was Korea at 256K. The internet will always be too damn slow for people. Has it been rolled out virtually everywhere? The answer is yes except for some parts of rural America. I’m not happy unless I have 20 up and 20 down. The hubs of infrastructure was around defense.

Issa says that getting government funding is like getting in bed with the devil. Although 501c3 get benefits, they don’t get it from the government. As 501c3s, organizations get a huge government subsidy to give to a nonprofit but I don’t have to go to the government to get it.

BIRGITTA: I think internet access is a basic human right. If peopl don’t have access to it how can people participate in the online community we are trying to build? I was traveling in the US on the West coast, I assumed that ti would have constant contact on my phone. But as soon as I got in

I went to the Internet Archive, and Brewster Kahle told me that he had created a tower for free internet access around the offices but was told to take it down.

ISSA: First, drop ATT and get Verizon when you are in the States. We have multiple options in the States. Every time we sell a new chunk of the cellular bandwidth

If you want high speed internet, then you’ve got to ask for unlicensed spectrum to be made available.

If I sell off the bandwidth, I can pay off a few minutes of the budget deficit, but only that. We should be making unlicensed bandwidth available for use and for innovation.

ETHAN: It looks like the solution for us in Western Mass. is going to be a combination of public and non-profit work on deploying internet through the public libraries and over WiMax.

QUESTION: Where does the public opinion come into this picture? Are you talking about new whistleblower laws or a free-for-all where the public decides what information is relevant?

SUE: I was a journalist so I have bias toward transparency and against secrecy. My mother asked me if I ran WikiLeaks. I had a lot of questions when I started looking into WikiLeaks. I wanted to know to what extent they were protecting the people submitting content.

I am against secrecy and I don’t think it’s a level playing field. I don’t think we people express anxiety about being protected, I don’t think that’s based on objective evidence. I’m a Canadian. And she found the level of discourse on Snowden really low.

Ideally, we would be basing our decisions on great evidence unearthed by great media.

BIRGITTA: I volunteered for Wikileaks and was a spokesperson for the organization for a very short time. I don’t speak to Assange on a regular basis.

We don’t have a military establishment and didn’t have a 9/11 in Iceland. But it did affect the rest of the world.

All meetings in the foreign affairs committee in the parliament were secret. They changed that with a change in party recently to make the default open. 95% of the meetings were open. I think there has been a cult of secrecy where it is unneeded. And within secrecy breeds corruption.

Snowden is going to be charged as a spy telling us information that is relevant to everyone in the world, that we are being spied on.

ISSA: No generation, if they care about freedom, can leave the next generation safety at the price of freedom and an open society. The threat of totalitarian leadership is worse.

Within a Constitutional framework, it’s essential that there is enough transparency to make a decision about you confidence in elected officials.

Issa tells us about “Black Cow Eating Licorice At Midnight” — These are all black pieces of paper with redacted information. The government redacts too much, not to protect security, but to keep itself from being embarrassed.

In the case of Benghazi, Issa had access to emails about the State Department and CIA’s actions in Benghazi. Although the emails were unclassified, they were classified in total, and he subpoenaed and published the emails.

Issa tells us that in any case of whistleblowing, we can respond with two questions: 1) did the government overstep its bounds, and 2) is there a way that we can allow people to go to congress and find an advocate on this issue?

Catria O’Neill: My mom’s a teacher. What’s your advice to people that are regular internet users to be better internet stewards?

SUE: It used to be that nobody let anybody use Wikipedia in the classroom. There is no question in my mind that we have access to more information than ever before. We forget that when we hear about how the internet has broken the business model of the journalism industry. But we still have lots of great information coming out online. My advice is for people to become contributors, become participants in the public spaces of the internet. Get your mom to have her students be editors on Wikipedia.

BIRGITTA: Stop using Google. Google is choosing for you. There are many good alternatives. Create communities. I love the internet so much. It is such an integrated part of my life. It enabled to work with people all over the world and share knowledge and do good things for society. That’s why I want to protect my “home.” The kids growing up don’t know a world outside of the internet, I want to protect them. And nobody is going to read the user agreements. Have people do projects that are in the wiki spirit. I like th idea of how we can contribute to our societies through democracy.

ISSA: To your mother, public education is stuck in a luddite past. If your mother wants to really embrace, the first thing is tear down the barrier that makes textbooks really expensive. Your mother can created 1, 2, 50 splash pages that point her students to good material online. Any course can be taught using free information online if you do the prescreening of content beforehand. You can get better, more topical material than textbooks. Move your entire curriculum online.