Posts about publicness

Shifting the discussion to principles

The good news about the White House’s response to an anti-SOPA petition is that it raised the discussion to the level of principles, arguing against “disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet.” That is where it needs to be.

The bad news, as Tim O’Reilly eloquently explores, is that the White House makes a gross and unsubstantiated assumption:

Let us be clear—online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios. While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders.

O’Reilly responds:

In the entire discussion, I’ve seen no discussion of credible evidence of this economic harm. . . . In my experience at O’Reilly, the losses due to piracy are far outweighed by the benefits of the free flow of information, which makes the world richer, and develops new markets for legitimate content. Most of the people who are downloading unauthorized copies of O’Reilly books would never have paid us for them anyway. . . .

As I wrote in What Would Google Do, novelist Paulo Coelho found that piracy spread his name and reputation and found him new readers in new lands …. so he pirated himself and sold more books. The man has sold more than 100 million.

This part of the discussion — the justification for SOPA and PIPA in whatever form — needs to be based on principles and on facts.

The question of fact is difficult to answer as it is an attempt to prove a negative: How do we know how many copies of a work pirates would have bought if they hadn’t pirated? How do we know how many more people discovered and bought a work because it was pirated? How do we differentiate between shrinking industry sales caused by piracy or by a new abundance of competition?

The matter of principles is this: Where will the White House and government put their priorities: in protecting the interests of a shrinking industry or in protecting the interests of innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic expansion? Will they favor protecting the interests of a closed industry or the freedom of speech?

That is why we must raise this discussion to the level of principles. That is why I wrote Public Parts, to help spark a discussion of principles. These, once more, are the principles of publicness and an open society I propose in the book:

I. We have the right to connect.
If we cannot connect, we cannot speak. That is a new and necessary preamble to our First Amendment. Finland has declared internet access—high-speed at that—as a right of citizens. Whether countries should subsidize and provide access is a separate question. But once access is established, cutting it off should be seen as a violation of human rights. That’s what a 2011 United Nations report said. “It’s now a basic human right to have internet,” [former] Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer told media executives in the Middle East. “Systematic denial of freedom of accessing information will lead to a revolution.”

II. We have the right to speak.
Freedom of speech is our cultural and legal default in the United States. That First Amendment protection should extend not just to information and opinions delivered by text but also to information delivered by applications and data. Yes, there need to be ­limitations—on child pornography online, for example. But beware the unintended consequences of attacking a specific problem with an overly broad response. To fight child porn, Australia proposed mandatory filters to block content—filters that could be used against any content. We cannot manage everything to the worst case, to that which might offend someone, to that which could happen. We must not live by the lowest common denominator of fear and offense and the highest watermark of regulation, diminishing our most precious right of speech in the process.

III. We have the right to assemble and to act.
It is not enough to speak. Our tools of publicness enable us to organize, to gather together—virtually or physically—and to act as a group to demonstrate or to build.

IV. Privacy is an ethic of knowing.
We need protection of privacy. We also need to adapt our norms of privacy to new social tools and behaviors so we can better understand when something is said in confidence, when information should not be used without consent, what the harm is of spreading information, and how to give people more control of their information.

V. Publicness is an ethic of sharing.
The foundation of a more public society is the principle of sharing: recognizing the benefits of generosity, building tools that facilitate it, and protecting the product of it.

VI. Our institutions’ information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
Openness is a better way to govern and a smarter way to do business.

VII. What is public is a public good.
When public information or the public space is diminished, the public loses. Secrecy too often serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

VIII. All bits are created equal.
When anyone gains the power to decide which bits, words, images, or ideas can or cannot pass freely through our network, it is no longer free.

IX. The internet must stay open and distributed.
“Let’s give credit to the people who foresaw the internet, opened it up, designed it so it would not have significant choke points, and made it possible for random people including twenty-four-year-olds in a dorm to enter and create,” says Eric Schmidt.

Most relevant to the discussion of SOPA are the last two. If anyone restricts any bit — whether that is China restricting searches or India restricting what it says is offensive content or the U.S. restricting what someone calls piracy — then no bits can be assured to be free. If the architecture of the net is altered to enable the U.S. government to block alleged pirates, then any government can use that power to block anything.

My response to the White House’s response is to ask what is more important: protectionism for a fading industry or the future of speech?

Jon Stewart & SOPA (please)

Got to see The Daily Show taping tonight (more on that in a minute) and in the pre-show conversation with Jon Stewart, an audience member said he was sent by The Internet to ask about SOPA. Stewart professed (not feigned, I think) ignorance, asking whether that was net neutrality, and excusing himself, what with their “heads being up their asses” in the election and all. But he said he’d do his homework and he looked at writer Steve Bodow when he said that. Let’s hope he comes out loud.

Confidential to Mr. Stewart: The problem here is that [cough] your industry, entertainment, is trying to give power the power to blacklist and turn off sites if they’re so much as accused of “pirating” (their word, not ours) content. This changes the fundamental architecture of the net, giving *government* the power and means to kill sites for this and then other reasons. That threatens to destroy this, our greatest tool of publicness (book plug). So please, sir we need your force of virtue to beat down this, another evil. On behalf of The Internet, thank you.

Very public health

Watching the remarkable Xeni Jardin tweet her mammogram and cancer diagnosis, then blog eloquently about it, then crowdsource opening up her own MRI data makes me ask: Why are we so secretive about sickness and health? And what do we lose because we are?

The answers to the first questions are fairly obvious. First, we keep our sicknesses secret, we say, because we fear we could lose insurance. Except insurance companies force us to reveal our medical histories anyway. And let’s hope that Obamacare — may it survive the Supreme Court — succeeds in outlawing the denial of health coverage due to preexisting conditions. Next, we fear that we could lose jobs. Except in cases where a condition would affect job safety, shouldn’t employers be told that they cannot discriminate on the basis of health? Whether or not society chooses to address these issues through legislation, my point is that it’s possible to do so.

The other reason we keep sickness secret — the bigger reason — is stigma. We don’t want people to know we’re ill. But in this day and age, why should anyone be ashamed of being sick? To be clear, I am not saying that anyone should ever be forced to reveal health information. But why should our norms, stigmas, and economic considerations force us not to reveal it?

Imagine if we didn’t feel compelled to hide our illnesses. Imagine if we could be open about our health. What good could come of that?

We could learn more about correlations, which could yield information about causation and even cures. Given large data sets, we could find out that people who get a disease share common behaviors or characteristics. We might gain the opportunity to discover an environmental cause to a local outbreak of, say, breast cancer, enabling a community to fix the condition and prevent more cases.

Of course, I want to emphasize the conditional: correlation *could* help. One data point is never meaningful: That I’ve contracted one heart condition and two cancers since being at the World Trade Center on 9/11 is meaningless — unless there are many others in the same boat, and even then, one mustn’t jump to conclusions about causation. Still, more data is always better than less.

With openness about health, we could do a better job connecting people who share conditions to get information and support and each other. I am on the board of Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, and at our last meeting, I was struck by the barriers that stigmas put in the way of young people getting the organization’s help. I heard how getting our software on iPods has helped more kids use the service because they no longer have to carry around a special device that marks them as different — stigma. I heard a mother say that school officials warned her that her child would be labeled — stigma — if she got him appropriate services, but she said she’d eagerly embrace the label if it got her son the help he needed.

On my blog, I’ve been in a debate about the recommendation by a government panel that men shouldn’t be given the blood test for prostate cancer anymore because, statistically, it hasn’t been shown to save lives. That’s because medical science can’t yet distinguish between fast- and slow-growing prostate cancer. I say men should get the test. I say we should be talking openly about our prostates as women have fought to talk about breast cancer. More information and communication is always better than less.

The real question is what men choose to do when they find out — through a biopsy following the blood test — that they have cancer. Perhaps more men should choose what the doctors call watchful waiting over surgery. But, you see, the problem is that we don’t have *enough* data to make a good decision. I want to know, based on the largest possible population, how long it took prostate cancer to spread after it was found. Then I could decide how long to watch and wait. But I don’t have that information. So I chose to get the cancer out of me. I could make that choice only because I had the test. I had my own data. If I had the data of millions more men, I could make wiser decisions.

How could get get more data?

Step one is to encourage men to talk about their prostates — and, yes, sorry, their penises — so we disarm the stigma about it and get more men to be aware and get tested and share their experience.

Step two is to create the means to open up and share as much health information as possible so researchers, doctors, and hackers can dig into it and find correlations and patterns and questions worth pursuing, perhaps leading to answers.

When I talk about the principles of an open society in Public Parts, this is what I mean. Rather than reflexively declaring that sharing information about ourselves — our bodies as well as our thoughts and actions — is dangerous, we must stand back and ask what benefit could come from such data, now that we have better technological means to open it up, gather it, and analyze it.

Only then can we balance the benefits and risks and decide, as a society, how open we want to be, how open we should and need to be — and why. That is the kind of discussion about privacy and our changing norms I’d like to hear. Let’s not just talk about what can go wrong now but also what could go right.

: LATER: Some added links:
* Larry Smarr quantifying his own health.
* On being a medical data donor.
* Give us access to our own health data, online.

FTC Fines Santa Claus Over COPPA Violations

WASHINGTON–Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz today announced a record fine against Santa Claus for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

“Mr. Claus has flagrantly violated children’s privacy, collecting their consumer preferences for toys and also tracking their behavior so as to judge and maintain a data base of naughtiness and niceness,” Leibowitz said. “Worse, he has tied this data to personally identifiable information, including any child’s name, address, and age. He has solicited this information online, in some cases passing data to third parties so they may fulfill children’s wishes. According to unconfirmed reports, he has gone so far as to invade children’s homes in the dead of night. He has done this on a broad scale, unchallenged by government authorities for too long.”

Claus was fined $2 million and ordered to end any contact with children. Prior COPPA fines include $1 million against now-virtually-unknown social site Xanga, $400,000 against UMG Recordings, and $35,000 against notorious toymaker Etch-a-Sketch.

The FTC action follows similar complaints against Claus brought by European privacy authorities. European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding has complained about Claus holding data on children outside of EU data-protection standards in North Pole server farms. German head of consumer protection Ilse Aigner has called for an investigation of Claus’ use of Google Street View in navigating his Christmas Eve visits. German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Peter Schaar has demanded that Claus give children, naughty or nice, the right to be forgotten in his data base. And Thilo Weichert, head of the privacy protection office in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, demanded that German web sites take down any Facebook “Like” button referring to Claus.

Meanwhile, Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has attempted to bring together an international coalition of privacy officers opposed to Claus’ practices. In California, Claus has been threatened with severe penalties for nonpayment of the state sales tax. And the UK has vowed that Claus will be detained and could face extradition should he set foot in any English chimneys on Christmas Eve.

Reaction to the FTC decision was mixed in Washington. Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry vowed to kill the Federal Trade Commission, relieved that he had finally recalled the final agency he had marked for death. Rival Newt Gingrich suggested that Claus apply for U.S. citizenship, “having contributed much to U.S. industry by stimulating greed at all ages; we need more Clauses and more spending to fix this Democrat-ruined economy.” Ron Paul suggested that Claus set up a Liberatarian nation at the North Pole and offered to run for office there. Herman Cain, whose candidacy remains on hold after allegations of sexual improprieties, said that he “always wondered why the old coot didn’t get in hot water for plopping kiddies on his lap; seemed a lot creepier than anything I ever did.” President Barack Obama refused comment.

From his North Pole headquarters, Claus said through a spokesman that he endeavored only to fulfill children’s dreams. “I regret that the world has come to this: treating any adult who wants to make a child happy as a dangerous stranger,” he said. “The problem with our modern world is not technology but fear, suspicion, and cynicism.” He vowed to continue his Christmas mission of joy. “What’s the worst they can do to me?” he asked, “cookie me?”

Contact: Elfelman Public Relations
Photo via Dreadcentral

Occupy #OccupyWallStreet

It is time for Twitter and its citizens to take back #OccupyWallStreet.

I say that with no disrespect to the efforts and sacrifices of the people who have taken the hashtag literally and moved into Wall Street and cities around the world, confronting the institutions — financial, government, and media — they blame for our crisis.

To the contrary, I say it’s time to carry their work back to our virtual society, where it began, to expand the movement so Michael Bloomberg and his downtown goombas and mayors and cops cannot think that they are able throw it away in a garbage truck; so banks cannot hope to return to their old ways; so media cannot think that it can dismiss #OWS as fringe (see the BBC and the FT each calling the movement “anti-capitalist” when many of us say the real goal is to reclaim capitalism from its crooks).

It is much bigger than the scores of occupants in each city. But that still raises the question of what “it” is.

That is where I believe Twitter can grow and give shape to the movement. There we can answer the question, What are we mad as hell about (should that be a hashtag debate: #why…)? There we can organize no end of irritants for institutions (we can play whack-a-mole with the banks’ rip-off fees and leave them as customers). There we can hold politicians to account.

Some have argued that #OWS will not grow up as a movement until it becomes an institution and has leadership and spokesmen and unified goals and messages and even candidates for office.

Heaven forbid.

#OccupyWallStreet, in my view, is anti-institutional in that it is fighting institutional power and corruption and in that it is not an institution itself. I believe the value of #OWS is that it enables us to say how and why we’re angry and to make the powerful come to us and beg us for forgiveness, not to join their games.

#OccupyWallStreet, the hashtag revolution, establishes us, the public, as an entity to be reckoned with. It is a tool of publicness.

So I support #OWS becoming less literal — let Michael J Bloomberg tear down the tents — and more amorphous, more difficult to define and dismiss and shut down.

#OccupyWallStreet started on Twitter and spread to the streets. Now it’s time come back online and spread further.

Why are you mad as hell? And what are you going to do about it? That is #OWS’ challenge to us all.

Debate on privacy: the fuller text

The Wall Street Journal today publishes excerpts from a debate among me, danah boyd, Stewart Baker, and Christopher Soghoian about privacy (and publicness). They had us write to specific lengths, so I was surprised that they didn’t publish the entire conversation, even online. So if you can bear more, here are my complete bits; I’ll let me fellow debaters post their own.

Later: Here are danah boyd’s complete answers.

Part I:

Privacy is important. It deserves protection. And it is receiving protection from no end of self-appointed watchdogs, legislators, regulators, consultants, companies, and chief privacy officers: an entire regulatory/industrial complex. Privacy is in good hands.

It’s publicness I worry about: our corresponding right and newfound ability to use this Gutenberg press we all now own—the internet—to speak, assemble, act, connect, and collaborate in a more open society. I fear that that if we over-regulate privacy, managing only to the worst-case, we could lose sight of the benefits of publicness, the value of sharing.

Our new sharing industry—led by Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Foursquare, blogs, and new services launched every day—is premised on an innate human desire to connect. Eight hundred million people can’t be wrong. That’s how many people use Facebook alone to post more than a billion artifacts of their lives every day. These aren’t privacy services. They are social services.

But the private/public discussion to date has focused almost exclusively on privacy and worry. New technologies that cause disruption have often led to collective concern about privacy. After the invention of the press, the earliest published authors fretted about having their thoughts associated with their names, set down permanently and distributed widely. The first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in the United States did not come until 1890, spurred by the invention of the portable Kodak camera and the rise of the penny press. For a time, President Teddy Roosevelt banned “kodakers” from Washington parks.

Now we are at the dawn of the greatest technological disruption since the press and it brings corresponding concern. It is well to worry about what could go wrong so we may guard against it, to assure that companies and especially government do not surveil us to our detriment.

But I ask us to also recognize and guard the publicness our new tools empower. I hope we engage in another discussion about the principles of an open society: the right to connect, speak, assemble and act; privacy as an ethic; the call for our institutions to become transparent by default and secret by necessity (now it is reversed); the value of maintaining the public square; and the need to safeguard the people’s net from tyrants, censors, private control, and the unintended consequences of well-meaning but premature regulation.

Privacy has its protectors. What of publicness?

Part II:

Privacy legislation and regulation are awash with unintended consequences.

Germany’s head of consumer protection, Ilse Aigner, surely believes she is guarding citizens’ privacy when she urges them to exercise their Verpixelungsrecht, their so-called right to have photos of buildings taken from public streets pixilated in Google Street View. But she sets a precedent that could affect the free-speech rights of journalists and citizens. She diminishes the public square at the public’s cost.

The U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act says sites may not use information specific to a child under 13 without written (that is, faxed, scanned, or videoconferenced) parental consent. The result: Children learn to lie about their age. And young people are likely the worst-served sector of society online. That is a tragedy of lost opportunity.

The Do Not Track legislation making its way through Congress threatens ad tracking and cookies. This newspaper demonizes them as “intrusive” and “intensive surveillance.” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz denounces media that use them as “cyberazzi.” Though most of this data is anonymous. Taken too far, Do Not Track could devalue online media, resulting in less content, more pay walls, and a less-informed populace. The road to ignorance may be paved with good intentions.

Part III:

Stipulated: Anonymity, pseudonymity, and even nicknames need to be protected for the vulnerable, dissidents in danger, whistleblowers, and even game players, for the sake of their speech.

That said, real people and real relationships have proven to add value, accountability, and civility to online discourse.

Stipulated: The advertising, media, and sharing industries have done a dreadful job being open about what they track, why, and what benefits accrue to their users. The mess they’re in is much of their own making.

Even so, online tracking is being demonized in shrill fear-mongering (Chris’ is but one example), which doesn’t acknowledge that most of this data—unlike the consumer data bases of preinternet marketing—do not contain names and addresses. There is little discussion of harm or benefit, only vague fear.

Stipulated: We need to come together as one society to perform certain functions, such as voting and taxation.

But we are not a mass. The myth of the grand shared experience of media—all of us hanging on Uncle Walter’s every pause—was an unfortunate, half-century-long aberration. Democracy should be a cacophony of ideas and perspectives. Thanks to our new tools of publicness, we are regaining the power to create and find our own publics.

Identity can aid connections. Tracking can produce relevance. Personalization can reduce noise. These are benefits of the net.

Our notion of nations

Consider: I a matter of a year, the leaders of Italy, Greece, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia have all been ousted not in the normal course of governance and not at the polls. Who’s in charge there? In the Middle EAst, it’s the people, at last (but can they retain power?). In Europe, its bondholders and neighboring nations. Meanwhile, in Spain and the #occupywallstreet movements, disgruntled, disorganized citizens are making their voices heard. In Iceland they’re rewriting their constitution using Facebook.

What is becoming of our notion of nations?

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Georges Papandreou’s short-lived threat to hold a plebiscite over the EU’s insistence of austerity as a condition of bail from fiscal jail set off a debate among the paper’s editor, Frank Schirrmacher; the esteemed political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and economic writer Rainer Hank.

Far be it from me to translate the language or its subtleties and ironies, but it’s clear that they are debating who’s in charge in Europe: government? bond-holders and bankers? the people? Hank notes that “the governments of Europe are under dual supervision.” He questions whether Europe is facing “dictatorship of the people versus dictatorship of financial markets” or a question of “democracy versus rule of law.”

At the same time I (tried to) read all that, Martin Gurri wrote a most eloquent review of and rumination on Public Parts (his son, Adam, happened to do likewise). Gurri père raises many thoughtful points about the value of publicness and its support of trust. I recommend reading both posts. But for purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on Martin Gurri’s trepidation about government. To quote:

In the existential struggle between the public and the old structures of authority, Jarvis is a participant, not an observer.  At times, he makes it sound as if the public can bypass authority and strike out on its own.  The larger argument of Public Parts, however, is that the conflict can only be resolved when authority regains the public’s trust by aligning its practices with those of the new information environment.  Though optimistic in tone, Jarvis doesn’t directly venture an opinion about the cost of this transformation, possibly because he views it as inevitable.  In the manner of a conqueror he proclaims, “Resistance is futile.”

It’s an easy guess that the collision with the public will transform the old institutions.  The question is the social and political pain involved:  whether the process will resemble gradual evolution or, as I suspect, an extinction event.  (There are those who theorize that such a cataclysm has already struck the global economy.)

Because of their immense inherited weight, business and government have a vested interest in inertia.  In this context, resistance may be futile in the long term, but rational for the moment.  As an old government hand, I can attest to the accuracy of Jarvis’ portrayal of the bureaucracy – but he fails to note the profound emotional investment in existing institutions by the people who inhabit them.  Even the most up-to-date bureaucrats, in my experience, will resist the advance of the public until retirement day.
Bending the massive structures of authority to the ideals promoted in Public Parts may well be impossible without a traumatic fracturing of the status quo.

And a traumatic fracturing of the state itself?

That is the question I want to raise here: Are we seeing such cracks begin to open before our eyes?

Is Europe’s crisis of economics and government structure — even of the legitimacy and power of government — a signal?

Is the Arab Spring and its ability to tear down government without a clear notion of what will be built in its place an opportunity to rethink government?

Is Iceland as a startup nation a legitimate effort to show that course?

Did Spain attempt to organize a revolution without organization?

Is #occupywallstreet an effort to reassert the authority of the people outside the structure of politics and government? (Some say they make a mistake not becoming overtly political with candidates and platforms. I am coming to believe they are right to stand outside government and demand attention and reform from that distance. Its platform perspective might be: ‘We don’t want to get any on us.’)

Will we question the idea of what a nation is? Are Greece and Italy still sovereign nations when bankers can overthrow their governments and neighbors can dictate the terms of governance? Are the hashtag rebels of Spain then the U.S. then other nations establishing a new society (albeit one even more unsure in its structure than Egypt’s and Tunisia’s next forms)?

Says Gurri Senior:

Particularly unsettling are the prospects for government.  The extraordinary outcomes today demanded from politics, Paul Ormerod has shown, lie beyond the reach of human power.  We simply don’t know how to “solve” unemployment or inequality.  The more we expect to impose such outcomes on a complex world, the deeper our disenchantment will be.  Transparency and citizen participation, in such circumstances, will only aggravate the friction between a triumphant public and its failed institutions.  Modern government, outwardly so imposing, will be revealed in its nakedness to be a feeble and incapable organ, unable to rise to the hopes of the citizenry.  The consequence is likely to be turbulence for every ruling principle, including liberal democracy.

Gurri might have begun wondering whether I went to far. Then he went even farther.

Power to the public

Two good, anecdotal illustrations of the power that our tools of publicness give to us, the public.

* Bank of America customer Molly Katchpole collected 300,000 names in an online petition against the bank’s ripoff $5 debit card charge and beat down the behemoth. True, the banks have been guilty of greater ripoffs, but this is still a victory for the customers as a community over the corporation.

It’s one matter for individual customers to resort to blogs and Twitter (as I have) to get satisfaction from companies. It’s another for customers to be able to organize without organizations. Before the net, customers couldn’t have created their own instant network of protest. The net empowers them.

So now companies don’t just need to hire people to watch Twitter and blogs and put out fires. Now they have to fear that their abusive policies will become the subject of large-scale, instant protests. Any company whose business model still depends on holding us prisoner to its policies — banks, cable companies, telcos, airlines, insurance companies — had best learn a lesson.

* And bravo to the kid who recorded and posted the psycho rant of a high-school football coach in suburban Memphis. Yes, some might argue that the coach’s privacy was violated. I say ridiculous. The coach thought he could get away with abusing the children in his care behind closed doors, but now, thanks to a phone and the net, the children can fight back by making his abuses public. Even the coach appears to have learned a lesson.