Department of Veterans Affairs releases progressive, structured social media policy

In 2011, it might feel a little late for federal agencies to be issuing social media policies. How governments use social media has shifted from a niche concern, debated by new media and policy wonks, to an issue that makes international headlines when global leaders alternately decry or celebrate the impact of connection technologies upon their countries.

Think again.

As anyone who has worked in a federal bureaucracy will tell you, squaring usage policies with rules, regulations and laws is a fundamental need if there’s going to be any progress towards 21st century governance.

“One of the biggest, long-standing complaints about VA is how it’s an opaque, monolithic bureaucracy that doesn’t respond to the needs of vets,” writes Brandon Friedman (@BrandonF), director of online communications for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in an email today. “We’re finally putting a human face on it. Everything we post on our blog or our main Facebook page or Twitter feed has a name attached to it. This shows even the largest, slow-moving federal agencies can make progress in becoming more agile and responsive.”

There’s also a matter of default for usage of these tools: open, versus closed. Consider that the emphasis below is the VA’s:

The use of Web-based collaboration tools such as social media tools is highly encouraged. Web-based collaboration is intended for information sharing within and outside of VA. To increase accountability, promote informed participation by the public, and create economic opportunity, the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law and subject to the exclusions noted in this Directive or other policy)

The entire policy, which has to be considered progressive for an organization with military DNA, is embedded below or available as a PDF. Given the stance that other federal agencies have taken recently on social media usage, this policy is not a watershed but is extremely important to over 300,000 VA employees and the millions veterans they serve. If access to Internet-based capabilities is critical at the Department of Defense, similar access for veterans is important.

Today’s announcement also serves as a reminder that the VA has come a long way in a short time, particularly in the context of an enormous government institution. “Less than two years ago, VA’s primary method of engagement with the public consisted of telephone calls and the USPS,” wrote Friedman. “Today, hundreds of thousands of veterans can get help navigating the bureaucracy via social media. We can also make a direct difference in peoples’ lives. One example I use concerns suicidal ideation on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve actually intervened in at least half a dozen instances where veterans have talked about killing themselves. We’ve been able to jump in and link them up with assistance. As we always say here, it’s about leveraging new technology to get the right information to the right veteran at the right time. For so long, many veterans have lost out on the benefits to which they’re entitled because they weren’t even aware of them—or they didn’t want to deal with a complex bureaucracy. Social media allows us to get them the information and to help ease the transition from the military into the VA system.”

It’s an important shift. Next up? Work to leverage technology better to reduce the backlog in veterans’ benefit applications and help vets who have returned from service abroad get back to work in a down economy.

Getting social with security and privacy

Embedded in this policy is are security and privacy provisions that instruct to the deputy assistant secretary for information security to issue an information protection policy, do a risk assessment, provide patching, training and a “Trusted Internet Connection” for the desktop images of VA users.

There is also instruction for the director of the VA privacy service to address policy concerns and to public affairs, granting “the authority to disapprove any outward-facing content on official VA blogs and social media sites which do not meet accepted standards of quality,” along with audits to ensure same.

For a deeper dive into what social media means to the military, read this talk on connection technologies and global organizations. It’s by U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Roughead, a title which effectively makes him the “CEO” of that global enterprise. He talked about “burning the boats” as the Navy enters this operational space — an extremely powerful metaphor, given his occupation — but perhaps a fitting one, given that achieving and maintaining situational awareness in a changing information environment has become a strategic capability.

As the VA looks to support the considerable needs of the men and women who have served their country, it looks like social media will be a part of the plumbing that connects them together.

Department of Veterans Affairs Social Media Policy//

Social Security describes new online public credentialing and authentication process

In an announcement published in today’s Federal Register, the Social Security Administration requested comments and feedback on a proposed information collection method. Specifically, Social Security is exploring what the best way will be to identify citizens who who wish to access more electronic services benefit information online.

NextGov reported the driving need for this system yesterday: Social Security statements will go online …someday. According to Alan Lane, the agency’s associate chief information officer for open government, the agency has are no specific service plans at this time – nor is there a firm deadline for the statements going online. The Federal Register notice has much more detail and is quoted at length below.

Here’s some additional background, before you dive into the announcement below. For an agency like Social Security, taking careful steps into the Information Age isn’t just wise: it’s mandatory. The agency has enormous amounts of confidential data about American citizens. Rushing online holds considerable risks but carefully engaging there will be inevitable if Social Security is to embrace Gov 2.0.

In 2011, the Social Security Administration ranks as the largest government program by dollars paid in the United States federal government. It surpasses even discretionary defense and Medicare/Medicaid spending in the federal budget. As the 21st century dawns, new technology and a mandate for open government from the Obama administration provide an opportunity for the Social Security Administration to “reboot its relationship with the American people,” as its CIO, Frank Baitman, put it last last year.

Whether Social Security can better deliver on its mission through adopting social media, more data, better e-services and mobile technologies is an open question. Authentication and credentialing of citizens online is an important part of that progress. Online identity is a matter of plumbing, so to speak, but getting it right is no less important than real plumbing in a house.

Leaks are potentially catastrophic.

That’s why the United States national strategy for online identity is both complex and worth watching. Citizens and government alike need this to work if e-government services are to match their offline components. Getting this wrong would be disastrous, given the rise of identity theft across the nation.

Given how many more of those citizens will be retiring in the years ahead, providing e-services may not be a “nice-to-have” option. According to Social Security’s estimates, by 2036, there will be almost twice as many older Americans as today, from 41.9 million to 78.1 million. They’ll want to access their information online. Today, we learned a bit more about how the agency is thinking about getting there.

1. Social Security’s Public Credentialing and Authentication
Process–20 CFR 401.45–0960-NEW. Social Security is introducing a
stronger citizen authentication process that will enable a new user to
experience and access more electronic services.


Authentication is the foundation for secure, online transactions.
Identity authentication is the process of determining with confidence
that people are who they claim to be during a remote, automated
session. It comprises three distinct factors: something you know,
something you have, and something you are. Single-factor authentication uses one of
these factors, and multi-factor authentication uses two or more of
these factors.

SSA’s New Authentication Process:

Social Security’s new process features credential issuance, account
management, and single- and multi-factor authentication. With this
process, we are working toward offering consistent authentication
across Social Security’s secured online services, and eventually to
Social Security’s automated telephone services. We will allow our users
to maintain one User ID, consisting of a self-selected Username and
Password, to access multiple Social Security electronic services. This
new process: 1) enables the authentication of users of Social
Security’s sensitive electronic services, and 2) streamlines access to
those services.

Social Security is developing a new authentication strategy that

G8: the Internet has become the public arena for our time

President Barack Obama and other world leaders walk to the first working session at the G8 summit in Deauville, France, May 26, 2011. Pictured, from left are: European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso; President Obama; French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper; Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and British Prime Minister David Cameron. May 26, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama and other world leaders walk to the first working session at the G8 summit in Deauville, France, May 26, 2011. Pictured, from left are: European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso; President Obama; French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper; Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and British Prime Minister David Cameron. May 26, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

At this year’s meeting of the “Group of 8” (G8) nations in France, a declaration about the Arab Spring included a “Deauville Partnership” with the people of the Middle East to support the growth of “democratic, open societies and inclusive economic modernisation.”

For the first time, the 2011 G-8 Summit included discussion of the Internet as a top-level issue, alongside the ongoing conflict in Libya, economic growth, nuclear safety, climate change, foreign aid and national security.

The G8 released an official communique that pledging renewed commitment for freedom and democracy that included a substantial section on the Internet. The communique included this summary of the principles discussed:

We discussed new issues such as the Internet which are essential to our societies, economies and growth. For citizens, the Internet is a unique information and education tool, and thus helps to promote freedom, democracy and human rights. The Internet facilitates new forms of business and promotes efficiency, competitiveness, and economic growth. Governments, the private sector, users, and other stakeholders all have a role to play in creating an environment in which the Internet can flourish in a balanced manner. In Deauville in 2011, for the first time at Leaders’ level, we agreed, in the presence of some leaders of the Internet economy, on a number of key principles, including freedom, respect for privacy and intellectual property, multi-stakeholder governance, cyber-security, and protection from crime, that underpin a strong and flourishing Internet. The “e-G8” event held in Paris on 24 and 25 May was a useful contribution to these debates.

That eG8 showed that online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders. Some of the concerns will be assuaged in this communique.

While the body of the communique is comprised of high level principles and does not contain specific prescriptions, it does not specifically reference to international human rights laws or a “freedom to connect,” an exception that supporters of free expression like Article 19 have criticized as unsufficient. In addition, paragraph 15, below, renews a “commitment to ensuring effective action against violations of intellectual property rights in the digital arena, including action that addresses present and future infringements” that may obliquely refer to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or “ACTA,” that the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others have expressed concerns about as it has moved through drafting stages.

That said, there is much in the official communique about the Internet that celebrates its power and choices that have driven its growth, including:

  • “The openness, transparency and freedom of the Internet have been key to its development and success. These principles, together with those of non-discrimination and fair competition, must continue to be an essential force behind its development.”
  • “The Internet has become the public arena for our time, a lever of economic development and an instrument for political liberty and emancipation. Freedom of opinion, expression, information, assembly and association must be safeguarded on the Internet as elsewhere. Arbitrary or indiscriminate censorship or restrictions on access to the Internet are inconsistent with States’ international obligations and are clearly unacceptable. Furthermore, they impede economic and social growth.

Coming on a week when Iran vowed to unplug the Internet, disconnecting Iranian citizens from the rest of the world, holding up those principles is both timely and notable. The full section of the communique regarding the Internet follows.


4. All over the world, the Internet has become essential to our societies, economies and their growth.

5. For citizens, the Internet is a unique information and education resource and thus can be a helpful tool to promote freedom, democracy and human rights.

6. For business, the Internet has become an essential and irreplaceable tool for the conduct of commerce and development of relations with consumers. The Internet is a driver of innovation, improves efficiency, and thus contributes to growth and employment.

7. For governments, the Internet is a tool for a more efficient administration, for the provision of services to the public and businesses, and for enhancing their relations with citizens and ensuring respect for and promotion of human rights.

8. The Internet has become a major driver for the global economy, its growth and innovation.

9. The openness, transparency and freedom of the Internet have been key to its development and success. These principles, together with those of non-discrimination and fair competition, must continue to be an essential force behind its development.

10. Their implementation must be included in a broader framework: that of respect for the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms, the protection of intellectual property rights, which inspire life in every democratic society for the benefit of all citizens. We strongly believe that freedom and security, transparency and respect for confidentiality, as well as the exercise of individual rights and responsibility have to be achieved simultaneously. Both the framework and principles must receive the same protection, with the same guarantees, on the Internet as everywhere else.

11. The Internet has become the public arena for our time, a lever of economic development and an instrument for political liberty and emancipation. Freedom of opinion, expression, information, assembly and association must be safeguarded on the Internet as elsewhere. Arbitrary or indiscriminate censorship or restrictions on access to the Internet are inconsistent with States’ international obligations and are clearly unacceptable. Furthermore, they impede economic and social growth.

12. The Internet and its future development, fostered by private sector initiatives and investments, require a favourable, transparent, stable and predictable environment, based on the framework and principles referred to above. In this respect, action from all governments is needed through national policies, but also through the promotion of international cooperation.

13. We commit to encourage the use of the Internet as a tool to advance human rights and democratic participation throughout the world.

14. The global digital economy has served as a powerful economic driver and engine of growth and innovation. Broadband Internet access is an essential infrastructure for participation in today’s economy. In order for our countries to benefit fully from the digital economy, we need to seize emerging opportunities, such as cloud computing, social networking and citizen publications, which are driving innovation and enabling growth in our societies. As we adopt more innovative Internet-based services, we face challenges in promoting interoperability and convergence among our public policies on issues such as the protection of personal data, net neutrality, transborder data flow, ICT security, and intellectual property.

15. With regard to the protection of intellectual property, in particular copyright, trademarks, trade secrets and patents, we recognize the need to have national laws and frameworks for improved enforcement. We are thus renewing our commitment to ensuring effective action against violations of intellectual property rights in the digital arena, including action that addresses present and future infringements. We recognize that the effective implementation of intellectual property rules requires suitable international cooperation of relevant stakeholders, including with the private sector. We are committed to identifying ways of facilitating greater access and openness to knowledge, education and culture, including by encouraging continued innovation in legal on line trade in goods and content, that are respectful of intellectual property rights.

16. The effective protection of personal data and individual privacy on the Internet is essential to earn users’ trust. It is a matter for all stakeholders: the users who need to be better aware of their responsibility when placing personal data on the Internet, the service providers who store and process this data, and governments and regulators who must ensure the effectiveness of this protection. We encourage the development of common approaches taking into account national legal frameworks, based on fundamental rights and that protect personal data, whilst allowing the legal transfer of data.

17. The security of networks and services on the Internet is a multi-stakeholder issue. It requires coordination between governments, regional and international organizations, the private sector, civil society and the G8’s own work in the Roma-Lyon group, to prevent, deter and punish the use of ICTs for terrorist and criminal purposes. Special attention must be paid to all forms of attacks against the integrity of infrastructure, networks and services, including attacks caused by the proliferation of malware and the activities of botnets through the Internet. In this regard, we recognize that promoting users’ awareness is of crucial importance and that enhanced international cooperation is needed in order to protect critical resources, ICTs and other related infrastructure. The fact that the Internet can potentially be used for purposes that are inconsistent with the objectives of peace and security, and may adversely affect the integrity of critical systems, remains a matter of concern. Governments have a role to play, informed by a full range of stakeholders, in helping to develop norms of behaviour and common approaches in the use of cyberspace. On all these issues, we are determined to provide the appropriate follow-up in all relevant fora.

18. We call upon all stakeholders to combat the use of Internet for trafficking in children and for their sexual exploitation. We will also work towards developing an environment in which children can safely use the Internet by improving children’s Internet literacy including risk awareness, and encouraging adequate parental controls consistent with the freedom of expression.

19. We recognize the importance of enhanced access to the Internet for developing countries. Important progress has been achieved since the Okinawa Summit and we pay tribute to the efforts made by developing countries in this regard as well as the various stakeholders, governments, the private sector and NGOs, which provide resources, expertise and innovation. We encourage initiatives, in partnership with the private sector, on the use of the Internet with a development purpose, particularly for education and healthcare.

20. As we support the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance, we call upon all stakeholders to contribute to enhanced cooperation within and between all international fora dealing with the governance of the Internet. In this regard, flexibility and transparency have to be maintained in order to adapt to the fast pace of technological and business developments and uses. Governments have a key role to play in this model.

21. We welcome the meeting of the e-G8 Forum which took place in Paris on 24 and 25 May, on the eve of our Summit and reaffirm our commitment to the kinds of multi-stakeholder efforts that have been essential to the evolution of the Internet economy to date. The innovative format of the e-G8 Forum allowed participation of a number of stakeholders of the Internet in a discussion on fundamental goals and issues for citizens, business, and governments. Its free and fruitful debate is a contribution for all relevant fora on current and future challenges.

22. We look forward to the forthcoming opportunities to strengthen international cooperation in all these areas, including the Internet Governance Forum scheduled next September in Nairobi and other relevant UN events, the OECD High Level Meeting on “The Internet Economy: Generating Innovation and Growth” scheduled next June in Paris, the London International Cyber Conference scheduled next November, and the Avignon Conference on Copyright scheduled next November, as positive steps in taking this important issue forward.

The consequences of connectivity in an information age

win 7 devicesLast night, author Sean Power (@seanpower) was able to recover his lost laptop and belongings using the tracking software (@preyproject), Twitter and some brave, helpful human beings. It’s a fascinating outcome. As Power tweeted afterwards, this is “a great story, and brings up many implications re: vigilantism, crime in the era of realtime, and findability.”

In many ways, this story of loss and recovery serves as a fascinating insight into the century ahead in an increasingly networked society. There’s Orwell’s Big Brother, created by a growing number of cameras, satellite photos, wiretaps and intercepts, and there’s Little Brother, made up of citizens toting mobile phones. When the TSA patted down a baby this week at an airport, a pastor (@JacobJester) in line saw it, snapped a picture and tweeted it.

This is, to be fair, a leading edge case. Power is more connected online than many of his fellow citizens, technically proficient enough to install open source tracking software and sufficiently deft to leverage his distributed network of friends in real-time.

That said, it’s a reasonable expectation that we’ll be seeing variants of these kinds of stories in the years ahead. They’ll often end with the same moral: <a href="don’t steal computers from people who know how to use computers. Freelance journalist Branden Ballenger (@btballenger) used Storify to document Power’s story, which I’ve embedded below.[View the story “Man tracks stolen laptop hundreds of miles away, calls thief” on Storify]

Google reaches agreement with FTC on Buzz privacy concerns

Google has agreed to an independent review of its privacy procedures once every two years and to ask it users to give “affirmative consent” before it changes how it shares their personal information. The agreement raises the bar for the way that companies handle user privacy in the digital age.

Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product and engineering, announced that that Google had reached the agreement with the United States Federal Commission in an update in Buzz posted to Google’s official blog this morning.

“The terms of this agreement are strong medicine for Google and will have a far-reaching effect on how industry develops and implements new technologies and services that make personal information public,” said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology.  “We expect industry to quickly adopt the new requirement for opt-in consent before launching any new service that will publicly disclose personal information,” Harris said.

In a statement posted to, the FTC charged deceptive privacy practices in Google’s rollout of its buzz social network. (Emphasis is mine):

The agency alleges the practices violate the FTC Act. The proposed settlement bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations, requires it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, and calls for regular, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years. This is the first time an FTC settlement order has required a company to implement a comprehensive privacy program to protect the privacy of consumers’ information. In addition, this is the first time the FTC has alleged violations of the substantive privacy requirements of the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework, which provides a method for U.S. companies to transfer personal data lawfully from the European Union to the United States.

“When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. “This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honor its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations.”

The FTC turned to Twitter for a live Q&A with the Web. Here’s a recap of the conversation:

In her post, Whitten highlighted the efforts that the search engine has made in this intersection of Google, government and privacy:

For example, Google Dashboard lets you view the data that’s stored in your Google Account and manage your privacy settings for different services. With our Ads Preferences Manager, you can see and edit the data Google uses to tailor ads on our partner websites—or opt out of them entirely. And the Data Liberation Front makes it easy to move your data in and out of Google products. We also recently improved our internal privacy and security procedures.

Looking back at SXSWi and a “Social Networking Bills of Rights”

Posts and thoughts on the 2011 South by Southwest Interactive Festival are still making their way out of my hard drive. On the first day of the conference, I moderated a panel on “Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights” that has received continued interest in the press.This correspondent moderated a panel on a “social networking bill of rights” which has continued to receive attention in the days since the festival, including at MSNBC,, and PC World, focusing on the responsibility data stewardship. At, Alistair Fairweather highlighted a key question to consider for the technology industry to consider in the months ahead: “Why is user data always vested within the networks themselves? Why don’t we host our own data as independent “nodes”, and then allow networks access to it?”

Good questions, and ones that a few startups I talked to at the festival are working hard to answer. Stay tuned. For now, Jon Pincus captured the online conversation about the panel using Storify, below.[View the story “#snubor at #sxswi” on Storify]

Making open government data visualizations that matter

Every month, more open government data is available online. Local governments are becoming data suppliers. Open healthcare data is spurring better decisions. There’s a tremendous amount of activity in open data – but there’s a long road ahead for open government. At the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, Jeremiah Akin and Michael Castellon made a case for “why visualizing government data makes taxpayers happy.”

The expectation of transparency is creating demand for government agencies to develop new ways to communicate complex data and trends to the public in easy-to-access and easy-to-understand formats.

Some agencies are turning to Google Maps and KML data to visualize raw information online and on mobile devices. Delivering data in more easily understandable formats not only boosts trust and confidence between government agencies and their publics, but also streamlines workloads among Data, Web, Editorial, and Customer Service teams.

The two men talked about how the Texas Comptroller is using public-facing maps to communicate with the public, including to the rapidly increasing numbers of citizens accessing government websites from mobile devices.

The utility of open government data can be quite concrete, as when live tsunami data is used to help save lives. It can also help people to understand more about the virtual lines in their towns and cities. In Texas, shows unclaimed property in Lone Star State.

Mobile transparency

The Texas Transparency Map is also available for touchscreen mobile devices and for tablets. That’s no accident: Akin said that mobile traffic to the site up four-fold since lat year.

“We’re seeing a lot more mobile access,” he said. “If we want to make it available on multiple devices, we need to create in a way that can be displayed.” That insight is a crucial one, and reverberates far beyond the government sphere. By choosing to develop non-native Web applications written in HTML5, Javascript and JSON, this cohort of Texas government avoided “Shiny App Syndrome.” Next steps include support for street level detail, Google Fusion tables, and geolocation.

Putting open government data to work

“Open government data has been used for a long time,” said Akin, citing the use of census data in newspapers. A new class of new media journalism is putting data to use in innovative ways, pointed out Castellon. “The Texas Tribune is one of the leaders in data visualization,” he said, which helps citizens to make sense of government data.

The key here, emphasized Akin, is that is not just enough to simply dump data. You need ways to visualize it and make it meaningful as information. “There’s a lot of resistance – people have been there, and that’s not how they’ve done things,” he said. “If you make a visualization that makes someone’s job easier pretty soon they start coming back to you.

With better data visualizations and more information, Castellon posited that more problem solving can take place. “When you release data, especiallly with science, education or research, there are stories embedded in that data,” he said.

In this narrative, it’s up to governments to release better, clean data in consumable formats and the evolving art of data journalism to make stories from it that give citizens, businesses and elected officials insight into the complexities of modern life.

Visualizing the future of programmable cities

Technology is fueling new visions for the future of cities. Today at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, a panel considered “Web Mashup Platforms and Future Programmable Cities. NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne (@RachelSterne) joined Christine Outram (@cityinnovation), Vlad Trifa (@vladounet) and Dominique Guinard (@domguinard) in exploring how open data, mobile platforms and citizen engagement will shape what comes next in urban life.

Below, visual notes by OgilvyNotes and ImageThink capture the conversation.

n Web Mashup Platforms and Future Programmable Cities

For more on how cities are embracing new platforms and technologies, learn about citizensourcing smarter government in New York City.

[Hat Tip: Rachel Sterne]

Daniel Weitzner is the new White House deputy CTO for Internet policy


Image by Elon University via Flickr

There’s a new deputy chief technology officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: Danny Weitzner. He’ll be taking over the policy portfolio that Andrew McLaughlin held. The appointment appears to have been reported first by Julia Angwin in her story on a proposed bill for an online privacy bill of rights drafted by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Rick Weiss, director of communications at OSTP confirmed the appointment and said that they anticipate that Weitzner will start work “very soon.”

With the appointment, the OSTP staff has three deputy CTOs again working under federal CTO Aneesh Chopra: Chris Vein for innovation, Weitzner for Internet policy and Scott Deutchman for telecommunications policy.

Weitzner has a deep and interesting background when it comes to Internet policy. He was serving as associate administrator for policy at the United States Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the principal adviser to the President on telecommunications and information policy. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Weitzner created the MIT CSAIL Decentralized Information Group and was used to be the policy director for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) before he joined . Here’s his bio from his time there:

Daniel Weitzner is Policy Director of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Technology and Society activities. As such, he is responsible for development of technology standards that enable the web to address social, legal, and public policy concerns such as privacy, free speech, security, protection of minors, authentication, intellectual property and identification. Weitzner holds an appointment as Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, co-directs MIT’s Decentralized Information Group with Tim Berners-Lee, and teaches Internet public policy at MIT.

As one of the leading figures in the Internet public policy community, he was the first to advocate user control technologies such as content filtering and rating to protect children and avoid government censorship of the Intenet. These arguments played a critical role in the 1997 US Supreme Court case, Reno v. ACLU, awarding the highest free speech protections to the Internet. He successfully advocated for adoption of amendments to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act creating new privacy protections for online transactional information such as Web site access logs.

Before joining the W3C, Mr. Weitzner was co-founder and Deputy Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a leading Internet civil liberties organization in Washington, DC. He was also Deputy Policy Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He serves on the Boards of Directors of the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Software Freedom Law Center, the Web Science Research Initiative. and the Internet Education Foundation.

His publications on technical and public policy aspects of the Internet have appeared in the Yale Law Review, Science magazine, Communications of the ACM, Computerworld, Wired Magazine, and The Whole Earth Review. He is also a commentator for NPR’s Marketplace Radio.

Mr. Weitzner has a degree in law from Buffalo Law School, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Swarthmore College.

As Angwin reported, Weitzner pushed for creation of the Commerce Department new privacy office while he was at NTIA. In his new role, he’s likely to be working closely with the FTC, Congress and a new privacy office at the Commerce that, according to Angwin, is likely to be run by Jules Polonetsky, currently head of the Future of Privacy Forum.

Weitzner’s appointment is good news for those who believe that ECPA reform matters and for advocates of free speech online. Given the recent role of the Internet as a platform for collective action, that support is worth acknowledging.

For those interested, Weitzner can be found on Twitter at @djweitzner. While he has not sent out a tweet since last November, his link to open government in the United Kingdom last July bodes well for his support for open data and Gov 2.0: “Proposed Government Data Transparency principles from UK gov’t via Shadbolt & Berners-Lee #opendata #gov20.”


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Are the Internet and Social Media ‘Tools of Freedom’ or ‘Tools of Oppression?’

The role of the Internet and social media in what has been described as the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the rest of the Middle East is one of the hottest topics in technology and foreign policy. Ever since the #IranElection hashtag first gave the world a look at social media as forum for information exchange about civil unrest outside of state-controlled media, there has been a huge explosion oof forums and op-eds exploring the question of whether YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, cellphones, crisis mapping and other technology platforms were creating the conditions for revolution — or acting as an accelerant to the embers of revolution. The State Department’s “Internet freedom” policy has come into conflict with both autocrats whose iron rule has carried over from the 21st century using Facebook and mobile technology to track down dissidents and Western democracies seeking increased electronic surveillance powers over the network of networks that now spans the globe.

As with so many other communications tools, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the connection technologies whose use has rapidly brought more of us together can be used in both positive and negative ways, much in the same way the printing press, radio or television changed the distribution of ideas and news in past centuries. Cellphones equipped with cameras and connected to the rest of the world have become the eyes and ears of young people in the Middle East. They can also be used to track them.

In a year when the leader of Libya mentioned Facebook by name and Egypt shuts down the Internet, it would be easy to simply celebrate the role of people power accelerated by social media. Not so fast. These social media platforms of 2011 can and will be used to people, governments and covert organizations to greenwash, astroturf or distribute propaganda or misinformation. This reality has been articulated by Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion and emphasized again in a commentary today on the role of social networking in the Arab Spring. While Wael Ghonim said that without social networking, this wouldn’t have happened, Morozov emphasizes that it took the bravery of millions of young people to show up in real life in Tahir Square in Egypt or in the streets of Tunisia for this to become a reality.

Smarter social networking” in the service of the ends of dictators and autocrats can and will happen, along with so many other spheres of public life. As Ben Scott, innovation advisor of the State Department acknowledged at an AMP Summit in D.C. on social networking and Egypt last month, it is happening, with more use of tools for negative purpose to come. “The question is no longer does technology matter,” he said. “It’s how, and in what ways.”

“Network effects are politically agnostic,” said Scott. These connection technologies are not causing revolution. “They’re accelerating them.”

The question of whether these connection technologies are by their nature aligned with greater freedoms has also, literally, been up for debate. When it comes to a bigger question — whether connection technologies are more useful for democrats or dictators — Scott said that on the whole, he thought the proliferation of connection technologies is good for democracy. The online audience in a recent debate at between Stanford’s Evgeny Morozov and Harvard’s John Palfrey decided by a narrow margin that the Internet is “inherently” a force for democracy. The full dialogue between the two men is well worth reading in its entirety.

Whether that view or this architecture of the Internet itself persists has other members of the academy concerned as well. As Harvard computer science professor Jonathan Zittrain observes in the Scientific American, keeping the Internet open, distributed and free is not a certain outcome.

Attacks on Internet sites and infrastructure, and the compromise of secure information, pose a particularly tricky problem because it is usually impossible to trace an attack back to its instigator. This “attribution problem” is so troublesome that some law-enforcement experts have called for a wholesale reworking of Internet architecture and protocols, such that every packet of data is engraved with the identity of its source. The idea is to make punishment, and therefore deterrence, possible. Unfortunately, such a reworking would also threaten what makes the Internet special, both technologically and socially.

The Internet works thanks to loose but trusted connections among its many constituent parts, with easy entry and exit for new Internet service providers or new forms of expanding access. That is not the case with, say, mobile phones, in which the telecom operator can tell which phone placed what call and to whom the phone is registered. Establishing this level of identity on the Internet is no small task, as we have seen with authoritarian regimes that have sought to limit anonymity. It would involve eliminating free and open Wi-Fi access points and other ways of sharing connections. Terminals in libraries and cybercafes would have to have verified sign-in rosters. Or worse, Internet access would have to be predicated on providing a special ID akin to a government-issued driver’s license—perhaps in the form of a USB key. No key, no bits. To be sure, this step would not stop criminals and states wanting to act covertly but would force them to invest much more to achieve the anonymity that comes so naturally today.

The history of the introduction of new communication tools is a reminder that most disruptive technologies have dual uses. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was the first President of the United States to make a radio broadcast from the White House. A decade later, Hitler and Stalin were using the same tool to spread a different kind of message.

Nearly a century later, the current occupant of the White House is using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, apps and live video on to communicate with citizens, both of the United States or in other countries. While the White House can claim some open source cred for running on Drupal, much of the rest world has long since becoming aware of the disruptive nature of a more wired society that is connected to the Internet.

The debate about the role of connection technologies in Internet freedom spans many audiences. Last month, the discussion came to the Cato Institute, where a debate on social media and revolutions was moderated by Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at Cato. The discussion featured Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato Institute, Tim Karr, Campaign Director, Free Press, and this correspondent.

The same platforms that can and are being used to transmit breathtaking moments of wonder,
hear digital cries for help or lift up the voices of the citizens in oppressed societies to the rest of the world will also be used against them. Palfrey has further explored Middle East conflict and an Internet tipping point for the Internet at MIT’s Tech Review. His conclusion is worth sharing again:

Today, we are entering a period that we should call “access contested.” Activists around the world are pushing back on the denial of access and controls put in place by states that wish to restrict the free flow of information. This round of the contest, at least in the Middle East and North Africa, is being won by those who are using the network to organize against autocratic regimes. Online communities such as and peer-to-peer technologies like mesh networking provide specific ways for people to get involved directly in shaping how these technologies develop around the world.

But it would be a big mistake to presume that this state of affairs will last for long, or that it is an inevitable outcome. History shows us that there are cycles to the way that technologies, and how we use them, change over time, as Timothy Wu argues in his new book, The Master Switch. The leaders of many states, like China, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan, have proven able to use the Internet to restrict online discussion and to put people into jail for what they do using the network. We should resist the urge to cheer the triumph of pro-Western democracy fueled by widespread Internet access and usage. The contest for control of the Internet is only just beginning.

As the rest of the world watches the changes sweeping the Middle East through snippets of cellphone video uploaded to YouTube and curated by digital journalists like Andy Carvin, connected citizens have unprecedented capacity to drink from the firehose of revolutionary media. The role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing. The challenge is what people do with it.

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