In May 2019, a new White House campaign to collect data on social media bias is raising free speech and privacy alarms – and the Trump administration has been far less than transparent about the project’s purpose or the policies … Continue reading
This past week, Facebook launched a new political ad transparency website. Facebook believes that “shining a light on ads” will increase transparency, which in turn “will lead to increased accountability & responsibility over time – not just for Facebook but advertisers as well.“
I think they’re right — which should be no surprise given my focus on advocating for more political transparency in Washington over the two years I spent at the Sunlight Foundation — but reviewing reports of unlabeled political ads is going to be hard.
Overall, this site is a welcome step towards more transparency, but misses the mark. The site only “exceeds expectations” if you think a search interface that exposes no underlying data is sufficient to inform the public and regulators.
In my initial assessment, I concur with journalists who found Facebook’s new political ad system is missing a lot, as ProPublica reported. (Please install ProPublica’s political ad collector so they can inform the public about how well Facebook’s tool actually works.)
It was easy to use @Facebook‘s new archive of “ads with political content” – essentially a simple search tool for paid political ads that have run since May 7, 2018 – once I got on my laptop and logged in. I found recent ads that matched Trump, Clinton, gun control & corruption. pic.twitter.com/Fhx0lrMzBE
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) May 24, 2018
On the one hand, it was easy to use Facebook’s new archive of “ads with political content” – essentially a simple search tool for paid political ads that have run since May 7, 2018 – at least once I got on my laptop and logged into Facebook. I found recent ads that matched Trump, Clinton, gun control and corruption.
If you click on “see ad performance,” you can learn more about each ad.
If you click “see ad performance,” you see the ad content, who paid, when it was active, how many impressions it received, total spent, & breakdown of audience by age, gender & location.
But clicking “view all ads” brings you to aggregate search results, NOT the page or a profile pic.twitter.com/8XtzmWqdYy
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) May 24, 2018
If you click on the username, you arrive at the Page behind the ads. Unfortunately, there’s no tab for political ads or link to this archive. It’s hard to see how folks will find them, without it.
If you click on the username – in this case, Donald Trump, @realDonaldTrump‘s campaign account on @Facebook – you arrive at the Page behind the ads. Unfortunately, there’s no tab for political ads or link to this archive. It’s hard to see how folks will find them, without it. pic.twitter.com/EASlccVAhF
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) May 24, 2018
As I noted on Twitter, however, there’s one more critical wrinkle: you can’t get to the page unless you’re logged into Facebook!
This would be hilariously ironic, if it weren’t for the context of Russian interference and how Facebook handled it. Self-regulation is not enough.
As sociology professor Zeynep Tufecki noted, no one — whether member of the public, the press, watchdog, academic, regulator or legislator – should have to agree to Facebook’s Terms of Service and become a user to access political data.
😱 You shouldn’t have to agree to Facebook TOS in order to access information about political reports. In fact, that is a core problem. I’ve seen examples where schools put *emergency* information on Facebook and people have to agree to FB TOS to learn whether children are safe. https://t.co/6kmsOXgYgu
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) May 24, 2018
To Facebook’s credit, the director of product at Facebook, Rob Leathern, responded publicly to Tufecki on Twittter, stating that this page is a first step:
“More ways are coming to make the ads with political content and information more accessible to people. One of those is an API, another is exploring opening the archive to people not on Facebook. We started with the Facebook community to see how they use the tool and gain feedback from third parties, including our newly-formed Election Commission. We’ll continue to update on our progress.”
If Facebook started with open data with no log-in, they could have gotten feedback from third parties like the Center for Responsive Politics or the public. No one should have to be part of Facebook’s “community” to understand who is buying electioneering on the platform, for whom, and what’s being shown.
As I commented to Leathern, if Facebook is only “exploring” making this archive open to people not on Facebook, then it is not implementing the Honest Ads Act, as its staff has claimed to Congress and the public. I asked Facebook to post a public ad file as bulk open data on the open Web.
Leathern told me that “we have prioritized getting the archive in the hands of people to use (as of today) + will follow up soon with an archive API. Thank you for the feedback, we are definitely listening.”
That’s good news, but not good enough.
Real transparency at Facebook will look like a public file of all paid political ads that are disclosed on a public website with bulk open data downloads and an API, none of which require the public to log into the site.
The good news is that I think Facebook understands this page as a start, not an end. In a post that closes matches what he told me, Leathern wrote that they’re “working closely” with a new “Election Commission” to launch an API for the archives.
It’s good news, but no deadline cited.
It’s hard for me not to be happy that Facebook is finally explicitly embracing political ad transparency in words and (some) deeds, including public soul searching about what constitutes a political ad and a policy.
It’s just long overdue. Ultimately, elected representatives should be the ones to enact standards for transparency for political ads online after debate, not tech company executives.
Until Congress and other legislatures around the world empower regulators like Federal Election Commission by updating electioneering rules and enacting standards for disclaimers and disclosures, however, I’m glad to see positive actions.
I hope Facebook, its founder and its staff deliver on its most recent promises and their public obligations. Given past, current or predictable interference, opacity is unpatriotic.
When the president or others with access to his Twitter account block American citizens from following @realDonaldTrump based upon the viewpoints they express, it violates their First Amendment rights.
In a historic decision, a federal judge ruled today that it is unconstitutional for President Donald J. Trump to block his critics on Twitter, as portions of @realDonaldTrump account constitute a public forum, which means blocking them based on their political speech violates the First Amendment:
We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account — the “interactive space” where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets — are properly analyzed under the “public forum” doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment. In so holding, we reject the defendants’ contentions that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the President’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of plaintiffs.
This is a historic win for the First Amendment and the public’s right to access official statements and participate in public discourse regarding those statements.
As I highlighted last year, tweets by @realDonaldTrump are official statements from the President, which means that the public has a right to equal access and participation around them, even when their speech is hosted on a private platform. The public interest argument was clear then:
“A president’s statements are not just made for people who voted for him or support his policies or politics.
Unfortunately, Trump is not alone: other local, state and federal politicians are also blocking their constituents on Twitter.
Doing so sends the wrong message to the public about whom they serve. Listening and responding to members of the public that they represent is a minimum expectation for public servants in any democratic state, whether those voices are raised in protest, petition, email, send letters or reply on social media. While there are practical challenges to making sense of millions of emails, tweets, call or letters, blocks are not the solution to filter failure.”
No President should block Americans from reading his official statements, replying or interacting with others here.
No other public servant should block constituents, either, from city councilors and alderman to judges, governors and mayors.
On Twitter, officials and politicians who have blocked constituents now consider policies to Mute accounts if someone is being vile or abusive, with transparency about guidelines and use. Users who abuse one another are already subject to accountability for violations of @Twitter rules, which could be reported by officials or civil society.
As the judge noted, addressing President Trump blocking people is legally tricky.
While we reject defendants’ categorical assertion that injunctive relief cannot ever be awarded against the President, we nonetheless conclude that it is unnecessary to enter that legal thicket at this time. A declaratory judgment should be sufficient, as no government official — including the President — is above the law, and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared.
President Trump should acknowledge the ruling and follow the law, unblocking everyone. Whether he’ll embrace such a change on his social platform of choice isn’r clear at all — especially given his refusal to follow security protocols for his iPhone, despite the risk of nation states spying on him.
In the wake of this ruling, the president should acknowledge the ruling in a video & tweeted post, work with Twitter to unblock everyone, and apologize for engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination and chilling the speech of his constituents, the American public.
But I doubt Trump will.
So, here’s a different idea. It would be an unprecedented move for an unprecedented presidency, but I hope Jack Dorsey and his board will seriously consider removing the Block feature from all official government accounts verified by Twitter.
If code is law and law is now encoded, one way for Twitter to embrace its DNA as a 21st century platform for free speech and make open, public access to official statements the default, putting pressure on Facebook, Google and others to follow.
President Barack Obama shared the news that he would address the nation tomorrow night regarding an executive actions he would take on immigration on Facebook before embedding the video on The White House blog and tweeting a link to it.
Even in late 2014, when the use of social media has become part of the warp and weft of American society and political discourse, seeing the president “go direct” to the people online, not through media, on an issue of this magnitude is worth noting. Over the past year, the Committee to Protect Journalists have hammered the Obama administration on transparency and White House photographers have criticized restrictions on access. Even tough critics of the administration’s record on access for photos or transparency, however, acknowledge the role social media and the Internet has now taken on in getting the words of the president out to the people he serves.
On that count, the fact that the “big four” broadcast TV networks in the U.S., CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC, are not airing the speech is noteworthy, as is that fact that Telemundo and Univision will carry it live.
People that want to listen over the Internet will be able to do so at whitehouse.gov/live or radio.
For more on the news, read the Washington Post’s report on the context that surrounds the executive action and a short history from the past 70 years of actions other presidents have taken on immigration, all of which should be considered in the context of the time, Congress and their longterm efficacy.
Today, dozens of websites “slowed down” for a cause, collectively advocating against Open Internet rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. None of the participants in today’s “Internet Slowdown Day” actually delayed access to their websites: instead, they used code to add a layer to visitors’ Web browsers with one of the loading icons grimly familiar to anyone who’s ever waited for a long download or crufty operating system function to finish in an overlay and linked to BattleForThenet.com/September10, which encouraged visitors to sign a letter supporting net neutrality, or to use online tools to call Congress.
While many big tech companies didn’t participate, millions of visitors to Reddit, Tumblr, Netflix, Free Press, Reddit, Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Upworthy, Automattic, Digg, Vimeo, Boing Boing, Urban Dictionary, Foursquare, Cheezburger and the Sunlight Foundation saw the spinning icon, among others.
The effort appears to have made a difference: According to the FCC*, by 6 PM ET the agency saw 111,449 new public comments added to the already record-setting total, with some 41,173 filed into the 14-28 docket of the FCC’s website since and another 70,286 sent to the email@example.com inbox, setting a new high water mark of some 1,515,144 to date, with more yet to come. As reported by Mike Masnick, citing ThinkProgress, the Internet slowdown generated 1000 calls per minute to Congress. *Update: Fight for the Future claims that more than 740,000 comments were submitted through Battleforthenet.com and that the FCC hasn’t caught up. According to the nonprofit, “this happened during our last big push too when their site crashed. We are storing comments and will deliver all.”
“We sent 500K+ comments,” wrote Tiffaniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, in an email. “They’re getting backlogged as the FCC can’t handle the amount of data. The FCC asked us to hold as they could not accept them and can’t handle all the load. So, they only just got to accepting them again.”
That means there have been at least 409,522 reply comments filed since July 18, with five days left in the reply comment period, with more than one quarter of them coming in a single day. (*If Fight for the Future’s total is correct, the number of reply comments filed passed 800,000, with the total nearing 2 million.) The FCC will host a public Open Internet roundtable discussion on September 16, the day after the period closes. According to an analysis of the first 800,000 public comments by the Sunlight Foundation, less than 1 percent of the submissions were clearly opposed to net neutrality.
These numbers are still dwarfed by the millions of calls and emails sent to Washington during the campaign to halt the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act in Congress in 2012, when Google and Wikipedia connected visitors to their websites to switchboards on Capitol Hill. They may also have less of an effect on an independent regulatory agency that has yet to chart a sustainable legal course in the storm of online criticism and intense lobbying by affected industries.
According to a FCC spokesman, the agency expected an increased volume of traffic due to the “slowdown.” Perhaps anticipating the interest, the @FCC’s first tweet today encouraged people to submit comments via email:
Next Monday 9/15 is the deadline for the 2nd round of #OpenInternet comments. Submit via firstname.lastname@example.org.
— The FCC (@FCC) September 10, 2014
The total number of comments on the Open Internet proceeding is sure to grow in the remaining week, with the number of emails sent to the FCC’s dedicated inbox likely to go past a million. (Update: On Thursday morning, the FCC confirmed that a total of 632,328 comments filed to ECFS and 1,118,107 sent to email@example.com, for a cumulative total of 1,750,435.) In many ways, that outcome feels appropriate.
When the FCC’s 18 year-old online commenting system has groaned under a huge volume of online traffic, people have routed around the downed comment system and used the original killer app of the Internet: email, the “tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built,” based upon the same kinds of open protocols that enabled the unprecedented growth of a wealth of networks to grow around the world.
Update: At the end of the day after the Internet Slowdown, the FCC still working to enter all of the new comments created the day before into their systems — and the agency decided to offer another way to file comments: using email attachments.
In fact, FCC asked for something unexpected, simple and smart: for comments to be submitted at bulk open data, as .csv files of no more than 9 MB each. While the FCC doesn’t refer specifically to the comments that Fight for the Future has collected, this option does offer an easy way to electronically transfer the comments through an established channel. In the future, perhaps this will become the default option for
filing bulk comments collected by advocates, at least until Congress funds a new online filing system or the agency finds a way to use Dropbox. It should certainly make releasing them online as structured data for third-party analysis much easier; if the FCC wanted to, if could publish them almost as quickly as the comments came in.
The agency’s chief information officer, David Bray, explained the additional option in a blog post:
The volume of public feedback in the Open Internet proceeding has been commensurate with the importance of the effort to preserve a free and open Internet.
The Commission is working to ensure that all comments are processed and that we have a full accounting of the number received as soon as possible. Most important, all of these comments will be considered as part of the rulemaking process. While our system is catching up with the surge of public comments, we are providing a third avenue for submitting feedback on the Open Internet proceeding.
In the Commission’s embrace of Open Data and a commitment to openness and transparency throughout the Open Internet proceedings, the FCC is making available a Common Separated Values (CSV) file for bulk upload of comments given the exceptional public interest. All comments will be received and recorded through the same process we are applying for the firstname.lastname@example.org emails.
Attached is a link to the CSV file template along with instructions. Once completed, the CSV file can be emailed to email@example.com where if it matches the template the individual comments will be filed for the public record with the Electronic Comment Filing System. When you email this file, please use the subject “CSV”. We encourage CSV files of 9MB or less via email.
The Commission welcomes the record-setting level of public input in this proceeding, and we want to do everything we can to make sure all voices are heard and reflected in the public record.
I generally agree with the assessment of Washington Post, with respect to how well Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit went for him, though I give him far more credit for venturing onto the unruly social news platform than the reporter did. The Post’s report that he only answered 5 questions was just plain incorrect.
O’Malley answered 19 questions this morning, not 5, a fact that could be easily and quickly ascertained by clicking on GovMartinOMalley, the username he used for the AMA, including a (short) answer to a question on mental health that the Post said went unanswered. (An editor made multiple corrections and updates to the Post’s story after I pointed that out.)
He subsequently logged back on in the afternoon to answer more questions, rebutting the Post’s assessment and that of a user: “I don’t know, I’m having fun! This is my first AMA. I had to step away to sign a bunch of bills, and I’m glad to be back,” he commented.
He answered at least one tough question (from a questioner who appears to have joined Reddit today) after doing so, although the answer hasn’t been highly rated:
@bmoreprogressive91: Thanks for doing an AMA. Just one question: How does the Maryland healthcare exchange, which cost taxpayers $90 million to implement before your administration found that it would be cheaper (at an additional $40-50 million) to just replace it than to fix it, show that your Administration has been effectively using taxpayer dollars to better the lives of individual citizens?
O’Malley: No one was more frustrated than I was about the fact that our health exchange website didn’t work properly when we launched. But our health exchange is more than a web site, and we worked hard to overcome the technical problems. We have enrolled about 329,000 people thus far, exceeding the goal we set of 260,000. I often say that we haven’t always succeeded at first, but we have never given up. We learn from both success and failure.
By the end of the day, Maryland’s governor answered 36 questions in total. (You can read a cleanly formatted version of O’Malley’s AMA at Interview.ly). Reddit users rated the quality of some answers much higher than others, with the most popular answer, “Yes,” coming in response to whether he would support a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court.
To be fair — and reasonable observers should be — Reddit’s utility for extracting answers from a politician isn’t so great, as Alexis Madrigal pointed out after President Barack Obama did an AMA, back in 2012. That said, I’m generally supportive of elected leaders engaging directly with constituents online using the tools and platforms that citizens are active upon themselves.
Popular questions that go unanswered can be instructive and offer some insight into what issues a given politician would rather not talk about in public. As such, they’re fine fodder for media to report upon. The record online, however, also means that when a reporter botches the job or misrepresents an interaction, question or answer, we can all see that, too.
Postscript: Andrew MacRae was critical of the governor and his team’s approach to Reddit and offered a tip for other politicians that venture onto the social news platform for an AMA. More on that in the embedded tweets, below:
— Andrew MacRae (@IAmAMacRae) May 5, 2014
— Andrew MacRae (@IAmAMacRae) May 5, 2014
This post was further updated after the Governor went back online in the afternoon.
[Image Credit: Governor O’Malley]
Last year, Rap Genius launched News Genius to help decode current events. Today, the General Service Administration (GSA) announced that digital annotation service News Genius is now available to help decode federal government Web projects:
“The federal government can now unlock the collaborative “genius” of citizens and communities to make public services easier to access and understand with a new free social media platform launched by GSA today at the Federal #SocialGov Summit on Entrepreneurship and Small Business,” writes Justin Herman, federal social media manager.
“News Genius, an annotation wiki based on Rap Genius now featuring federal-friendly Terms of Service, allows users to enhance policies, regulations and other documents with in-depth explanations, background information and paths to more resources. In the hands of government managers it will improve public services through citizen feedback and plain language, and will reduce costs by delivering these benefits on a free platform that doesn’t require a contract.”
This could be a significant improvement in making complicated policy documents and regulations understandable to the governed. While plain writing is indispensable for open government and mandated by law and regulation, the practice isn’t exactly uniformly practiced in Washington.
If people can understand more about what a given policy, proposed rule or regulation actually says, they may well be more likely to participate in the process of revising it. We’ll see if people adopt the tool, but on balance, that sounds like a step ahead.
What could this look like? As Herman noted, Chicago’s SmartChicago Collaborative uses RapGenius to annotate municipal documents.
The GSA’s first use is for a mentor-protege program.
Here’s hoping more subject matter experts start annotating.
[Image Credit: Huffington Post]
Why did President Barack Obama go on “Between Two Ferns,” an irreverent talk show hosted by comedian Zack Galifiniakis?
The context comes about two thirds in, when the president talked about HealthCare.gov, young “invincibles” and health insurance that costs about as much as a cellphone bill: young people are still not aware of the policy or going to the site.
According to White House officials, the appearance on the show made FunnyOrDie.com, the comedy site that hosts the show, the number one referrer of Traffic to Healthcare.gov today.
— Tara McGuinness (@HealthCareTara) March 11, 2014
Update: According to an unnamed HHS official on a conference call today, some 19,000 of the 3 million people who have watched the video clicked on Healthcare.gov.
— John McCormack (@McCormackJohn) March 11, 2014
Update II: McGuiness tweeted that traffic to Healthcare.gov was up 40% compared to the previous day.
Funnyordie video has 11 million views. http://t.co/a7HUExG0vg traffic for yesterday was up almost 40% from Monday.
— Tara McGuinness (@HealthCareTara) March 12, 2014
In other words, it worked. I’ve asked for more comment from the White House on traffic and conversions and will update this post as necessary.
In the meantime, the answers to whether the president should find young audiences online, the White House should be making animated GIFs or the Department of Health and Human Services should be dabbling in doge memes are all a qualified yes: social media and online video are crucial mediums for outreach to a younger generation that has grown up digital, sharing what they read and watch with their friends and family.
Time Magazine’s’s sharp television critic, James Poniewozik, captured why the President of the United States going onto this particular show and adapting his delivery considerably from what Americans might see in other contexts worked better than, say, a Super Bowl interview:
It’s the tone of the comedy as much as the online medium that really targets the young audience Obama is pitching to here. There’s a cringe-humor generation gap; if you’re over a certain age, or simply haven’t watched much of a certain kind of contemporary comedy, you’ll probably watch it thinking that the segment is bombing and Obama is getting legitimately angry. But it’s a good fit for Obama’s sense of humor, which is a little dry and a little cutting–in ways that don’t always play in rooms when there are no ferns present.
Yesterday afternoon, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence began tumbling towards something resembling more transparency regarding the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance programs.
Launched the website POTUS promised on August 9 as part of an effort to bring greater transparency to intel programs http://t.co/94xLtnZQ9Q
— Ben Rhodes (@rhodes44) August 21, 2013
The new tumblog, “Intelligence Community on the Record,” is a collection of statements, declassified documents, congressional testimony by officials, speeches & media, interviews, fact sheets, details of oversight & legal compliance, and video. It’s a slick, slim new media vehicle, at least as compared to many government websites, although much of the content itself consists of redacted PDFs and images. (More on that later.) It’s unclear why ODNI chose Tumblr as its platform, though the lack of hosting costs, youthful user demographics and easy publishing have to have factored in.
In the context of the global furor over electronic surveillance that began this summer when the Washington Post and Guardian began publishing stories based upon the “NSA Files” leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the new tumblr has been met with a rather …skeptical reception online.
US spy agency now using Tumblr to publish official documents in lame attempt to seem cool. Marissa Mayer overjoyed. http://t.co/QcYJhdZCtl
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) August 21, 2013
— Maria Bustillos (@mariabustillos) August 21, 2013
— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) August 21, 2013
— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) August 21, 2013
Despite its reception, the new site does represent a followthrough on President Obama’s commitment to set up a website to share information with the American people about these programs. While some people in the federal technology sector are hopeful:
— Bob Gourley (@bobgourley) August 21, 2013
…the site won’t be enough, on its own. The considerable challenge that it and the intelligence community faces is the global climate of anger, fear and distrust that have been engendered by a summer of fiery headlines. Despite falling trust in institutions, people still trust the media more than the intelligence community, particularly with respect to its role as a watchdog.
— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) August 9, 2013
Some three hours after it went online, a series of new documents went online and were tweeted out through the new Twitter account, @IConTheRecord:
Three rounds of declassified FISA Section 702 documents are now available via IC ON THE RECORD: http://t.co/tfGC6FiiRx
— Office of the DNI (@ODNIgov) August 21, 2013
The launch of the website came with notable context.
First, as the Associated Press reported, some of the documents released were made public after a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In a significant court victory, the EFF succeeded in prompting the release of a 2011 secret court opinion finding NSA surveillance unconstitutional. It’s embedded below, along with a release on DNI.gov linked through the new tumblr.
The opinion showed that the NSA gathered thousands of Americans’ emails before the court struck down the program, causing the agency to recalibrate its practices.
Second, Jennifer Valentino and Siobhan Gorman Carpenter reported at The Wall Street Journal that the National Security Agency can reach 75% of Internet traffic in the United States. Using various programs, the NSA applies algorithms to filter and gather specific information from a dozen locations at major Internet junctions around North America. The NSA defended these programs as both legal and “respectful of Americans’ privacy,” according to Gorman and Valentino: According to NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines, if American communications are “incidentally collected during NSA’s lawful signals intelligence activities,” the agency follows “minimization procedures that are approved by the U.S. attorney general and designed to protect the privacy of United States persons.”
The story, which added more reporting to confirm what has been published in the Guardian and Washington Post, included a handy FAQ with a welcome section detailed what was “new” in the Journal’s report. The FAQ also has clear, concise summaries of fun questions you might still have about these NSA programs after a summer of headlines, like “What privacy issues does this system raise?” or “Is this legal?”
The NSA subsequently released a statement disputing aspects of the Journal’s reporting, specifically the “the impression” that NSA is sifting through 75% of U.S. Internet communications, which the agency stated is “just not true.” The WSJ has not run a correction, however, standing by its reporting that the NSA possesses the capability to access and filter a majority of communications flowing over the Internet backbone.
Reaction to the disclosures has fallen along pre-existing fault lines: critical lawmakers and privacy groups are rattled, while analysts point to a rate of legal compliance well above 99%, with now-public audits showing most violations of the rules and laws that govern the NSA coming when “roamers” from outside of the U.S.A. traveled to the country.
Thousands of violations a year, however, even if they’re out of more than 240,000,000 made, is still significant, and the extent of surveillance reported and acknowledged clearly has the potential to have a chilling effect on free speech and press freedom, from self-censorship to investigative national security journalism. The debates ahead of the country, now more informed by disclosures, leaks and reporting, will range from increased oversight of programs to legislative proposals to update laws for collection and analysis to calls to significantly curtail or outright dissolve these surveillance programs all together.
Given reports of NSA analysts intentionally abusing their powers, some reforms to the laws that govern surveillance are in order, starting with making relevant jurisprudence public. Secret laws have no place in a democracy.
Setting all of that aside for a moment — it’s fair to say that this debate will continue playing out on national television, the front pages of major newspapers and online outlets and in the halls and boardrooms of power around the country — it’s worth taking a brief look at this new website that President Obama said will deliver more transparency into surveillance programs, along with the NSA’s broader approach to “transparency”. To be blunt, all too often it’s looked like this:
…so heavily redacted that media outlets can create mad libs based upon them.
That’s the sort of thing that leads people to suggest that the NSA has no idea what ‘transparency’ means. Whether that’s a fair criticism or not, the approach taken to disclosing documents as images and PDFs does suggest that the nation’s spy agency has not been following how other federal agencies are approaching releasing government information.
As Matt Stoller highlighted on Twitter, heavily redacted, unsearchable images make it extremely difficult to find or quote information.
Docs released by intelligence agencies are heavily redacted, are not searchable, and there's no copy/paste allowed. http://t.co/R7cy9LEr7u
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) August 22, 2013
Unfortunately, that failing highlights the disconnect between the laudable efforts the Obama administration has made to release open government data from federal agencies and regulators and the sprawling, largely unaccountable national security state aptly described as Top Secret America.”
Along with leak investigations and prosecution of whistleblowers, drones and surveillance programs have been a glaring exception to federal open government efforts, giving ample ammunition to those who criticize or outright mock President Obama’s stated aspiration to be the “most transparent administration in history.” As ProPublica reported this spring, the administration’s open government record has been mixed. Genuine progress on opening up data for services, efforts to leverage new opportunities afforded by technology to enable citizen participation or collaboration, and other goals set out by civil society has been overshadowed with failures on other counts, from the creation of the Affordable Care Act to poor compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and obfuscation of the extend of domestic surveillance.
In that context, here’s some polite suggestions to the folks behind the new ODNI tumblr regarding using the Web to communicate:
- Post all documents as plaintext, not images and PDFs that defy easy digestion, reporting or replication. While the intelligence budget is classified, surely some of those untold billions could be allotted to persons taking time to release information in both human- and machine-readable formats.
- Put up a series of Frequently Asked Questions, like the Wall Street Journal’s. Format them in HTML. Specifically address that reporting and provide evidence of what differs. Posting the joint statement on the WSJ stories as text is a start but doesn’t go far enough.
- Post audio and plaintext transcripts of conference calls and all other press briefings with “senior officials.” Please stop making the latter “on background.” (The transcript of the briefing with NSA director of compliance John DeLong is a promising start, although getting it out of a PDF would be welcome.
- Take questions on Twitter and at firstname.lastname@example.org or something similar. If people ask about programs, point them to that FAQ or write a new answer. The intelligence community is starting behind here, in terms of trust, but being responsive to the public would be a step in the right direction.
- Link out to media reports that verify statements. After DNI Clapper gave his “least untruthful answer” to Senator Ron Wyden in a Congressional hearing, these “on the record” statements are received with a great deal of skepticism by many Americans. Simply saying something is true or untrue is unlikely to be received as gospel by all.
- Use animated GIFs to communicate with a younger demographic. Actually, scratch that idea.
A new paper from Yochai Benkler and co-authors at the Berkman Center maps how the networked public sphere led to the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act being defeated in the U.S. Congress.
“Abstract: “This paper uses a new set of online research tools to develop a detailed study of the public debate over proposed legislation in the United States designed to give prosecutors and copyright holders new tools to pursue suspected online copyright violations.”
Key insight: “We find that the fourth estate function was fulfilled by a network of small-scale commercial tech media, standing non-media NGOs, and individuals, whose work was then amplified by traditional media. Mobilization was effective, and involved substantial experimentation and rapid development. We observe the rise to public awareness of an agenda originating in the networked public sphere and its framing in the teeth of substantial sums of money spent to shape the mass media narrative in favor of the legislation. Moreover, we witness what we call an attention backbone, in which more trafficked sites amplify less-visible individual voices on specific subjects. Some aspects of the events suggest that they may be particularly susceptible to these kinds of democratic features, and may not be generalizable. Nonetheless, the data suggest that, at least in this case, the networked public sphere enabled a dynamic public discourse that involved both individual and organizational participants and offered substantive discussion of complex issues contributing to affirmative political action.”
One data set, however, was missing from the paper: the role of social media, in particular Twitter, in reporting, amplifying and discussing the bills. The microblogging platform connected many information nodes mapped out by Berkman, from hearings to activism, and notably did not shut down when much of the Internet “blacked out” in protest.
The paper extends Benkler’s comments on a networked public commons from last year.
As I wrote then, we’re in unexplored territory. We may have seen the dawn of new era of networked activism and participatory democracy, borne upon the tidal wave of hundreds of millions of citizens connected by mobile technology, social media platforms and open data.
As I also observed, all too presciently, that era will also include pervasive electronic surveillance, whether you’re online and offline, with commensurate threats to privacy, security, human rights and civil liberties, and the use of these technologies by autocratic government to suppress dissent or track down dissidents.
Finding a way for forward will not be easy but it’s clearly necessary.