Net Neutrality Congratulations

"The Internet is the ultimate vehicle for free expression."
                               Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman, February 26, 2015
Congratulations and thank you to the civil society actors who acted to help protect an open internet.

Berkman Center
Center for Democracy and Technology
Common Cause
CREDO Action
Daily Kos
Demand Progress
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Free Press
Fight for the Future
Internet Archive
Media Action Grassroots Network
Mozilla Foundation
National Hispanic Media Coalition
OpenTechnology Institute
Progressive Change Campaign Committee
Public Knowledge
Stanford Center on Internet and Society
Marvin Ammori
Jennifer Granick
Tim Wu
Barbara Van Schewick
and many others.

This a key marker of Digital Civil Society. It counts as a victory both for and of the space. The organizations above, most of which are nonprofits, and the hundreds of thousands of people (millions?) that mobilized through these organizations, with these organizations, or simply in proximity to these organizations came together to protect the right to association and expression on equal terms in digital environments. They formulated, organized for, and persisted in enacting public policy that protects our right to come together and be heard with digital tools and on digital infrastructure. An effect of the FCC ruling to govern the internet and wireless devices under Title II will be continued fair access to digital space for civic association and expression.

It is also a marker of the arrival of an effective, distributed, diverse set of civil society actors built from and dedicated to a digital environment. The actions that made this policy happen are truly "of" the digital age - they are informed by it, shaped by it, and committed to it.

Essentially, with this victory civil society made its own continued existence possible.

This is not the first time (nor will it be the last) that civil society has preserved it's own potential. The history of public spaces and parks, of the First Amendment, of libraries and information access, of rural telephony - these histories precede today's accomplishment. And the accomplishment is more important because of those roots. It is truly an extension of longstanding, core values of democracy into the digital environment and not the compromise of those values by technological complexity or corporate preemption.

Philosophy Talk on Cyber Activism

The radio program Philosophy Talk invited me on to discuss issues of digital civil society. I thought we were going to discuss freedom of association, free expression, and the architecture of the Internet compared to the design choices coded into the apps and web sites built on top of it. I was excited to discuss civil society's need for software that encodes its values and the changing practices of nonprofits and digital humanitarians.

It didn't go quite like that, but we still had a good time. We wound up talking a lot about public-ness, privacy, and digital tools for organizing. You can hear the stream here. You can read Professors Perry and Taylor's blog post here and check out the transcript from a great follow-up web chat here. The questions in the web chat are really good and I found myself wanting to continue those conversations (but alas, that's not the way the technology works).

I cited the research of Zeynep Tufecki, Ethan Zuckerman, Marc Goodman, David Bollier, and Lee Sproull and the work of the Responsible Data Forum, Benetech, ACLU, and Electronic Frontier Foundation throughout the conversations.

And, in the interest of timeliness, read this piece from the Washington Post on how social medai still needs community organizing if change is really possible.

Crowdfunding and philanthropy

A community foundation friend just asked me what's up with crowdfunding? New wine in old bottles or new money? Here's what I said:

"Crowdfunding is here to stay in some form.  I think it's "gateway giving" for folks who live entirely online (now including everyone), will bring in new small dollars that add up, tools for it need to be built natively for mobile devices, and *might* make regular small giving a behavior again for people the way tithing used to be, but won't involve the organizational loyalty of tithing nor will it always be directed to nonprofits."
What's your two cents on crowdfunding and philanthropy?

The Stanford PACS Digital Civil Society Lab is hosting a charrette on civic crowdfunding in May. We're trying to understand where and how crowdfunding tools fit into the overall landscape of private resources for public benefit. Will have more to post here and at the Lab's site.

The #NetGain Challenge

It's great to see several big foundations recognizing that digital infrastructure is now fundamental to civil society. Check out the #NetGainChallenge for several ideas about what we need to ensure that independent private action for public benefit continues to thrive in the digital age. Here's how leaders of five major US Foundations describe the challenge we face:

"In the digital age, it’s essential that the principles that brought us here, of equal access to economic opportunity and civic life, be maintained and preserved."
Ideas for public good software, independent online meeting spaces (not owned by business or surveilled by governments), new forms of philanthropy from the digital wealthy, universal access, new behaviors by existing foundations - you can find all these and more.

We've added ideas from the Digital Civil Society Lab - namely the need for Three Kinds of Code that protect the values and ethics of civil society - new software code, organizational code, and (likely) legal code (or regulations).

We need to engage civil society in internet/wireless/cybersecurity policy debates and connect those debates to the values and needs of civil society. This requires inviting new policy actors to the nonprofit and philanthropy policy tables and getting philanthropy and civil society to show up at the digital policy discussions.

A live gathering is happening today in New York City - livestream is here. Website to vote on ideas is here.

The giving quants or "algorithmic philanthropy"

I spent the weekend preparing for, and then taping, a segment on digital activism for Philanthropy Talk. That's the public radio "car talk" program for philosophical questions. The segment will air in January.

So it's no wonder that I have thought experiments on my mind. Yesterday when I opened The New York Times (the actual paper edition) I read a range of stories. Sometimes when I read the paper my mind plays tricks on me - like, did the person who wrote the story on page A1 read the story on page B8? Today, several stories in the paper seemed to be speaking to each other - the first one was on robots and jobs. The other one was on artificial intelligence research.

Here's where my mind went (bear with me, this will be about philanthropy and civil society)

First, some background:
This year while I was working on the Blueprint, I kept wanting to do more imaginative work on digital technologies. It's one reason I regularly read newsletters from and the Singularity Institute, I go to campus lectures on neural networks and the block chain and other stuff I don't understand and I'm a member of the Long Now Foundation. All efforts to try to learn about far-edge technology. But the far-edge of technology is not the right topic for the Blueprint, since many people who read it are still coming to grips with hashtags and chat apps. So I keep a notebook of thoughts on edgy technology and civil society, trying to figure out what to do with them. This year, one of the pre-readers of the Blueprint said to me, " You know, this is all well and good, but what about the really interesting technological stuff - like neural networks and pattern recognition and AI and robots, and what not?"

So he and I went off and had coffee. And we're trying to figure out what to do with my notes, his observations, and the intersections and implications of cutting-edgier science and technology on philanthropy and civil society.*

Reading the two news stories noted above, I learn that many economists are no longer sure that   technological advances (such as robotics) will create more jobs than they destroy. And then, turn a few pages, and I read about a 100 year study to look at the real effects of artificial intelligence. That is, the study begins now and will run for 100 years. Where will the study take place? Stanford University (with lots of academic partners). It's called AI100

So how do you reconcile these two thoughts - "tech is changing the economy but not augmenting it" with "let's invest now in something to run for 100 years." You make a gift to a nonprofit. Admittedly, a nonprofit with a large endowment, but what is to say that this university (or any institution) will withstand the very forces this study aims to examine? In other words, if you make a 100 year bet to understand a technology's impact, how do you know the technology won't destroy the place you made the bet before the century is up?**

Now, the thought experiment (When AI ate philanthropy)
Assume some folks begin to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence, data and data analytics to the increasing amount of quantitative data being generated by and about social  organizations. This is a completely plausible step from where we are now - what with the effective altruism movement, random control trials, and the emerging data infrastructure for philanthropy. One possibility is such a trajectory leads to the Hedge Fund version of donors - "quant givers." Guided by algorithms and data (replacing program officers and philanthropy advisors) machines would match a donor's dollars with social causes. If we assume that the capacity to do this (at least in the short term) would take a lot of money to build out, we can also assume that the charitable dollars would be coming from wealthy people (or perhaps pools of money from donors, pushing further on the hedge fund metaphor), and so the gifts would also be large. As such, they'd be attractive to organizations, who would try to fit themselves into the models (just as organizations "optimize their search terms" to fit Google search algorithms). Because the algorithms "learn," they get better and better at finding and matching, data crunching and report generating. They create their own, powerful, self-sustaining feedback loop.

It's possible such algorithmic philanthropy could drive enough resources and draw enough attention from fund seeking nonprofits. The feedback loop thus grows to a larger force that begins to change the kinds of measures and metrics that lots of nonprofits track and provide. This leads to behavior change among the vast swath of nonprofits, changing the "marketplace" of options available to smaller, more passion-oriented (or simply less data-driven) donors (i.e. most of us). What would it do to the measures and data that were collected and fed into the machines?

How much would it take before the quant-driven feedback loop affected change throughout the ecosystem of nonprofits? How would parallel movements of impact investing and performance measures, earned revenue and double bottom lines play into this story? How would the more personal, direct-involvement approach of most donors counteract this approach? What countervaling influence could intuition, expression, personal passions, minority voice, and donor choice have on this feedback loop? Just how far can we rationalize/algorithmically structure giving? And how far should we? What if we took all the humanity out of philanthropy?

One likely answer to that question is that the measures would focus ever more on quantifiable, short term outputs that can be easily collected. From the perspective of the algorithm it would be harder to justify longer-term investments in hard-to- measure activities (it would also probably skip over startups with no metrics at all). Long term enterprises and startups might not even "make it into the data" being used by the algorithms.

What falls into this category of long-term hard-to-measure charitable opportunities? Well lots of things like advocacy, policy analysis, and basic research. Oh, and endowed universities.

So, are 100 year research efforts on technological change even possible? How do we factor in the effects of these digital technologies on the peripheral technologies like nonprofit universities that house them? What happens when the thing being researched consumes the place that conducts the research?

*What do you think we should do? A new blog? An annual look at just tech and philanthropy? A "hype cycle" analysis? A two by two?
**This paradox, by the way, is one of the reasons I believe so strongly in focusing on the effects of digital innovation on civil society. Most studies of digital change look at their implications for business or government and assume that nonprofits will just keep on keeping on. I think that's nuts.