Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

First POST: Whiz Kids

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, February 27 2014

Whiz Kids

  • "It's just a website. We're not going to the moon." Steven Brill's cover story account in Time Magazine of how a relatively unheralded group of tech stars swooped in to save last fall is studded with such gems. That quote is from Google engineer Mikey Dickerson, one of the squad. As Brill cogently writes:

    "This is the story of a team of unknown--except in elite technology circles--coders and troubleshooters who dropped what they were doing in various enterprises across the country and came together in mid-October to save the website. In about a tenth of the time that a crew of usual-suspect, Washington contractors had spent over $300 million building a site that didn't work, this ad hoc team rescued it and, arguably, Obama's chance at a health-reform legacy. It is also a story of an Obama Administration obsessed with health care reform policy but above the nitty-gritty of implementing it. No one in the White House meetings leading up to the launch had any idea whether the technology worked….The key mistake made by President Obama and his team….is that they had turned only to the campaign's marketing whiz kids instead of the technologists who enabled them.

  • Brill correctly notes: "…one lesson of the fall and rise of has to be that the practice of awarding high-tech, high-stakes contracts to companies whose primary skill seems to be getting those contracts rather than delivering on them has to change. 'It was only when they were desperate that they turned to us,' says Dickerson. 'I have no history in government contracting and no future in it ... I don't wear a suit and tie ... They have no use for someone who looks and dresses like me. Maybe this will be a lesson for them. Maybe that will change.'"

  • And his story ends with a subtle but pointed dig at President Obama, who, Brill notes, never bothered to meet with the team that saved his signature policy initiative: "…in the end he was as aloof from the people and facts he needed to avoid this catastrophe as he was from the people who ended up fixing it."

  • Sasha Issenberg, author of the essential data-driven politics book The Victory Lab, has a feature story in Politico Magazine looking at why campaign volunteers are often more effective than professionals at engaging voters--and whether its possible to mimic that effect with money. Professional call center workers can be trained to sound like volunteers, he reports, but in face-to-face encounters outsiders are often far less convincing.

  • Among the nuggets in Issenberg's story: when 270 Strategies, the consulting firm launched by Obama 2012 organizing leads Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, went to New Jersey to work on Cory Booker's Senate bid, they found the candidate was struggling to mobilize volunteers--despite his Obama-like popularity.

  • This is kind of jaw-dropping: Using documents from Edward Snowden, Spencer Ackerman and James Ball report for the Guardian that Britian's GCHQ, with help from the NSA, collected webcam images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo accounts globally, "including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications." They note that "GCHQ does not have the technical means to make sure no images of UK or US citizens are collected and stored by the system, and there are no restrictions under UK law to prevent Americans' images being accessed by British analysts without an individual warrant."

  • Cory Doctorow nails the central problem with using algorithmic analysis of big data to, for example, try to predict who is likely to commit a violent crime in Chicago--as is now underway there. He writes, "without insight into how the system runs its numbers, we have no way of debating and validating the way it weighs different statistics….In an earlier era, we would have called this discrimination -- or even witchhunting."

  • The White House is considering handing the responsibility for bulk collection and storage of phone metadata to the FBI, an idea that is being criticized by the likes of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a longtime critic of the NSA, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), an original author of the Patriot Act and a co-author of the USA Freedom Act.

  • Politico's Tony Romm tallies up how various tech giants and leading figures are pouring more money into politics in 2014.

  • Dan Levine reports for Reuters that Google has lobbyists at work in at least three states hoping to head off restrictions on wearing Google Glass while driving.

  • The Verge's Ben Popper reports that Uber may have deliberately not activated additional drivers on Valentine's Day weekend to allow its controversial "surge-pricing" to take effect--potentially an unfair business practice.

  • Aminatou Sow, one of two founders of the members-only list-serv Tech Lady Mafia, is profiled in Elle Magazine.

  • Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a member of the banking committee, has asked federal regulators to ban Bitcoin.

  • Re/Code's Kara Swisher takes a hard look at the future of one-time political strategist Mark Penn, who is currently Microsoft's executive vice president for advertising and strategy, but whose aggressive tactics are viewed with suspicion by others inside the giant company.

News Briefs

RSS Feed tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.


Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.


monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.


friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO

thursday >

In Pakistan, A Hypocritical Gov't Ignores Calls To End YouTube Ban

YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan by executive order since September 2012, after the “blasphemous” video Innocence of Muslims started riots in the Middle East. Since then, civil society organizations and Internet rights advocacy groups like Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All have been working to lift the ban. Last August the return of YouTube seemed imminent—the then-new IT Minister Anusha Rehman spoke optimistically and her party, which had won the majority a few months before, was said to be “seriously contemplating” ending the ban. And yet since then, Rehman and her party, the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), have done everything in their power to maintain the status quo.


The #NotABugSplat Campaign Aims to Give Drone Operators Pause Before They Strike

In the #NotABugSplat campaign that launched this week, a group of American, French and Pakistani artists sought to raise awareness of the effects of drone strikes by placing a field-sized image of a young girl, orphaned when a drone strike killed her family, in a heavily targeted region of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Its giant size is visible to those who operate drone strikes as well as in satellite imagery. GO

Boston and Cambridge Move Towards More Open Data

The Boston City Council is now considering an ordinance which would require Boston city agencies and departments to make government data available online using open standards. Boston City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu, who introduced the legislation Wednesday, officially announced her proposal Monday, the same day Boston Mayor Martin Walsh issued an executive order establishing an open data policy under which all city departments are directed to publish appropriate data sets under established accessibility, API and format standards. GO

YouTube Still Blocked In Turkey, Even After Courts Rule It Violates Human Rights, Infringes on Free Speech

Reuters reports that even after a Turkish court ruled to lift the ban on YouTube, Turkey's telecommunications companies continue to block the video sharing site.


wednesday >

Everything You Need to Know About Social Media and India's General Election

The biggest democratic election in the world to date is taking place in India from April 7 to May 14, and, for the first time in India, the results might hinge on who runs a better social media campaign. The Mumbai research firm Iris Knowledge Foundation has said that Facebook will “wield a tremendous influence” but Indian politicians are not limiting their attentions to India's most popular social media platform. In addition to virtual campaigning are initiatives to inform, educate and encourage Indians to participate in their democracy.


EU Court Rejects Data Retention Law, But Data Retention Won't End Overnight

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg struck down a data retention law Tuesday that required telecoms to keep customers' communications data for up to two years, declaring it violated privacy rights. However, experts warn that the ruling will have no automatic effect on relevant laws in member states, which could lead to “messy consequences.”