Last week I attended MozFest 2017 as a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellow. This year there was a huge emphasis placed on building a diverse and inclusive community of technologists engaging critically with the internet – a crucial decision that really added value and weight to the conversations we were having.
The Thursday night before the conference, the other fellows and I set up a booth to hand out the zines we had each created. I designed a zine called “The Ordinary Affects of Facebook,” which explored the personal narratives and anecdotes I had collected from friends about their affective experience on the platform. The content for the zine came from research I conducted for my ITP master’s thesis on Facebook.
I also handed out another zine entitled “Altered States: AR and the Politics of Urban Social Memory” which summarized some of the concepts I spoke about in a workshop Zoe Bachman and I taught last week at Pioneer Works.
Some highlights and general themes:
I attended a hands-on session with the organization CHAYN, which aims to build tools to empower women online. In groups we brainstormed ways in which we could use metaphors, illustrations, and GIFs to illustrate the basic principles of digital security: VPNs, malware, cookies/trackers, etc. I found it to be a useful exercise to take some of these complex ideas and break them down into simple, concrete metaphors. For instance, we were thinking about cookies/trackers in terms of health/nutrition and VPNs in terms of stamps in a passport.
In a keynote, Matt Mitchell of CryptoHarlem spoke about strategies for establishing digital security norms at NGOs. He argues that we should be treating security the same way we treat sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace: through a code of conduct. Start by creating a (1) Security policy (2) Checklist for emergencies (3) Data retention policy (4) ‘Weakest link’ policy (5) Making digital norms a regular practice, starting with the onboarding process.
Algorithmic bias & policing
The ACLU is investigating law enforcement’s paid use of Geofeedia, a now-defunct social analytics software that purported to identify social media users who were radical Islamists. The ACLU obtained thousands of emails and training documents through a FOIA request to better understand how Boston’s police department was using the software. The issue here is that data isn’t collected uniformly and often just reflects institutional bias.
Keynote speaker Julia Angwin spoke about the investigative work she’s done at ProPublica on policing and algorithms. She emphasized the ways in which our society metes out forgiveness and punishment selectively. Algorithms that predict risk of recidivism or car insurance algorithms that are based on zip code penalize one set of people, while forgiveness for another set of people is baked into the algorithms. More systems of oversight and accountability are needed.
Global Voices introduced its report analyzing and critiquing Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ program, which is Facebook’s attempt to bring more people online in areas where there is low internet penetration. Global Voices’ research found that the program gives users access to a suite of pre-loaded apps that are largely Western-centric and prioritize Facebook products. The research also found that contrary to Facebook’s claims that it was not collecting data on Free Basics Users, users were constantly sharing data with Facebook. The program violates the basic tenets of net neutrality, with certain websites being prioritized over others.
In a panel discussion, lawyers and policymakers from Brazil, the EU, the U.S., and India discussed the particular contours and challenges of net neutrality in their respective countries and strategies for keeping the internet open. From the U.S. perspective, Gigi Sohn reminded us that consumers now predominantly view broadband internet as a pipe – and we should therefore treat it as a utility. In the EU, there are questions questions about where the open internet ends and our personal networks start. The introduction of the Marco Civil internet bill of rights in Brazil was groundbreaking for net neutrality, but it is not necessarily enforceable. In India, the net neutrality debate has been derailed by parties who argue that free access to the internet should be prioritized over competition between telecom companies.
Verge reporter Sarah Jeong and data scientist and activist Emily Gorcenski had a conversation in which they discussed the distinct affordances of social platforms and how clickbait profiteers were able to hijack these platforms to disseminate fake news stories. The problem of ‘fake news’ is at its heart a structural problem, as we are producing content that is meant to propagate. “We’ve figured out how to weaponize people’s confirmation bias,” says Gorcenski.