Perspectives

The 20th Century’s War on the 21st

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  • Andrew Rasiej, Personal Democracy Forum & Civic Hall

  • Andrew Rasiej, Personal Democracy Forum & Civic Hall

Speaker

Andrew Rasiej
Founder and Publisher, Personal Democracy Media


Kirkpatrick: Andrew Rasiej is not only the co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum but—I’ll read you his multiple other titles. He just co-founded something called Civic Hall in New York, which is an incredibly exciting community center for civic and technology activists that happens to be only two blocks from our office in New York, so we are members of that. He’s also senior technology advisor to the Sunlight Foundation—which is somewhat self-explanatory—and chairman of the New York Tech Meetup. He does a lot of great things. He even ran for New York City Public Advocate at one point on a pro-broadband and Wi-Fi campaign many years ago. But, please, come up here and tell us whatever you want to talk about.

Rasiej: Thank you for that very kind introduction. So I like to think of myself as an optimist, and I’ve been involved in the arena of technology and politics essentially from its very beginning. I remember being on the Howard Dean campaign and watching how blogs were creating communities donating huge amounts of money to his campaign, long before we had YouTube or Facebook or any of the data analytics that the presidential campaigns are doing now, and long before anybody even thought about the debacle of Healthcare.gov. So I got into this space thinking everything was going to be great, but actually, I’m getting a little bit worried.

Let me start off by asking you a couple of questions. How many of you believe that the world would be a better place if all seven billion human beings were connected to the Internet? And is there anybody here who thinks that that would not be a good thing? Okay, we’ve got one. There’s always an outlier.

Okay. And how many of you think that even though Congress just passed a law reining in the NSA and the mass surveillance that the United States was doing, that the NSA will actually stop doing it? Anybody?

That’s a really interesting—not even the outlier agrees with me on that one. By the way, just on that one real quickly, think about the fact that the law that we passed just covers the people in the United States. It doesn’t cover the rest of the planet. How stable would the world be if we were able to stop surveilling ourselves but we could still surveil everyone else in the world?

And the last question is, when was the last time you read a terms of service all the way through before you clicked “agree”?

Okay. So I believe you can separate the world into two very distinct parts. The world can be separated basically by 1994 and the invention of the Netscape browser, which basically made the Internet real for most people. So I like to call that BI versus AI, before Internet versus after Internet.

Now, before Internet, can anybody name—and there are a few outliers here for sure, but can anybody name a government or an institution or a corporation of any kind founded before 1994 that today wants to see the Internet distributed to as many people as possible at the lowest possible cost and as open as possible?

But it’s the AI side that actually has me more worried. Let’s take Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin]’s mantra at its core in 1994: make all the world’s information available to everybody and do no evil. Well, I think that they meant it, but unfortunately, they’re not able to do that as much as they would like because of three basic reasons.

First, it’s really hard to do no evil and make money.

The second reason is that the BI guys are starting to fight back. SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act] and PIPA [PROTECT IP Act] was just one direct example, but let me just say this: If libraries did not exist today, they would be banned. There’s no way the copyright industry would allow libraries to exist.

But even though the Internet was saved in the battle over SOPA, it’s still being attacked in lots of other places, not by a stronghold through the neck, but by a thousand little cuts. But what makes it even worse on the AI side for Google’s initial goal—oh, I’m sorry, let me just quickly tell you about this. This is an example of—just last week, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission tried to pass a regulation that stated that anytime the software of an Uber or Lyft app was touched, it would have to be preapproved by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

But the reason why Google’s going to have a really hard time making sure all the world’s information is available to everybody is because there’s a whole cadre of companies, particularly Facebook, that are busy taking advantage of the lack of regulation, the lack of understanding, the potential of technology to build massive businesses based on collecting our data.

And how many actually believe that Internet.org is actually about the Internet? We have one outlier: David [Kirkpatrick].

So it’s BI versus AI. Another way to think about it, it’s the currency of cash, represented by the Federal Reserve here, versus the currency of information. It’s money versus information. Or maybe another way of saying it is information is money.

But the problem is that it’s getting worse, because we now have the Internet of Things, and we are creating algorithms that are being installed in our devices, in our cars. If you plug anything into a computer plugged into your car that allows you to control that car, you’re doing something illegal. You’re jail-breaking your car.

What kind of world will we live in when we start having to jailbreak our houses? Everything that’s being built is being built with DRM built into it and is being controlled by people who are interested in making money, thinking they’re making our lives better—but we’re not part of the conversation. And our devices are leaking everywhere. How many of you have an encrypted email address or have ever tried to use one? Three people, four people?

In Eastern Germany, it took one person to surveil 60. Now, with our surveillance state, it’s one can follow 10,000. And the kinds of technologies that are being deployed are getting scarier and scarier. In fact, there’s a technology now that police officers can use, when they check a license plate number. It does an instant graph of the social media profile of the driver and it gives them a percentage of potential of that driver being particularly interested in things like Black Lives Matter or I Can’t Breathe. Is that the kind of world we want?

We’re building a panopticon. And we’re complicit. Everybody’s watching everybody. Except, the rules aren’t being made by us.

So I think some of you will recognize this picture. This is the NSA’s data center in Utah. I believe the government is trying to build a new type of Federal Reserve. Doesn’t look like the one on the left. It looks like the one on the right. And it’s a Federal Reserve for information, controlled and regulated by the few and not by the many.

And something’s wrong when the best engineers working for the government are not working on Healthcare.gov, they’re working here. And there’s something really wrong when the smartest people in the country are working in Silicon Valley, building face recognition technology for cats. This is a true project. You have two cats, they have different diets, you can have a machine now feed them automatically.

Kirkpatrick: And make a video of it.

Rasiej: And we’re going to give our police officers cameras so we can record all their interactions with the public. Who owns that data? What about the innocent people captured on that video, what about their privacy? How do we know that that video and the data associated and the metadata collected is even true?

We had a beautiful democracy that was designed in the agricultural age, when most of us were working 16 hours a day and didn’t have time to delve into the country’s business. It’s been subverted in the Industrial Age to some degree, and it’s obsolete in the Digital Age.

I don’t think there’s even 10 members of Congress who understand how the Internet works. In fact, this is a line that I used back in 2004 when I was working for Howard Dean, and it’s still true today: politicians don’t know the difference between a server and a waiter.

It’s not funny. I’m serious. It’s actually not funny.

Can anybody tell me what this is?

Audience 1: Gerrymandered districts.

Rasiej: We have a broken democracy and I’m afraid it’s not fixable. We have far too much money in politics. We have gerrymandering. We vote on Tuesdays, because it was farmers market day.

Imagine if Congress was allowed to vote from home instead of having to come to Washington? Far more women would run for office, because they wouldn’t have to make the trek every week. But they don’t, because they come here because of K Street and because of the money that they can collect here. Not the only reason—I know I’m being a little bit overt there.

The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when the government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed corporations.

And here’s the other problem. The problem is it’s hard for us to imagine something else. My favorite quote from Henry Ford, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.” Just like the Taxi and Limousine Commission is trying to regulate Uber and Lyft, we have a government now that’s sort of like the Horse Traders Association designing the specs for carburetors. It is completely disconnected, and it’s not something that we can fix incrementally, because the speed at which this is growing and moving is faster and faster.

But there are a few things we can do. You can start securing your data and learning how, and teaching your children how.

We should change our privacy policies that you see when every company offers you one. They should be called data usage policies. They don’t even have to change the provisions in them. They should just be honest with the public that they’re not actually protecting our privacy. They’re using our data. And maybe we want them to use our data, but we should have a conversation about what the exchange of value is associated with that.

And the Internet has to stop being really good at saying no, and we’ve got to learn how to get it to say yes. We need more investment in companies that are trying to do that. I’ll give you an example of one. It’s called Loomio. If you have a chance, take a look at it. It was started in New Zealand. It’s about 150,000 people using it in about 30 countries around the world, trying to build a better way for decision-making, collective decision-making. And I’m not talking about direct democracy. I’m talking about iteration, debate, argument, and consensus. And we have to not have walled gardens. We need an Internet where everyone is connected.

We need to change our regulations related to language in school, and make coding a language. Imagine if we had a society where coding was actually allowed to be taught in school like any other language.

Information is a new currency, and it’s the currency of democracy. We can protect it. We can make it fulfill many of our hopes and aspirations.

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