Mapping New York City’s Civic Commons

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Winston ChurchillNew York, August 20, 2015 – Churchill nailed it in 1947 when he said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others which have been tried from time to time.” For decades thereafter traditional Western Democracy was the tarnished global standard.

But with the Internet’s ascent people began to believe something better was possible. That belief fueled our advocacy for the .nyc TLD. Through it we imagined more open, transparent, and accountable governance processes, a post-Churchillian democracy where connected residents could more readily participate in decision making. One foundation for that was a civic commons.

[Background: The term commons refers to cultural and natural resources accessible to everyone, such as air, language, water, and a habitable earth. Commons are not owned by the private sector or government. With the activation of the .nyc TLD a new civic commons became possible, one formed around domain names such as issues.nyc and voting.nyc. More on this below.]

A lack of meaningful support for .nyc from City Hall diminished our expectations for our city’s TLD and for the civic commons. In recent months, we’ve been turning our attention elsewhere. But two recent reports highlighted the need for an improved civic commons and jerked our attention back to .nyc. The first was an article in Science reporting on research demonstrating how the Internet exerts a massive influence on voting and elections. The second, a New York Times article detailing the opacity of algorithms (invisible computer code that determines who sees what in searches), and how they sometimes result in the de facto placement of gender and racially biased ads.

After taking a fresh look at these and other challenges brought on by digitization, we decided to present this review of the role and advantages a robust digital commons would have on our city’s operation and quality of life. But first a look at those reports in Science and the Times.

Biased Algorithms

The Science article reported on work by Robert Epstein that conclusively demonstrated what most of us know intuitively: The higher a candidate’s rank on a page of Internet search results, the more likely voters are to choose them. Summarized his finding Epstein said: “What we’re talking about here is a means of mind control on a massive scale that there is no precedent for in human history.”

That’s a strong claim. Let’s take a look at his research.

In one experiment, Epstein, a research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research in Vista, California, and his associates recruited three groups of 102 volunteers. The researchers built a fake search engine they called Kadoodle that responded to search inquiries by returning a list of 30 websites, 15 for each of the candidates. What the volunteers didn’t know was that the search engine had been rigged to display biased results. For example, in one scenario a subject would see a list of 15 websites with information about one candidate followed by 15 similar results for the opponent. Predictably, the subjects spent far more time reading Web pages near the top of the list. Before and after questionnaires detailed the impact of the biased presentation: in one instance the rigged search results increased the number of undecided voters choosing the favored candidate by 48%.

Mind control contraption with monitor and pipes

Interestingly, the subjects who noticed they were being manipulated were more likely to vote in line with the biased results. Of these voters Epstein says, “What they’re saying is, ‘Well yes, I see the bias and that’s telling me … the search engine is doing its job.’”

In a second experiment the scientists recruited 2,100 participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The large sample allowed them to pinpoint the demographics of those most vulnerable to search engine manipulation: the divorced, Republicans, and subjects who reported low familiarity with the candidates. From these results, Epstein concluded:

“In a two-person race, a candidate can only count on getting half of the uncommitted votes, which is worthless. With the help of biased search rankings, a candidate might be able to get 90% of the uncommitted votes [in select demographics].”

Other research by Epstein revealed that a search engine doesn’t have to intentionally manipulate for a biased effect to manifest. Search algorithms put one candidate’s name higher on the list based on factors like “relevance” and “credibility.” But the meaning and impact of these terms on displayed results are closely guarded by the developers at Google and other major search engines.

“It’s easy to point the finger at the algorithm because it’s this supposedly inert thing, but there are a lot of people behind the algorithm,” commented Nicholas Diakopoulos, an independent computer scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “I think that it does pose a threat to the legitimacy of the democracy that we have. We desperately need to have a public conversation about the role of these systems in the democratic processes.”

The New York Times article, When Algorithms Discriminate, talked about two forms of biased search algorithms that deter advancement by women into executive positions. In one instance job search sites offer more good jobs to men than to women. In another image searches for CEO’s exaggerate men’s occupancy in top positions.

Upon close examination it’s clear that some code is negatively influencing our fundamental rights and beliefs. In one instance decades of progress on expanding and enhancing the quality of the vote is being lost by the haphazard replacement of traditional candidate evaluation systems by new technology. In another, gender and racial equality are silently being eroded by invisible filters that insufficiently respect our cultural norms.

We need to be more vigilant about protecting our hard won standards for human and social rights. Luckily there’s a commons within the .nyc where these and other civic issues can be addressed.

The Civic Commons

commons cooperation  One of the empowering features of a city TLD is the new “space” it creates. It’s not as tangible as the land upon which housing and office space are created, but in a digital era it offers enormous opportunity. It’s time civil society identify and develop the commons space within the .nyc TLD. Here are a few examples of domain names that will support a civic commons:

  • Search.nyc – To address the voting issues discussed above we should craft the “search.nyc” domain name to provide fair returns on candidate searches. Designed with impartiality and transparency in mind, it can foster fair and trusted elections.
  • Voter.nyc – The voter.nyc name set (voter.nyc, voting.nyc, voters.nyc, candidates.nyc) is another part of the civic commons that should be crafted to facilitate elections and election time decisions.
  • Issues.nyc – Long and short term discussions of citywide import should be addressed in a thoughtfully organized issues.nyc space. Potential solutions identified here could feed into the voter.nyc name set.
  • Neighborhoods.nyc – A most useful set of commons spaces is being made available through the neighborhoods name set. Nearly 400 names have been reserved to empower local residents to address the concerns of everyday life. For the first time ever New Yorkers could have access to an effective local communication system.
  • Meta Names – Intuitive names that facilitate locating these sites need to be identified, developed, and promoted for example, CivicCommons.nyc, NewYorkCommons.nyc, and CommonsIndex.nyc.

Note: A robust commons advantages all sectors of society. For example, the “level playing field” created by search.nyc also provides advantages for city businesses and visitors.

Creating The Civic Commons

In creating our civic commons we can draw upon the success of commons in other realms such as fisheries and farm irrigation systems. And important lessons on governing a digital commons are available from the success of Wikipedia.

Nobel Prize winning economist Elinore Ostrom detailed four factors that define areas where commons can succeed, and with a city TLD meeting them all, we should confident as we approach the task. Those factors:

  • A definable boundary – This is certainly true of the intuitive domain names that comprise our commons. Each is a unique name within the well defined boundaries of the Internet’s domain name system.
  • Difficulty of substitution – One can easily create a BestSearch.nyc or ImportantIssues.nyc, but once claimed and coherently marketed as the city’s patrimony, it becomes clear that there is but one commons.
  • Presence of a community – While a big, great city, New York is but 1/10th of 1% of the world’s population living on a 450 square mile spec of planet Earth. Its residents have a common interest in assuring the social and economic betterment of their city.
  • A final condition is that there be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for misuse. Crafting these rules is a key challenge. But we’ve 400 years experience creating a city of laws and regulations, and with recent precedents from the likes of Wikipedia, the task should be doable.

The planning, design, funding, and oversight of the civic commons will best be achieved using a multi-stakeholder engagement model involving academia, business, civic society, government, residents, and the technical community. This outreach philosophy is having success in areas such as Internet governance, and combined with our traditional governance system, should facilitate a successful undertaking.

commons planning

There’s good news to start. The de Blasio Administration took some positive steps early on by setting aside some commons names on a reserved list. Nearly 400 neighborhood names – GreenwichVillage.nyc, Harlem.nyc, etc. – were on the list along with search.nyc and vote.nyc. Identification and acquisition of other names should take place early while the name price is low.

City officials are currently looking for a business and governance model to support the operation of the neighborhood names. The adventurous can go today to neighborhoods.nyc and begin the process of acquiring a neighborhood domain name. Working out the details of a governance model will perhaps be the most difficult task.

Beyond governance there are design and technical issues, exemplified perhaps by search.nyc. We’ve posted on that particular name on our Transparent Search wiki page.

Success with the commons requires strong support from City Hall. Empowering city residents was a campaign theme of the de Blasio Administration so one might expect strong support for a stakeholder controlled civic commons. Tasks for City Hall include:

  • Advertise / Market / Outreach / Promote  – Getting the word out in New York City is an enormously expensive proposition. City Hall must promote the commons with the same vigor and persistence used for 911, 311, and nyc.gov. As an initial sign of support it should commit to moving the city’s website from nyc.gov to gov.nyc.
  • Convene – All stakeholders should be invited into the planning processes. A supportive organizational structure and staff should empower meaningful participation. A versatile civic entity such as the Municipal Art Society or perhaps the reborn City Club should have a role here.
  • Autonomy – City Hall must not micromanage the commons. While contracts controlling .nyc’s operation place ultimate authority in city hall, the stakeholder communities that oversee the various spaces (domain names) must have rule making and management authority – within our system of laws.
  • Funding – The sale of domain name is generating a surplus. These funds should be sufficient to support the development of the commons and should be channeled to a Commons Development Authority to facilitate implementation. Should additional funds be necessary, the Authority should be empowered to facilitate their acquisition.
  • Finally – .london, .paris, .tokyo and 30 other cities have been similarly empowered to create their own civic commons. But for lack of precedent and awareness they may miss the opportunity. Mayor de Blasio should collaborate with other global cities to develop governance processes and share best practices for their civic commons.

Read more:

  • Robert Epstein’s experiments in Science are available here.
  • See this Times article on gender and racially biased algorithms.
  • See our Transparent Search wiki page for starting points on building a city-friendly search engine.

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Our thanks for the use of their Creative Commons images to KraljAleksandar for Churchill, Jagarnot for Syndicated Mind Control, Victor Ponce for Tragedy, and Christine Prefontaine for What…

 

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.London Premium Domain Name Auctions Start

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London Evening Standard LogoNew York, July 15, 2015 – While New York City officials consider ways to issue the city-shaping and valuable Premium Domain Names – hotels.nyc, sports.nyc, news.nyc – London has settled on a plan for allocating its Premium Names. According to a story in today’s London Evening Standard:

Fifty of the most prized “dot London” website domain names are being auctioned from today to raise tens of thousands of pounds for the Standard’s charitable Dispossessed Fund.

Generic names such as cars.london, cinema.london, coffee.london, food.london and shoes.london were open to bids at noon at the domainauctions.london online sales room.

It is the latest phase of the roll-out of the new dot London website addresses with 64,000 already registered since launch in April 2014.

Up to a quarter of the proceeds from the auction, which closes at midday on July 30, will go to charities supported by the Dispossessed Fund subject to a cap of £50,000.

How much might the auction raise overall? Take a look at the early results here. With two weeks to go before this first auction concludes, rooms.london has a bid of £5,100 (about $8,000), with west.london in second place with a £2,501. So it would seem the Standard’s Disposessed Fund will max out with a £50,000 contribution.

The article mentions nothing about public interest commitments so our guess is that there are none, and that the Disposessed Fund is a fig leaf for the public interest.

Here in New York we’ve recommended that important Premium Names have public interest commitments attached. (Note: The city has set aside 3,069 names for consideration as premium names, some of which have little baring on the civic good such as 777.nyc and zero.nyc. We support auctioning these names.)

Public Interest Commitments will vary, perhaps requiring that hotels.nyc fairly present all the city’s hotels and that news.nyc and sports.nyc be based on local content. The New York Internet Society and Connecting.nyc Inc. organized a panel last December that suggested a PIC Oversight Board to delve into the intricacies of the allocation process.

Premium Names are a cornerstone of a successful city-TLD design plan. London seems to have taken its lead from General Motors’ chief Charles Erwin Wilson, saying (excuse our paraphrase) “What’s good for domain name sales is good for our city”. We await Mayor de Blasio’s plan.

 

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Introducing dotNYC Explorer

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dotNYC Explorer #1Jackson Hts., New York, July 9, 2015 – Joel Natividad of Ontondia.com put together a dotNYC Explorer based on information on .nyc registrants provided by DoITT, the city agency with oversight of the .nyc TLD. Take a look.

It’s a great tool. Here are a couple of hints for getting the most out of Explorer:

  • When you get to Explorer’s birthplace on Beta.nyc, you’ll see the summary page, like the one above. Click on the blue “Launch Website” button on the left and interact with the live data on the tableau.com website. (While on Beta.nyc take a look around. Beta is a great civic organization, consider getting involved.)
  • After clicking Launch Website you’ll see essentially the same info on tableau.com, but now it’s live. Click a bar on one of the graphs and see the names in the List box on the left change. For example, in the “First Char” graph, click on the bar representing 5 characters and see the list of 5 character names presented in the List box. NOTE: This is kind of tricky – you must click on the bar above the horizontal line, not on the number 5 itself.
  • Drill down by clicking on 2 bars – the First Char and Length – to see specifics.
  • Finally, once you’ve drilled down, you can click on the names in the List box and be taken to a who.is site with lots of details about that domain name.

We’re hoping for a Version 2 in the near future that will include a mapping capacity enabling New Yorkers to readily discern if more names are registered in Coney Island or Canarsie.

Our thanks to Joel Natividad, Beta.nyc, and DoITT for making this possible.

 

 

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City-TLDs and the Multistakeholder Model – Comments To ICANN

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Thomas Lowenhaupt - ICANN53 presentation to Board of directorsJune 26, 2015, Buenos Aires – Over the past few months we’ve grown increasingly distressed over the city’s failure to initiate a new governance process for the .nyc TLD. As we’ve mentioned previously, the city’s residents and businesses lost their say in planning our city’s TLD when the .NYC Advisory Board ceased operating last December.

While at the recent ICANN conference in Buenos Aires we learned that New York is not alone in its disregard for stakeholder engagement. Indeed, we were unable to find a city-TLD that respected the multistakeholder model in their TLD’s planning, design, and development.

Responding to the flawed governance process for city TLDs,  Connecting.nyc Inc.’s Thomas Lowenhaupt offered the following comment to the ICANN’s Broad of Directors at its June 25 Public Forum in Buenos Aires:

My name is Thomas Lowenhaupt. I live in New York City, and I’d like to speak about the public interest and city-TLDs.

On April 19th, 2001, a resolution I introduced was approved by a local governance body in New York City. Entitled “The Internet Empowerment Resolution,” it called for the development of the .NYC TLD as a public interest resource.

Now, a little over 15 years later, .NYC is operating with close to 80,000 names issued. One might imagine that I’d be standing before you filled with delight and joy. But the opposite is true.

In New York City, in all these years, there has not been a meaningful public hearing about our city’s TLD.

We’re not alone in that regard. This past Sunday at a geo-TLD meeting held right down the hall, I asked the representative from .PARIS about public engagement in developing its name allocation plan. She responded that there have not been any public meetings.

How might we improve this situation and insert the public interest?

I believe an effective process is before us, the multistakeholder model.

When ICANN again begins accepting applications for cities, a fundamental requirement of the process should be that all stakeholder groups have had a meaningful opportunity to participate in a consensus-based planning process. A meaningful opportunity to participate in a consensus-based planning processes. Any application for a city TLD should detail how it embodies the informed consent of all stakeholders. Informed consent.

Such a plan would define the public interest.

In support of this statement, over the past months we’ve advanced the concept of “informed consent” into the ICANN’s policy development processes. And in the coming years we’ll advocate for bottom up, multistakeholder governance by cities applying for their TLDs, and for public engagement in their ongoing operation. (Creative Commons photo courtesy of ICANN)

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Souvenirs.nyc and Google’s Secret Sauce

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SEO Logos imagesJackson Hts., New York, June 8, 2015 – Imagine if Google gave preference in its search results to websites using .nyc domain names. So that whenever someone looked to buy bananas, batteries, beefsteak, bikes, boats, booze, bras, broaches, or whatever – if a website using a .nyc domain name was selling it, and other things being equal, the .nyc site would show higher on Google’s search results page. Cowabunga!

That would be a giant boon to the city’s businesses and economy. A mad rush to get .nyc domain names would follow, by speculators and by existing businesses looking to convert from their .com’s to the new hot TLD.

On Tuesday evening, June 9, 6:15 PM, the .NYC Domain Meetup (see details) is to examine “souvenirs.nyc” and the sterling placement it receives from Google search. Depending on the precise search, souvenirs.nyc shows up 3rd or 4th in Google’s listings; a remarkable result considering it was only activated several weeks ago. Art Mal, its owner and the organizer of the .NYC Domains, will explain how he achieved these results. We’re all hoping one factor is a change to Google’s search algorithm, that perhaps they’ve given preference for .nyc sites in response to our strict nexus and other policies.

With few souvenirs available for sale on the site, we suspect that Art’s a SEO wizard, but… we’ve long advised that one reason a city should consider operating a TLD is the boost a trusted TLD can have on a search engine’s ranking of its resources. If search engines consider your TLD “trusted”, like the .gov and .edu TLDs, the economic benefits would be huge. (We’ve a wiki page on the trusted city here.)

Trust of this sort arises from two factors: restricted entry and ongoing oversight. To buy a .nyc name one needs to prove city residence, so we’re +1 on the restricted access. Oversight is trickier. Both .gov and .edu have ongoing oversight: If you’ve a complaint about sites on either TLD, there’s a reasonable prospect of recourse. We’ve not heard of any city plans to provide such oversight, but the capacity exists and we’re hoping we missed a press release.

We’ll be looking for evidence of trust at the souvenirs.nyc meeting and will report our findings here.

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