Workshop: Empowering New York City’s Neighborhoods

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Neighborhood Preservation Center

This event’s report is now available.

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March 8, 2016, Jackson Hts., New York – The de Blasio administration has initiated a program to license operators of the 385 neighborhood domain names: Astoria.nyc, Bensonhurst.nyc, Corona.nyc, Ditmars.nyc, Egbertville.nyc, Flatbush.nyc, GreenwichVillage.nyc, Harlem.nyc…

On Tuesday, March 22 at 7 PM we’re sponsoring a workshop to review that licensing program and explore ways to connect the independent operators of these civic media centers. Here’s the agenda:

  • Update on the city’s neighborhood domain name licensing program.
  • Share experiences and expectations of license applicants.
  • Structure and Voice: What organizational structure will best enable operators of these “dotNeighborhoods” to share best practices and be represented before city and other regulatory entities? How can these operations collaborate to create open-source modules such as ad collaboratives, bulletin boards, calendars, DNS allocators, etc?

One outcome might include the formation of an Alliance of of Neighborhood Media Centers to develop principles, policy positions, and best practices.

Where: The Neighborhood Preservation Center, 232 East 11th Street
When: Tuesday, March 22, 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Light refreshments will be provided. Reserve a seat by emailing [email protected] or using our Meetup reservation page.

Can’t make it? The meeting will be recorded by our co-sponsor, the New York Internet Society.

Note: Interested in operating a neighborhood name? Begin your exploration on our beginners guide Adding Internet Mojo To Neighborhoods.

This event’s report is now available.

 

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Global Internet Governance: The Road Ahead

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United Nations General Assembly 2015

United Nations, New York, December 17, 2015 – Yesterday our esteemed colleague, Parminder Jeet Singh of ICT for Change, presented a speech before the United Nations General Assembly on global Internet governance. He began by asking,

The Internet is fundamentally transforming our world. These changes will be no less far-reaching than those of the industrial revolution.

The question then is: is the world today politically more mature, than it was in that distant past, to be able to better guide this transformation towards our common goals?

He then presented a three pronged path for answering this question.

First of all, we must give up the idea of Internet exceptionalism…

Next; the fully justified fear of possible statist abuse of the Internet has to be addressed by putting robust checks and balances into its governance mechanisms…

And thirdly, Madam President, a so-called tension between multilateralism and multistakeholderism must be resolved – through the test of democracy.

See the 5 minute video at http://www.itforchange.net/UNGA_WSIS10 and the full text http://justnetcoalition.org/2015/to_UN_GA.pdf.

Our thanks and congratulations go to Mr. Singh.

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Mapping New York City’s Civic Commons

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Winston Churchill(Note: A later, and in some ways  improved, version of this post “City Must Use .NYC to Create a Real Civic Commons” was published by CityLimits on September 14th.)

New 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.

The Civic Commons 2There’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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Toward Effective Governance Of The .nyc TLD

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city hall questionJackson Hts., New York, April 29, 2015 – While there are no published documents describing governance of  the .nyc TLD, it’s our understanding that oversight is shared by representatives from the Department of Information and Telecom Technology, the Economic Development Corporation, the Office of Innovation and Technology, with the Department of Law advising. It’s a fluid process outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), with the contractor implementing consensus decisions. But who does what and the existence (or not) of channels for public engagement remains unclear.

Having emerged from the city’s democratic governance structure, we acknowledge the MOU as legitimate by traditional standards. However, considering the plethora of roles our city’s TLD will play, we believe additional channels for public engagement are essential – especially in these early days of .nyc’s development. Before offering our suggestions on an improved governance structure, we’d like to present some thoughts on the context in which .nyc exists.

  • Our City Charter was approved in 1987, before the Internet as we know it existed. It provides little guidance for oversight of .nyc or other Net resources.
  • New York City is among the first to develop a city specific-TLD and is ploughing virgin pastures with no experience among other global cities to draw upon.
  • Experience and expertise for operating city TLDs is emerging on a daily basis here and in the 30 other global cities developing their own TLDs.
  • The Internet will become an increasingly vital part of our city’s social and economic health in the coming years. Internet access, training, and our domain names must be managed with utmost care.
  • This is the Internet, it’s 2015, and people – especially our younger population – expect oversight to be open, transparent, and accountable.
  • There is some resistance to the development of Internet resources such as TLDs being managed in the public interest.

Issues

With minimal experience to draw upon, the scope and scale of issues requiring oversight remains an unknown. User experiences will set the oversight agenda over the next few years, however, questions such as the following will certainly need attention.

bottom-line

  • How much should it cost to buy a .nyc domain name?
  • Should prices be uniform for businesses, nonprofits, individuals, etc., or should there be a pricing structure that encourages not-for-profit activity in this area?
  • Is the .nyc TLD infrastructure worthy of investment?
  • Must the .nyc TLD be self sufficient?

ownership rights

  • Should some of the 3,000 premium names (news.nyc, hotels.nyc, pizza.nyc, etc.) be set aside for distribution by a means other than a high bid auction?
  • Should the encouragement of innovative proposals be given preference in making premium domain name allocation decisions?
  • Which premium names should have public interest commitments attached to their development rights?
  • What are these public interest requirements?
  • Who sets and approves them?
  • What should be the compliance mechanisms?

efficiency

  • Does the city stand behind its TLD?
  • Where does one go to make a complaint about a service or product sold by a site using a .nyc domain name?
  • Who assures that complaints are addressed?
  • What monitoring of user registration (nexus) and activation is in place and planned?
  • Should the requirements of INTRO. 683-2015, setting accessibility standards for city government operated websites, be required for all .nyc sites?

the public commons

  • How are civicly important domain names to be identified?
  • What usage level constitutes effective use of a civicly important domain name?
  • How can the city promote effective use of civicly important domain names?
  • What process should be followed to reclaim impotent civicly important domain names?
  • Should the city invest in templates to facilitate developing websites for categories of domain names, for example, the dotNeighborhoods?

policy

  • What are the linkages between the city’s universal broadband policy, education, the public access channels, and domain names?
  • How can mom and pop businesses be encouraged to utilize .nyc domain names (and the Internet)?
  • Should individual domain name registrants be able to keep their home addresses private through some type of proxy service?
  • What pricing, training, and allocation policies will facilitate the equitable distribution of .nyc domain names?

education

  • What programs should be used to educate New Yorkers about the utility and structure of the .nyc TLD?
  • What awareness and training programs can encourage civil society to better utilize the web?
  • How can we encourage a culture that proudly presents and protects our city’s internet resources?

optimization

  • Would effective privacy and security features entice more New Yorkers to use our city’s TLD?
  • Should we explore “digital city” relations with other TLD cities?
  • Should the city support a “green” policy that encourages .nyc websites to use power efficient systems?
  • Should access to .nyc sites be sped up by requiring that DNS servers be housed in the city?
  • What levels of transparency access should there be to DNS usage data?

It’s worth reiterating that the .nyc domain was only activated in late 2014, and the range of issues to be faced is only emerging. It’s reasonable to assume that the experiences of city dwellers here, and in 30 other cities just activating their TLDs, will help answer these and other questions that arise.

But today there are no dedicated channels for communicating with city hall about our TLD, nor for learning from the experiences of the other global cities developing their TLDs. Today’s communications options are limited, with an email to the mayor or a council member being perhaps the most effective.

Recommendations

City-TLD governance is a complex process requiring a framework, operating model, and infrastructure to enable effective oversight and relationships between management and users.

With 75,000 domain names sold and new websites being activated every day, we need engagement efforts and communication channels that facilitate sharing between residents and oversight entities. We need these here in the city and we need channels to share issues and best practices with the 30 other cities developing their TLDs.

The experts on our city’s TLD are the 8,200,000 residents who are purchasing the domain names, making websites, and accessing them. It’s time we empower them to shape our city’s TLD. To do so City Hall should initiate short and long term governance efforts.

Long Term – Looking back to 2001 and the Internet Empowerment Resolution that first called for our city to acquire .nyc, Queens Community Board 3’s recommendation was that the Commission on Public information and Communication (COPIC) be .nyc’s oversight entity. That still sounds like a reasonable approach.

But COPIC needs funding, staffing, and a legislative fix. The Public Advocate, Trish James, has applied for funding, with staffing to follow.

The legislative fix should institute a more comprehensive purview of the digital city, taking into account the need for universal access, processes and programs to facilitate the Internet’s effective use, the role (cable’s) public access channels should play in these cord-cutting times, as well as the oversight of domain names. Additional public members should be placed on COPIC, selected by individual owners of .nyc domain names.

The digital revolution’s impact on all aspect of city government’s operation should be reflected in .nyc’s planning and development. With the similarities of domain names to real estate, we see value in the City Planning Commission participating in COPIC reviews. Lessons from its ULURP and other public participation processes would aide in exploring appropriate uses for our city’s digital land. Additionally, CUNY and our other universities should have a say in the review processes.

Short Term – The .NYC Community Advisory Board should be reconstituted. This interim body was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg and strengthened by Mayor de Blasio. But it’s charter ended last December 31 and no replacement has emerged.

  • The .NYC Community Advisory Board had a knowledgeable and active core membership that should be reappointed.
  • It should be supported with staff and resources to facilitate broad public engagement.
  • The Board’s operation should be open and transparent with channels enabling contributions by the public, small businesses, and civil society.
  • Channels should be established with other TLD cities experiencing the same challenging birth to identify common issues and best practices.

To a far greater degree than the global Internet, New York’s Internet is a tangible resource, with its impact seen and felt as we move through the city. Let’s assure that tools to enable our residents to effectively govern this new force are made available now and for the long term.

In a future post we’ll take a look at the technology and relationships that enable the Internet’s global reach and see where and how the city might interact there.

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Innovation, Bureaucracies & New Haven

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velibe biles paris Jackson Hts., New York, April 13, 2015 – I attended the ICANN’s June 2008 board of directors meeting in Paris which passed the fundamental resolution for its New TLD Program.

Now, 7 years later, with New York City actively issuing domain names, I’ve come to wonder why it’s not functioning as I’d imagined. A recent thought on that might be worth civic or scholarly consideration and is presented here.

Let me first note that the mismatch between dream and reality is not for lack of interest or competence within the bureaucracy. My encounters with the city administration have uniformly been with highly intelligent and caring people.

The challenge originates with the lack of preparation for the idea’s arrival. With a bureaucracy crafted from hundreds of years of bad experiences, city government is a multi-layered, lumbering, behemoth. And sometimes a new idea is thrust upon it without proper awareness as to its appropriate location. In the instance of the .nyc TLD, we advocated for its being part of the city planning department. But responsibility seems to be scattered through several departments.

While there’s a booster club that likes to say New York City’s government is innovative, we see it being the “seal of approval” city. Generally, when New York adopts a new process or service, it’s been thoroughly vetted elsewhere, e.g., Paris’ Velibe paving a path for Citibike. The city’s philosophy in Broadway-speak might be expressed as “Work out the kinks in New Haven” (ref.). With New York among the first cities to adopt a TLD, that New Haven stop was skipped, and we’re playing the role and price of pioneer. (Commons image courtesy of Wikimedia.)

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