Curious… how does the money flow on this?

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We saw this bus stop shelter advertisement at the entrance to the West 4th Street subway last Saturday. Is this a collaboration between digital.nyc and ownit.nyc? The wording is a bit confusing… The digital.nyc site says it’s “NYC’s Hub for Tech and Startups.” And Ownit.nyc advances the idea that .nyc names are good for just about anything, so perhaps the”Meet on .nyc” is its.

It would be nice if the city had a more targeted approach to its advertising program. Civic is our cup of tea. But an approach focusing on the development of  “markets” would also present the hope of being effective and impactful.

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#StopTheAuctions

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stoptheauctionsJackson Hts., New York, October 5, 2016 –  There were highs and lows in city hall’s rollout of the .nyc TLD last month. Early on we were cheered when we received notification that our application for the JacksonHeights.nyc domain name had been approved. And with the de Blasio Administration committed to putting the city’s 350+ neighborhood domain names under the control of local residents, we began to imagine that our decade-old vision of an “intuitive” city Internet might materialize; where one would find informative presentations of our city’s art galleries at artgalleries.nyc, find banks at banks.nyc, and locate a church at churches.nyc. And with each such directory a bonus would arrive: the opportunity for a New Yorker to form a new small business.

But our confidence plummeted when the city’s contractor announced that a high-bid auction was to be held on October 24 for 20 domain names:

  • Apartments.nyc
  • Construction.nyc
  • Kitchen.nyc
  • Renovation.nyc
  • Brokers.nyc
  • Furniture.nyc
  • Lease.nyc
  • Roommates.nyc
  • Brownstones.nyc
  • Garden.nyc
  • Living.nyc
  • Rentals.nyc
  • Condos.nyc
  • Homes.nyc
  • Lofts.nyc
  • Studios.nyc
  • CoOps.nyc
  • Interiors.nyc
  • RealEstate.nyc
  • Sublet.nyc

These are the first of what might ultimately be 3,000 auctioned names, many of which are vital to the realization of that intuitive city and the utility of the TLD.

The basis of our disappointment is epitomized by the hotels.nyc domain name. It’s reasonable to assume that, in a high-bid auction, an entity such as the Hilton Corporation, with deep pockets and 30 hotels in or near the city, will win. When this occurs two associated outcomes can be predicted with reasonable certainty: a traveler looking to hotels.nyc for a city hotel would assuredly be provided with a highly skewed view of the city’s 250+ hotels (a Hilton perhaps?). And a comprehensive listing of hotels, perhaps creatively mixed to include an AirBnB-like listing, fashioned by a local entrepreneur will never materialize.

With our being awarded the license for JacksonHeights.nyc, we have a big stake in this development: If people come to believe that hotels.nyc and other such civic infrastructure names are in essence offering “biased directories,” what hope is there that they will come to trust that JacksonHeights.nyc presents the considered and collaborative intelligence of its neighborhood namesake?

To summarize, the city has established a workable model to guide the allocation of the neighborhood names, requiring detailed public interest commitments (PICs) from those interested in the rights to their development. Further, those awarded neighborhood name must return every three years to demonstrate they’ve met their PICs. In contrast, the plan for auctioning hundreds, perhaps thousands of these civicly important names does not require any PICs from the auction winners. And there’s no review process whatsoever, with the names issued virtually forever.

#StopTheAuctions

If the city sticks with the high-bid auction (a holdover from the Bloomberg Administration), several negatives will result.

  • Our opportunity to establish .nyc as a managed and trusted TLD, a safe port if you will, will be severely diminished.
  • We’ll loose the opportunity to provide access to these new resources to capital starved entities. The local flavor and creativity will suffer.
  • We’ll loose an opportunity to bolster our digital self reliance. We’ll remain dependent on distant search engines to filter and present our digital resources.

The city should stop the auctions and follow these steps to improve the name allocation process.

  • City Hall should establish a public policy that facilitates the identification and development of civicly valuable domain names.
  • Considering the economic and aggregation benefits that arise with a well managed and trusted digital resource, it should categorize the 3,000 names: those that can be auctioned immediately, names for negotiated allocation (like the neighborhood names), and names that have PICs and are destined for high-bid auction. (Here’s a start.)
  • The city’s Department of Small Business Services should do outreach to small and minority businesses and empower them to participate in these auctions by sponsoring hackathons, networking events, loans, credits…

The city should begin governing the .nyc TLD as a common that belongs to all New Yorkers. While Mayor de Blasio has taken some commendable steps, e.g., the neighborhood names and a nexus policy that restricts ownership to New Yorkers, success requires an investment. The city should immediately re-establish its .NYC Community Advisory Board and enable meaningful public engagement in the auctions, and deal with issues such as abandoned names, idle names, WHOIS, rates, and consumer protections.

Longer term, the city charter needs to be revised to reflect the Internet’s existence.

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Thomas Lowenhaupt is the founding director of Connecting.nyc Inc., a NYS nonprofit education organization advancing the operation of the .nyc TLD as a public interest resource. His 2001 Internet Empowerment Resolution sparked the city’s acquisition of the .nyc TLD. Two years ago the Internet Society of New York and Connecting.nyc sponsored a panel on the allocation of these “premium” domain names. See a report on that meeting here.

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Neighborhood Name License, part 2 – Content Restrictions and their Chilling Effects

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neighborhoods with prohibited symbolJackson Heights, New York, February 7, 2016 – The draft Licensing Agreement for the city’s neighborhood domain names has several significant limitations. In a previous post we wrote about a “Without Cause” clause that allows the city to withdraw the right to use a neighborhood domain name at its whim – without explanation and without cause. We opined about this limiting the ability of a developer to garner the resources necessary to create an effective dotNeighborhood.

Today we’re focusing on more substantive problems, content limitations presented in the draft Licensing Agreement. There, in Exhibit B, the Acceptable Use Policy, one finds “Prohibited Content,” which details a dozen restrictions on categories of information that can be presented. We have serious problems with five of them.

Prohibited Content #1: “campaign-related materials or partisan political materials;”

We’ve always imagined the dotNeighborhoods as significant new venues for presenting and considering the qualification of candidates for elective office. Who better knows the needs of the neighborhood and the qualification of candidates than the neighbors~voters?

The first problem with the campaign prohibitions is the lack of definitions. What is “campaign- related” and “partisan?” Is there an impartial watchdog to enforce it? Who appoints its members? How are violations enforced?

But perhaps we should take a different approach. If we’re trying to create a better democracy, keeping money from polluting the candidate selection process, which we do very well here in New York City, perhaps the Licensing Agreement should require that dotNeighborhoods maintain a “campaign zone” where election materials can be posted free, or for a nominal fee. The license might also require that when elections approach these zones provide a prominent space on the dotNeighborhood’s home page announcing “It’s Election Time” and provide links to candidate promotional materials. There might be some restriction on the nature of the materials – for example, length limitations on video materials – intended to level the playing field by reducing the necessity for significant investment.

Prohibited Content #2: “offensive sexual  material, as described in New York Penal Law § 245.11, as it may be amended from time to time and/or material that contains image(s) of a person, who appears to be a minor, in a sexually suggestive dress, pose, or context;”

We don’t have a problem following the prescriptions of the state penal law, but when the prohibition gets into the “and/or materials” that extend its reach, we get concerned. We wonder who is going to determine the type of dress, pose, or content that is suggestive. Who is it that selects these censors? What are their qualifications? What penalties may they impose? And who sets the rules they are to follow?

Prohibited Content #3: “words that match, contain recognizable misspellings of or are otherwise recognizable variations of any of the seven words identified in Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978);”

Here the city imagines that the 7 filthy words and their variations are going to be hidden from the tender eyes and ears of youth. Here again definitions are a problem – “recognizable variations?” And what’s the remedy and who enforces it? Must the operators of the dotNeighborhood keep a vigilant eye on every comment posted?

And beyond the spirit offered here, isn’t it a bit silly for New York City to proscribe the words its residents use? The “Filthy Words” pertain to a national broadcast TV standard, not what New Yorkers say on their neighborhood websites. Let the First Amendment rule here.

Prohibited Content #4: “promotes unlawful or illegal goods, services or activities;”

Obviously we don’t want the dotNeighborhoods promoting illegal activities. But does livestreaming a non-permited rally constitute promoting an unlawful activity? Must the operator of a dotNeighborhood keep watch over all posted content, checking for parade permits before allowing a link? Again, a problem with definitions and regulatory enforcement.

Prohibited Content #5: “image(s) or information that demean an individual or group of individuals, on account of actual or perceived race, creed, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, whether children are, may or would be residing with such victim, marital status, partnership status, disability, or alienage or citizenship status as such categories are defined in § 8-102 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York (as it may be amended from time to time) or, for those categories not there defined, as they are commonly understood;”

Again, this is well intended, but adding the concluding phrase “as they are commonly understood” leaves too much room for abuse by the regulatory apparatus.

Chilling Effect

If you add all these ambiguities of definition together with the city’s recourse to the “Without Cause” clause, you end up with a chilling effect that will crush speech, innovation, and experimentation in the neighborhoods: a Sword of Damocles capable of jerking the basic platform away without cause.

Next

Our next post on the draft Licensing Agreement will focus on the innovation eviscerating requirement that dotNeighborhood operators receive prior approval from the city before adding secondary level domain names (here).

 

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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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