(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.
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%.
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
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.
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.
- 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.