In Conversation With: Micah Sifry

Each month, PlaceSpeak presents a Q&A with experts in public engagement and civic technology.

This month, we spoke with Micah Sifry, co-founder and executive director of Civic Hall, New York City’s community center for civic tech. Since 2004 he has been co-founder and editorial director of its parent company, Personal Democracy Media, curating its annual PDF conference and editing its news site techPresident, both focused on the ways technology is changing politics, government and civil society. He is also a senior adviser to the Sunlight Foundation, which he helped found in 2006, and serves on the boards of Consumer Reports and the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. He is the author or editor of seven books, most recently The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Changed Politics (Yet) (OR Books, 2014).

Facebook initially seemed like a free, easy, and quick way for people to stay connected online. But people were paying for it – with their own personal information. Is there a degree to which people are complicit in their own commercialization?

A lot of people have been unaware of the fact that if you’re not paying for something online, it’s because you’re the product. I think that we’re in the middle of a big wakeup call for lots of folks who are starting to question whether that’s a bargain they want to keep.

People do like the convenience of these services and once you’re hooked in, it’s hard to break away from them. They’re designed to keep you connected and addicted, and some people probably think about it a little, but then decide that it’s too much of a bother, or that they don’t want to give up the convenience. For a lot of people, the cost of leaving Facebook seems high because of all the built-in convenience and network effects that it’s supplying. Frankly, they have some power staying inside Facebook if they want to use it to push the company to change its default settings and some of the way it uses people’s data. I think we’re also just beginning to see that there’s a demand for alternatives.

Ultimately, I don’t think we should put so much of the onus on individuals. It’s the classic example where the market will fail to protect individuals’ private data unless governments force it to do so.

Do you think that people will realistically move away from Facebook and other commercial platforms? The talk around #DeleteFacebook has subsided quickly with the news cycle.

This is not a problem that can be solved through individuals’ personal actions alone. We need standards for the entire industry. There’s a race to the bottom which Facebook won, which is built around seducing people into using this free service and not even realizing how much of their data they’re giving up. No one reads those long Terms of Service statements. I’ve been asking for years when I give talks, “How many people here have read the Terms of Service on any of the social platforms that they use?” Almost no one raises their hands. If you’re troubled by it, simply expecting the marketplace to solve the problem is not enough.

We live in a digital age – being connected online is a part of life. So now, we are beginning as a society to think about what the baseline standards should be. And I suspect one of those will be greater protection of individual data and what it can be used for. It’s valuable information. We ought to be able to decide personally what we want done with our data, and get compensated – and not just in the current way, where you get a free service in exchange for letting them sell you to advertisers. Again, that’s a case where public awareness has to grow, and then we begin to put demands on the political process to address concerns.

Where do you see that going in terms of legislation? We saw some of the questioning that Mark Zuckerberg went under, and our legislators themselves are not fully aware of the issue, or are not subject matter experts either.

Ever since Newt Gingrich eliminated Congress’ non-partisan Office of Technology Assessment, Congress has been self-blinded to being able to evaluate a whole range of technological changes that have policy implications. We have a saying – most politicians can’t tell the difference between a server and a waiter. Most are just technologically illiterate.

There are some who are not. I think we’re in the middle of a generational shift where we’re starting to get more members of Congress who are younger and more technologically-savvy. We’re also seeing some senior members of Congress, like Ron Wyden of Oregon, who is himself quite smart on these issues, building a very sophisticated staff. So it’s possible for members of Congress to defend the public interest. The difficulty is the format, like what we saw in the questioning with Mark Zuckerberg. That was not a serious investigatory hearing – it was for show. Everyone gets five minutes to ask a question, there’s no continuity, not like what you’d see if a committee of Congress was really trying to get to the bottom of something. It’s good to see Zuckerberg forced to answer questions under oath, it’s helpful, but it’s just the beginning of the oversight process.

I do think there has been a much stronger tradition of privacy protection in Europe. Some of it comes out of the experiences in Germany, and a very strong sense that we know what happens when government abuse their power over individuals – first the Nazis, and then in East Germany where the Stasi literally had files on millions and millions of East Germans. So you have a stronger cultural awareness of the need for strong individual data protection and you have the GDPR, which is imposing some potential constraints on the big tech platforms if they don’t comply. It remains to be seen how that’ll play out, but in theory, companies will now get taken to court for coercing users into consenting to let their data be sold and the potential fines can amount to billions and billions of dollars.

In your recent article in the New Republic, you speak of “a digital public forum centered on the needs of the citizenry.” Can you elaborate on this vision?

The same way that we have public libraries or public roads, public schools, public parks open to everyone, where you don’t have to give up your privacy, we need a digital public square. Now that we spend a lot of our time online – engaging with each other on topics of public debate, engaging with government agencies – I think it’s important to recognize that we need a public square online that is not built on private servers.

I know it’s hard for people to imagine, because we don’t have anything like it, but there are certain aspects of our identity that are already delivered to us thanks to government. In the United States, it’s your Social Security number, your physical address, etc. It shouldn’t be that big a stretch for governments to give people some other basic affordances of moving through daily life. There’s an idea bubbling now that the Federal Reserve should give everyone a bank account. It’s not a stretch to then give everyone an email address that comes from a public server, and invite them in a way that PlaceSpeak and Front Porch Forum already do, to engage with each other online, rather than leaving that whole important public arena to private companies like Facebook.

There are a whole range of uses that are intrinsically public, like town hall meetings or the ability to interact with your neighbours locally around issues of public concern, and those ought to be run by entities with a stronger public interest core. Maybe not formal government – maybe it’s public-private partnerships, maybe we charter a non-profit corporation that gets some taxpayer money for support that is run without government interference. There’s a variety of ways to do this.

So to play devil’s advocate, we see folks are willing to give all this information to Amazon, Facebook, etc. but there’s this deep-rooted mistrust of government. How would you respond to people who say that they don’t trust the government with their information?

That’s true, and this does not have to be a big government program. It could easily be a local government program. In the United States, we have lots of municipal power utilities that provide the electricity or water that people rely on and it’s just part of the woodwork; nobody huffs and puffs about not wanting to get their water from government in those cases (though obviously what the state of Michigan has done in Flint is a crime). So I’m not saying it has to be a giant federal program.

Another way to think about it is that we need a public option. If you want to stay in the private marketplace and keep your Google or Facebook account, cool. But for people who don’t want that, let’s give them a public option. I think that’s the step forward that we need to take, and I think it’s not far-fetched at all to see some cities start to do this.

Barack Obama’s campaign was able to invigorate groups with traditionally lower voter turnout rates, such as youth, by reaching them on platforms where they already were. How can other platforms established on civic/local issues engage demographics which typically participate less?

People who worry about civic engagement sometimes forget that not everyone has the time or inclination to be engaged with civic issues. They work three jobs, they don’t have the time. Young people are often disconnected, or they may be transient and they don’t live in the places where they want to get more involved. So I think we need to recognize that.

I think there’s a second problem where people need to feel effective. This is valuable free time you’re asking them to give up, and it’s got to feel like they’re making a difference. Simply having online platforms and making it easier for them to post a comment doesn’t lead to more engagement over time if they don’t get a response, if they don’t see change happening. It can actually do the reverse and make them more cynical – closing the loop is crucial.

PlaceSpeak describes itself as a civic network, in contrast to a social network. What is the most important trait for any kind of citizen-centric online network?

First of all, we have a challenge with the word “citizen.” We don’t require people to be citizens, we really mean “residents”, but also people who are active participants in the larger public concerns of their community, and we don’t have a word aside from “citizen” for that. Maybe we need to coin one.

The most important thing for me is getting a sense of effectiveness. You need the involvement of local elected officials and administrators – the people who have power to respond to public concerns. It’s good for neighbours to know each other, but sooner or later they’re going to get frustrated if they’re not able to talk to and get responses back from civic leaders. I’ve always thought of SeeClickFix succeeding because a big piece of what they do is connecting local residents who are reporting non-emergency problems and getting the local elected representatives or city management to respond and address those problems. There’s been studies that have found that when someone makes a report on SeeClickFix and get a response that they find useful or satisfactory from a public official, that they’re 25% more likely to use the platform again.