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The “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” 20 years later; ad firm says DIYers like Trump; and more.

  • This is civic tech: The great John Perry Barlow looks back on the 20th anniversary of his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. And while he expresses a few regrets (was it the champagne, he asks?) about his somewhat naive belief that the net would govern itself “with consensus systems aimed at the commonweal,” he asserts, “I do not believe that the Nation State, for all its efforts to bring the Net to heel, has really succeeded. It is still the case that if one is reasonably savvy technically, he or she can express whatever they wish without fear of reprisal….The War between the Control Freaks and the Forces of Open-ness, whether of code, government, or expression, remains the same dead heat it’s been stuck on all these years.”

  • Speaking of the forces of openness: New York City Council member Ben Kallos is pushing two bills, the Free and Open Source Software Act, which would minimize city contracts using proprietary software, and the Civic Commons Act, which would encourage the collaborative use of free and open source software among agencies, cities and states. The council’s committee on contracting will hear testimony on both bills February 23.

  • Our Christine Cupaiuolo takes a close look at two technologies that British researchers have been using in conjunction with major political debates there. The first, Democratic Replay, is an open-source web platform that enables viewers “to re-watch a debate with a full array of interactive visuals and analytics on discourse, audience feedback, debate topics (such as healthcare or the economy), and, in the future, data-mining tools that could answer such questions as, “Did the candidate actually promise this last year?” The second, Democratic Reflection, is an audience-response web app that enables viewers to choose in real-time from a panoply of nuanced responses, that range from straightforward (“This is informative” / “I’m losing interest”) to more complex reflections (“If s/he understood my situation, s/he wouldn’t say this” / “S/he’s provided convincing evidence for this claim”). As she reports, the University of Leeds team that built the tool is “open to discussions with media partners in and outside Britain interested in using the Democratic Reflection app in future debates.”

  • Tech and the presidentials: It looks like some voters in New Hampshire have been receiving so-called “voter-shaming” mailers aimed at trying to push them to vote by supposedly comparing their voting history to their neighbors, but as Rachel Stockman reports for, it’s not clear what campaign is sending them out.

  • Has presidential long-shot John Kasich been reading Sherry Turkle on the dangers of the digital age? Here he is talking at campaign event yesterday in New Hampshire, as reported by Ross Choma and David Corn for Mother Jones:

    “Our lives are being lived so fast. We’re constantly on the device. The Apple TV…Have to get the new Apple phone.” He held up an iPhone, as he continued: “We have to slow our lives down and listen to people’s hurts and victories.” He repeated this call to de-accelerate: “When we do…it’s a more beautiful world.”


  • Video satirist Hugh Atkin catches Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio debating with himself on whether or not President Obama knows what he’s doing. The results aren’t pretty.

  • The almost-too-close-to-call Iowa Democratic caucus battle gets a detailed deconstruction from Darren Samuelsohn of Politico, who shows that party leaders in the state were not prepared for the way the Clinton-Sanders race tightened and precinct volunteers were often not interested in using Microsoft’s app for reporting caucus results.

  • Digital advertising firm Dstillery used location data to identify more than 16,000 mobile phones that appeared at caucus locations across Iowa, Donovan Slack reports for USA Today. The company found that sports fans and techies were more likely to show up at caucuses won by Marco Rubio or Bernie Sanders, where those who were into grilling, lawn and garden care, and other household DIYers were more likely at caucuses won decisively by Donald Trump.

  • International internet: Facebook’s Free Basics program had only reached one million of India’s 252 million internet users, Reuters’s Jeremy Wagstaff and Himank Sharma report. The decision by Indian regulators to effectively kill the program for violating net neutrality will likely embolden other regulators to demand equal access from ISPs elsewhere, they note.

  • Commenting on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page, Anil Dash tries to school the company CEO in the problematic history of Western colonialism in India, writing, “A colonialist “trust us, it’s for your own benefit” pitch is a hard sell with good reason….What about pausing the Internet Basics effort and spending some time on a real effort to listen to Indian voices about what would help them have connectivity on their own terms, in a way they find acceptable?” Zuckerberg kind of maybe gets it, replying “I think you’re right about focusing on following the local culture and empowering local entrepreneurs.” The giant social networking company is also facing a setback in France, where regulators are giving Facebook three months to stop tracking non-users activity and to also end the transfer of personal data to the United States, Reuters reports.

  •, a new online magazine about global development and culture, is looking for pitches from writers for articles about open data.

Civic Tech Germany World

What’s Going On in German Civic Tech?

What’s Going On in German Civic Tech?


A couple of years ago I was idly scanning through Google Zeitgeist, the search giant’s annual data release of each year’s top search trends. Somehow I found my way onto the international results, and picking almost at random I chose to look at the search terms for Germany.

There, sitting at the top of the pile, was something I could barely believe. The term in poll position was ‘Wahl-o-mat.’ Despite not being a German speaker, I recognized it: it was the brand name of a German website that helps people work out who to vote for.

Not a recently deceased TV star, or a major movie, or a massively viral YouTube video, but an old-fashioned, 36 question online quiz that ultimately spat out a suggested political party. Further searching revealed that it had been used, through to completion, over 13 million times in the 2013 national elections. Even more astonishing is the quiz is run by an arms-length public body—effectively a ‘who to vote for’ service delivered by part of the state.

Since then, I’ve been acutely aware that Germany has a social-impact technology scene that is somewhat unlike that of many other rich countries. So in January this year I set out on a trip to Berlin to find out about tech initiatives that might be a bit different from what you find elsewhere.


It is no great secret that Germany has been closely associated with the groundswell of discontent since the Snowden revelations. But I wasn’t prepared for just how big and central it is to how all technology was viewed, or how widely the suspicion of digital technologies has spread.

The best yardstick of how big the security and privacy tech community is in Germany is to consider the attendance of the year’s biggest community shindig, the Chaos Computer Conference (CCC), held in Hamburg. There were an astonishing 12,000 people present this year, and demand for tickets still substantially outstripped supply. Nearly as many people go to CCC as go to Defcon in America, but in a country that’s about four times smaller. And the number rises rapidly every year.

The concerns are much more widespread than the NSA reading German email, too. After a few days I realized that several people I talked to were using the word ‘algorithm’ (referring to automated technologies like Facebook’s wall) with a kind of distasteful wince. It was similar to the way that a lawyer might reluctantly use swear words when quoting a defendant in front of a judge. This is because the very idea of algorithmic sorting of content in social media has become a kind of dirty word in the tech community—yet another way that big institutions could exploit the rest of us. Poor Al-Khwārizmī, who gave his name to the mathematical concept, must be rolling in his grave.

Several people I talked to remarked that Berlin has become a kind of sanctuary to people who work for both well-known and obscure privacy enhancing technology projects. Living there meant not only more like-minded people to hang out with, it meant less hassle at airports, less likelihood of being followed around or interviewed, less of a feeling of being a bad or wanted person generally. You can buy more stuff with cash. Everyone speaks English, and many people the language of cryptography too. People were not naive about the fact that Germany has it’s own well-staffed security apparatus, but clearly it to this community it feels like a much more acceptable home than most other alternatives.

There wasn’t any consensus about what led to Berlin becoming the hub of this community. More than one person strongly contested the almost-standard idea that the history of the Stasi and of the the Nazis has made the average German more worried about surveillance than the average Brit. I was told that Google and Facebook usage was sky-high in Germany, and that these behaviors at an aggregate just didn’t fit the theory of national suspiciousness. Ultimately, I had no objective way of assessing why there is such a large security and privacy community in Berlin, but if it isn’t due to the sad, violent history of this place then there’s clearly some other very interesting explanation lurking. Theories on an encrypted post-card, please.

My final observation on the privacy and security scene is that the energy surrounding privacy tech and privacy laws has created opportunity costs for the wider civic and social impact tech scene. There were actually, overall, fewer big mainstream civic tech or social impact tech projects than I would have expected to find in a country with wealth, tech chops and political consciousness that Germany has. I suspect it’s because more than a few ideas die in the cradle, smothered by concerns about how user data might be abused. At least one person told me they’d seen this happen.


I talked to a lot of people during my stay. The following list, which is in no particular order, simply attempts to give a taste of the interesting projects and people I met, rather than a verbatim record. If I spoke to you and you’re not here, please don’t feel slighted!