Apr 18: Digital Sovereigns or Consent of the Networked

In this class, we discussed Rebecca MacKinnon’s valuable new book, Consent of the Networked. In particular, we looked at China’s “networked authoritarianism,” Russia’s “digital Bonapartism,” and the tension between public discourse and private commercial platforms in the US.

As MacKinnon points out, “No commercially operated service is required to uphold the First Amendment for American users or Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free expression, for its global users.”

“Nobody is forcing anybody to use Facebook. Yet for political activists–or anyone trying to convince a large and diverse audience of anything–abandoning Facebook is easier said than done. In 2010, Americans spent more time on Facebook than on Google. If the largest pool of people your political or social movement most needs to reach is most easily and effectively reachable through Facebook’s vast social network, leaving Facebook is a blow to the movement’s overall impact.”

We finished the class with a spirited discussion of whether private platforms like Facebook have become so central to public discourse that perhaps they need to relate to their users not as customers but as citizens. If they don’t, I suggested, citizens may turn to government to regulate these platforms as public utilities. Or as MacKinnon suggests, perhaps we are at a “Magna Carta” moment.

The slides are here; the pencast is here; and the plain audio is here.

Apr 16: The WikiLeaks Conundrum

In this class we debated the pros and cons of WikiLeaks. We looked at what the whole series of leaks of American military and diplomatic cables suggests about:
-the power of networks
-the power of governments
-the promise and precariousness of online freedom of speech
-the evolving relationship between old and new media
-the collision between participatory transparency and elite opacity

The slides are here; the pencast is here; and the plain audio is here.

April 11: Internet Freedom and its Discontents

In this class we studied the “Internet Freedom” speeches of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and then looked at critiques and counter-arguments made by Evgeny Morozov, Sami Ben Gharbia and Cory Doctorow. (We heard directly from Clinton’s innovation adviser Alec Ross on Monday, April 9, when he came to the Kennedy School to give a talk.)

The slides are here; the pencast is here; and the plain audio is here.

Apr 4: What is Transparency Good For?

In this class, we studied the arguments made by Lawrence Lessig and Archon Fung, who each suggest that transparency alone can have counter-productive effects on the goal of improving government’s workings or trust in government. We then looked at what the data about money in politics can actually teach us about the big picture of who influences government–such as a) Money buys you viability; b) The average person can’t run for office; c) Much time is spent on fundraising; d) Economic interests give the most; e) The donor class is not like average voters; and f) The prioritization of issues will tend to favor the interests of the donor class.

The slides are here; the pencast is here; the plain audio is here.

Apr 2: Open Data, Open Government

This class covered the material from March 28 and April 2 on the syllabus (as I was sick on 28th), so we focused solely on the American side of the open government movement as opposed to also covering the readings on the efforts underway in the UK. We discussed both the positive and negative sides of Obama’s record on transparency. And then we concluded by looking at the burgeoning efforts of citizens and journalists to watch government more effectively from below, which is sometimes referred to as “sousveillance.”

The slides are here; the pencast is here; and the audio file alone is here.

Mar 26 Audio and Slides: The Rise of Government as a Platform. Or is it Govt 2.0? Or We-Government?

In this class, we started out by looking at the differences between e-democracy, e-government and we-government. And then we turned to the growing discussion and practice around “government as a platform” or “government 2.0,” using seminal articles by Tim O’Reilly and Beth Noveck as starting points. We also looked at several concrete examples of “government as a platform” or “govt 2.0” in practice, ranging from NASA Clickworkers, Peer to Patent and Apps for Democracy to SeeClickFix and OpenStreetMap.

The slides are here; the pencast audio is here; and the plain old MP3 audio is here.

Mar 21: Critiques of the Internet’s Effects on Democracy

In this class, we read from Matthew Hindman’s book “The Myth of Digital Democracy” and Eli Pariser’s book “The Filter Bubble,” and discussed their respective critiques. Hindman says the web is reproducing a system where elites dominate public discourse because while anyone can publish online, only a few get to be heard. Pariser points out how platforms and social networks like Google and Facebook have inordinate (and often hidden) power to shape what knowledge we encounter, and asks if we can trust how this power is being used.

The slides are here; the pencast audio is here; and the plain audio is here.