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Thursday 12 January 2012

The Importance of Transparency - Redux

Since my guest post on the importance of transparency is no longer a live link, I'm re-publishing my blog post here:

The Key to Integrity

The major source of citizens’ dissatisfaction with political systems is the belief that politicians lack integrity. Integrity is fostered by a system that employs transparency, which is a requirement for accountability.

A Tool for Democratization

Transparency is a simple concept with a big payback: winning back the trust of the citizens and putting an end to corruption and special interests. The public distrusts leaders and policy makers, and the only way to increase trust in the system is by being open about what is taking place -- in order to have true accountability there must be transparency. As future and current leaders, (and supporters of leaders,) we must do what we can to move towards an open and accountable government.

Where We Stand

Transparency advocates have been demanding transparency for many years, but in 2008, on his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government mandating a policy of openness for Federal departments and agencies.

The Obama administration's policy of openness set the stage for states and numerous municipalities to follow suit. Happily, there are too many examples to list here, but in 2009 California's former Governor Schwarzenegger issued a memorandum of transparency, and San Francisco has had a Sunshine Ordinance since 1999.

Four Steps You Can Take Toward a More Transparent and Open Government

1. Most importantly, as you go forth to take office in your communities, states, and country, strive to serve in a transparent and open manner. When you are confronted with a decision, ask yourself whether you would be comfortable being open about your choice. If the answer is no, think long and hard about whether it's the right choice. If you are transparent, your opponents may disagree with your choices, but they won't be able to catch you off-guard by bringing up something you hoped they wouldn't find.

2. You can demand transparency and openness from the candidates you support, your elected officials and our party leaders.

3. Please join me and over 8,000 others in signing the online pledge to hold public officials accountable for being open and transparent at Public = Online, a non-partisan project of the Sunlight Foundation.

4. Lastly, you can support or establish a sunshine ordinance in your county, city or state.


The Sunlight Foundation is a great place to start for Federal transparency information. They always have interesting projects in the works. The Obama Administration's home page for federal transparency efforts also has good information. AnalyzeThe.US is an application with datasets that allows anyone to analyze information on key individuals, organizations and activities. Transparency International - USA Chapter

Wednesday 23 February 2011

The Importance of Transparency

Read about transparency as it pertains to people who hold, or aspire to hold, elected office in my guest post for Emerge America's blog. Also included are four steps you can take toward a more transparent and open government.

Emerge America is an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office. The United States currently ranks #84 in the world for women in elected office (behind China and Pakistan). Emerge has chapters in nine states. Look for one near you!

Thursday 9 December 2010

White House Designing Democracy

Yesterday the White House announced a new concept for soliciting expertise from the public on policy matters. Codenamed 'ExpertNet', the project would be a web-based software solution which would allow policy makers to provide information and solicit public response. (And yes, it does sound like free consulting to me, but I prefer to look at it in a more positive light!)

ExpertNet wouldn't replace the current means of getting input from the public, i.e. Federal Advisory Commissions and public comment opportunities, but would supplement them. They don't state in what order these three modes of communication would be implemented. (Perhaps they'd be employed all at once, though that doesn't seem the most efficient way to go about it.)

It's also not clear as to whether this tool would be available only to the executive branch or whether it would also be available to the legislative branch. What would be really great is if the final product could be shared and implemented on a smaller scale -- municipalities could employ this same technology to reach out to smaller constituent bases.

The White House is requesting... your input on the concept. Visit the ExpertNet wiki site to read the hypothetical case study and look at the proposed design. There are plenty of interesting discussions to join (and you can even suggest a better name than 'ExpertNet').

Monday 20 September 2010

T-Mobile Accused of Censoring Text Messages

by Casimiro Zmtih on FlickrWhen a suit was filed against T-Mobile for allegedly censoring text messages last week, we were reminded yet again that text messages are not protected by the law in the same way that phone calls are.

The suit was filed by EZ Texting, a company that provides bulk text messaging services that companies and organizations use to send text messages to customers, regardless of the customers' wireless providers. One of these organizations, (also known as,) had its text messages blocked by T-Mobile. I don't know if someone at T-Mobile saw content either in the messages or the web site and assumed the company is abetting illegal activity, or if T-Mobile is fundamentally against medical marijuana, but the 'why' isn't the important part of the story. The pressing issue is the fact that voice communications laws, established in the Federal Communications Act of 1934, do not extend to text, or data messaging. The law is in need of updating, but the FCC has yet to address the need (in spite of multiple requests).

As mentioned in a previous post, Verizon committed a similar act of censorship when it blocked NARAL, a pro-choice organization, from sending messages on its network.

Speak up for your rights and let policy makers know that text messaging should be covered under the same law as voice calling. Public Knowledge has made it easy for you to file a comment with the FCC.

Updated September 24, 2010: CNet reports that T-Mobile blocked the WeedMaps messages due to an administrative oversight -- EZ Texting is supposed to get prior approval for all marketing campaigns, and failed to do so for the WeedMaps messages.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Transparency and Open Government 101


In a governing or political context, the term transparency refers to openness with particular regard to making data public, and easily accessible (via digitization) to everyone. Imagine being able to go online and not only access your city's budget, but be able to download the data so that you can load it into a spreadsheet and crank the numbers yourself. Or imagine having access to political donation records of a company whom you distrust -- say, Evil Widget Maker, Inc. Anything from campaign finance records to the spending of appropriations bills can and should be made accessible to anyone interested in keeping a watchful eye on such things.

The Issue:

Transparency is important because being open, and giving people access to data builds trust, and makes corruption more difficult. The public has come to distrust leaders and policy makers, and the only way to increase trust in the system is by being open about what is taking place. In order to have true accountability there must be transparency.

Just before the June 2006 election, CNN conducted a poll and found that over half of Americans believe Congress is corrupt. With back room deals and campaigns being funded by businesses who stand to benefit from having a policy maker owe them a favor or two, it's understandable that the public is distrusting of their leaders.


The positions are very straight forward, and I haven't heard too many arguments against transparency.

  • Advocates believe that transparency is a logical counter to corruption. An open government builds trust of the people, and is a powerful tool for democratization. It also increases the level of performance in the public sector.
  • Opponents: One (ethical) argument is concern of increased cost to provide data, and another is that in some cases there is a loss of privacy when implementing transparency.

Current Status:

Transparency advocates have been demanding transparency for many years, but in 2008, on his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government mandating a policy of openness for Federal departments and agencies. This policy of openness set the stage for states and numerous municipalities to follow suit.

The Sunlight Foundation, unquestionably the greatest advocate of transparency at the federal level continues its work by providing support to the transparency community. They are a non-profit, non-partisan think tank which holds an annual conference, provides funding for developers of software tools for transparency, and has various projects that bring federal data to the people, such as their Reporting Group web site.

More Information:

So many municipalities are implementing transparencies policies that my recommendation is to do an online search for your county or city and transparency. I'm pleased to say there are so many I can't list them all here.

  • As mentioned above, the Sunlight Foundation is a great place to start for Federal transparency information. They always have interesting projects in the works.
  • The Obama Administration's home page for federal transparency efforts also has good information.
  • And for any Californians reading this, the California transparency home page has information on salaries, pensions, contracts, etc.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Net Neutrality 101


Simply put, Net Neutrality (known also as Network Neutrality or Open Internet) is the principle of ensuring that all network users and content should be treated equally. While certain concepts of Net Neutrality are complicated, for the most part the internet as it's known in the US is open - information flows freely regardless of the hardware device, software or internet provider being used.

The Issue:

In 2005 the FCC issued a statement listing four principles to ensure the openness of the internet:

  • Freedom to access (legally permitted) content In other words, if I'm on a Comcast connection and you're on AT&T we should each be able to access the same content, and be able to communicate with each other.
  • Freedom to use (legally permitted) applications For example, Comcast can't make a deal with Microsoft stating that only users of Microsoft's browser can access content via Comcast internet connections, restricting access by Firefox and Safari users.
  • Freedom to attach (legally permitted) personal devices e.g. if I want to design a dishwasher that I can control via the internet, I have the right to do so.
  • Freedom to Competition That is, a provider can't deny users access to competition among providers of content and services.

With the exception of a couple of isolated incidents, the above policies have been adhered to in the US and we Americans have been enjoying the privileges of an open internet.

In September of 2009 the debate was revived when FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed two new principles to add to the existing four:

  • Nondiscrimination: If you and I subscribe to the same level of service with the same network provider we should be treated equally.
  • Transparency: Users have a right to know what is offered in available service plans so they can make choices accordingly.

The FCC's full proposal which includes the original principles as well as the two new proposed principles is here (pdf).


It's interesting to note that the folks on both sides of the issue argue that innovation is at risk if the other side gets their way. It's also worth noting that there is another faction that take the stance that Net Neutrality policy is a solution in search of a problem.

  • Advocates believe that policy makers should be proactive in establishing policies to ensure the internet remains fair and competitive and continues to foster innovation.
  • Opponents argue that Net Neutrality policies could threaten innovation and violates the First Amendment.

Current Status:

The FCC has been soliciting comment from the public on their proposed principles. If you feel strongly about the issue be sure to speak up. Opening comments were heard until January 14th, but you can submit replies until March 5 by going here.

More Information:

Since this is a hot issue at the moment there is endless information on the internet, but a few of my selections are:

  • Wikipedia has a lot of information in their Net Neutrality page and they also have a page specifically for Net Neutrality in the US.
  • Check out The Daily Show's Jon Stewart weighing in in on the issue.
  • The FCC created the site which has information on their proposed policies an Net Neutrality in general.
  •, strong Net Neutrality advocates are behind the Save The Internet movement and web site.
  • used to have a web site detailing their opposition to Net Neutrality but the site seems to be gone now.
  • In October of 2009 John McCain introduced legislation limiting the FCC's ability to establish Net Neutrality policy.

Where Do You Stand On the Issue?

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Fail: CA Assembly Attempts to Hide Vote

by The Junk on FlickrThis is a post about government transparency or rather, lack thereof. While transparency is not strictly tech policy, (in fact I like to refer to it as 'policy tech',) I have to get this story out there because it needs to be heard.

On July 24th I was browsing my twitter feed when I came across two tweets from the local PBS station's California Capitol correspondent John Myers (@KQED_CapNotes) stating that a state oil bill to allow additional drilling off the Santa Barbara coast had been defeated by the state Assembly. I took note and moved on.

I didn't think much more about it until I sat down to breakfast with the Saturday Wall Street Journal in which I found an opinion piece by John Fund about California's woeful budget issues. The article mentioned that the Tranquillon Ridge bill had been defeated by the Assembly and:

"Then things got really weird. A motion to expunge the vote from the public record was made by Democratic floor leader Alberto Torrico and was approved by voice vote. It disappeared from the public record as if it had been erased, in an effort to hide their decision from voters."

Aside from feeling angry that it's legal for the assembly to do this, I find it pathetic that they thought they'd get away with it. With reporters tweeting real-time, and a live TV broadcast of the vote, what were they thinking? These are the folks who are setting tech-related policy -- do they have a clue that these technologies exist?

As if that wasn't enough to have me ranting, Sunday's SF Chronicle published an editorial on the incident (and a side box with all the individual votes). If you scroll to the bottom of the page you'll see a list of additional tricks that legislators are able to play in order to skew how they are perceived by their constituents. These tricks include planning an absence during a vote, adding a vote after a bill has been defeated or passed, and changing their vote (they get several hours after the bill's defeat or passage to do this). Dirty tricks, those. So much for transparency and accountability.

I find this totally unacceptable, and I'm looking forward to attending TransparencyCamp this weekend to see what ideas other attendees have for dealing with such problems.

How would you tackle this issue?

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Energy Secretary Chu on the Daily Show

To Jon Stewart, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is the only cabinet member that seems alive. A self-proclaimed nerd, Chu is entertaining and funny, (in a nerd-like way,) on last night's episode of The Daily Show.

Chu mentioned that he supports the 'overall concept' of cap and trade and that this program gives the US a great opportunity to be a leader in the 'new industrial revolution'.

He went on to say that white roofs and roads would have a profound effect on global warming -- the equivalent of taking the world's one billion cars off the road for 11 years. While I feel skeptical about this claim I'm not about to challenge a Nobel Prize winner. Was that all the roofs and roads in the US or the world over? He didn't specify.

And here's Secretary Chu's explanation of the benefits of white roofs:

Sunday 14 June 2009

Signs of Life from OSTP

tech_obama.jpgI gave up on the Office of Science and Technology Policy web site years ago. I remember prowling around the site looking for information in vain. The web site itself was clunky and listed only press releases and news. There was no sense of... action, or movement. It was clear that tech policy was not on the Bush Administration's radar.

But now... we have change we can believe in:

Launched on April 22, the updated site has a blog that is a virtual party in comparison. Through the blog, the agency has been actively soliciting participation from the public in their three-phase open government initiative.

What thrills me about this change of direction is that not only is the department setting policy on technology and science (as they've always done), but now they're using technology to make policy in a collaborative and informative manner. Through continuous requests for comment they are tapping into the experience and wisdom of anyone who chooses to participate. It's surprisingly innovative for a government agency.

So if you're reading this, please visit the site, register, and join in to help create policy.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Hacker Demands Ransom for Stolen Medical Records

As we hear more and more talk of centralizing and digitizing medical records, a recent story reminds one of the importance of being judicious about the storage and protection of such records.

According to a story in Government Technology, a hacker accessed and captured nearly 8 million medical patient's prescription records and demanded a $10 million dollar ransom in exchange for not offering them for sale to unsavory characters. The ransom was displayed to anyone logging into the state's prescription monitoring program web site.

The authenticity of the hack has yet to be confirmed, but if it's indeed as bad as they think it is, the folks whose records were stolen could be at risk for medical identity theft. Records for patients possessing prescriptions for high-valued medications such as oxycontin, xanax, etc. would bring a decent price on the black market.

This incident is a not-so-gentle reminder that government entities are not known for their ability to protect the data of the citizens they serve. And I expect the Obama administration to address such risks in their proposal for centralization of such records.

Friday 16 January 2009

Tech and The Recovery Bill

by Matti Mattila on FlickrWe're in the money... Actually we're going further into debt. Read more about technology and the stimulus package in my commentary at TechPolicyCentral.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Obama's Tech Platform

by Barack Obama on Flickr I was going to do a thorough write-up on Obama's proposed approach towards technology, but I can't be more thorough than the the president elect himself, so instead I'm including a couple of links and a video of his presentation of his tech policy platform.

Unlike a lot of campaign speeches I heard Obama give, where he said what he wanted to change but not how he would go about making the change, he did outline some specific plans regarding technology and innovation such as immigration reform, making permanent the R&D tax credit, and making science and math education a priority. Also on his platform are infrastructure items such as broadband access and the smart grid.

He also proposes a push to electronic health records (great in theory but in practice could be downright scary,) and more transparency in government (a refreshing change from the Bush administration).

Being that Obama launched this policy in November of 2007, some things are sure to change. For instance, by the time he's inaugurated I'm not sure the country will be able to come up with the $150 Billion he pledged to clean energy projects.

For more info see TechCrunch's overview, the platform write-up on Obama's campaign site, or even the following video of Barack explaining it himself:

Blueprint For Change: Technology

Thursday 25 September 2008

No Probable Cause Necessary for Laptop Data Searches

The Register reports a significant change in the rules regarding border searches of laptops and other devices. Under the new rules, customs and border agents are authorized to search, analyze and store data without probable cause. For the past 20 years agents had to have probable cause in order to inspect data on the devices of travelers entering into the US. As of July that rule has been (quietly) relaxed, and powers given to agents expanded.

In February the EFF and Asian Law Caucus sued the Department of Homeland Security over these invasive searches, and then in May a federal district court ruled in favor of the searches. This led to some groups requesting that foreign travelers leave their devices at home when traveling abroad to the US.

The question that comes to my mind is how knowledgeable the agents are regarding the devices they're supposed to search. This fella missed his flight because the TSA wasn't able to identify his MacBook Air as a laptop.

Saturday 20 September 2008

Berkeley Providing Loans for Solar

The Berkeley city council has unanimously approved a proposal to give homeowners loans to install solar panels on their homes. The loan would be paid off over 20 years via an additional charge of $180 per month on their property taxes. If the property is sold, the new owners assume the loan. The city is starting with a pilot of 50 homes initially.

The program sounds good (though I'd rather save 20K myself over the next ten years than pay 40K over 20), but depending on the timing of the program, and given where the credit market is headed, my question would be how the city of Berkeley is going to find the capital to do this. Program information is here.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Lawsuit Digs into Teens' Online Ramblings

by Ann Althouse on Flickr I remember reading, a year or so ago, about a young woman whose medical care for her anorexia was denied by her health insurance provider. Her parents banned together with other parents posed with similar issues to sue their insurance company for costs incurred in their daughters' treatment. The insurance company's stance is that anorexia is a psychological rather than biological affliction and thus they aren't obligated to cover associated costs. (Which causes one to wonder whether they grant coverage for the ills associated with being overweight -- or smoking and its drawn-out and oft fatal afflictions?)

Then last week, The Economist mentioned an insidious development in the case (Beye v. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield Of New Jersey, Inc.). The health insurance company, Horizon, demanded access to all digital communications of the young women -- Facebook, IM threads, blogs, email, text messages, the entire lot. When the lawyer for the girls objected on the grounds of invasion of privacy, he lost.

There are several issues with this. First, the technology is new. Only recently have the Y Generation started taking seriously their elders' warnings about the internet being a permanent system of record for their online activities. Second, the young women are minors so, in my opinion, deserve the protection of privacy appropriate for children. The legal system affords special treatment and leniency for minors in many regards -- this should extend to digital privacy.

And adults should heed the story of this lawsuit as well -- don't blog about your great ski trip to Aspen when you're on workers' comp.

Thursday 4 September 2008

Is Your Email Being Used Against You?

About a month ago the Washington Post reported that NebuAd, a web marketing company, was employing the nastiness known as deep packet inspection (DPI) to target advertising at internet users in Kansas. The only notice the ISP offered their customers was an update to their privacy policy on their corporate web site. This would be like the USPS posting a similar notice on their web site before allowing mail carriers to open your mail, log the contents, and share the findings with advertisers. (For a great write-up on the particulars of deep packet inspection, see the ACM's blog post on the subject.)

Today the Post reports that NebuAd is putting the mass deployment of their product on hold while Congress addresses privacy concerns of the technology. The article goes on to say that several companies have put their trial deployment on the back burner. It doesn't mention how many (or which) companies are continuing with their deployment plans.

I went to NebuAd's web site and found a link to opt out of their 'behavioral targeting solution': (Note that if you delete your browser cookies, you will need to opt-out again.)

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Voting Machines Drop Votes

by lowjumpingfrog on FlickrHere's a QA nightmare: for the past ten years the voting machines made by Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold) have had a bug in their software that causes votes to be dropped. According to an article in the Washington Post the problem occurs when votes are transferred from a memory card to a central tallying server and, as Premier officials note, inconsistencies are caught only when (if?) cross-checking is done by elections officials as part of the results certification process. The most notable state affected by this bug is of course a hotly contested one -- Ohio.

Due to the fact that elections systems changes must be certified by the Fed, it could take two years or more to get the issue resolved. In the meantime it will be considered a 'known issue', and presumably elections officials will be notified and advised of the problem.

The kick of the story though is that Premier first declared the issue human error. Then recanted and blamed it on Antivirus software. And then, as Dan Goodin of The Register puts it... finally 'confessed' to a logic error.

Friday 22 August 2008

Hackers Use FEMAs Dime to Make $12K in Calls

According to an article by the AP, FEMA's PBX system was hacked into and used to make about $12,000 in phone calls. Given the wealth of information on how PBXs work (and their potential flaws,) one would think that Homeland Security's FEMA would have made sure their system was hardened against such exploits.

Oh -- and the calls were made to Asia and the Middle East.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

No More Shacking Up With Ohio Voting Machines

by ShutterCat7 on Flickr Apparently some folks in Ohio have been hosting electronic voting machines at their slumber parties. Poll workers, in that hotly contested state, frequently bring the machines home with them for days leading up to elections. I'm not sure I understand why this would be necessary -- and frankly, any arguments I've read about (it allows pollworkers to avoid charges incurred by moving companies,) make no sense to me. Clearly I'm not the only one who doesn't buy these arguments because Ohio's Secretary of State has issued a directive stating that this practice will no longer be allowed.

Via Why Tuesday.

(By the way, the AP news posting states that extra costs incurred by this change would be covered by federal funding, but I don't see anything that indicates so in the directive).

Thursday 14 August 2008

New in iTunes: Taxation

Wired reports that California Assemblyman Calderon is at it again with a fresh digital entertainment tax proposal. His first attempt at internet taxation, AB 1956, (dubbed the iTunes tax,) was defeated so he recently put forth ABX3 22 during the legislature's special extended session (as if the state's budget crisis is going to be solved by taxing iPhone apps...)

The article points out that imposing a sales tax on downloads merely punishes people who are legally acquiring digital media while those who take part in online sharing get by without taxation.

Would the income from the tax itself even cover the time and resources spent to get this legislation passed? Maybe this guy needs a lesson in spending vs. taxation?

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