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I posted this reflection over on DigitalImpact.org - regular readers of the Blueprint - send me your notes!

For those who don't want to click over (and you should) the piece discusses the technological work being done on digital identities - where you would control yours - and its implications for civil society and philanthropy. Go on, read it.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 17, 2018, 3:56 pm
One of many things that have been made more public during this week's congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg is the way in which the platform curates content. Zuckerberg bemoaned the reality that it's his job to decide who sees what when.
For those who study curation and platforms and internet law this is not new. I'm writing this while listening to Tarleton Gillespie discuss his forthcoming book (recommended) Custodians of the Internet. He's describing the rules, technologies, and people that make up the "moderation apparatus" - the systems that determine who sees what information, when, and from whom. Gillespies argues that this moderation is essential to what the platforms do - it is their value proposition. This runs counter to the longstanding mythos of the open web.

One of the elements of this "moderation apparatus" that Gillespie describes that catches my eye is the role of civil society organizations and nonprofits. Big companies, like Facebook but probably not only Facebook, rely on civil society to do their dirty work. 

In Myanmar, civil society groups that were working with Facebook to take down hateful and violent postings pushed back when Zuckerberg claimed that the company was doing all it could to address these issues. The civil society groups noted that the company was essentially relying on them to voluntarily moderate the site and wasn't providing them with the engineering resources that were needed to do this. They secured a verbal commitment from Zuckerberg to improve the process.

Here's what this means:
  • Facebook was shifting its responsibilities to civil society.
  • Civil society groups aren't equipped for, or paid for, this role. 
  • Civil society groups - by design - are fragmented and contentious. Choosing some of them to do moderation is a value-laden, editorial decision.  
  • Civil society is - from Facebook's perspective in this example - just a low cost, outsourced labor source.  It also, no doubt, shifts liability from Facebook to civil society (not least for the human psychological effects of moderating photos and posts about harm and violence).
Here's what I want to know:
  • How widespread are these kinds of commercial/civil society moderation/curation relationships?
  • How do they work - who's contracted for what? who's liable for what? what recourse exists when things go wrong?
  • What do civil society groups think of this? When might it be a good solution, from civil society's perspective?
  • Some civil society groups - such as Muslim Advocates and Color Of Change - are calling for a civil rights audit of Facebook. Senator Cory Booker took this idea into the hearings. This sort of advocacy and accountability demands of the platforms makes more sense to me as the role of civil society - not doing the work, but demanding the work be done. Your thoughts?
Seems to me this starts to elicit some really interesting questions about role/relationship of nonprofits, companies and government in digital space.


Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 12, 2018, 10:25 pm
This article from India Development Review captures some of my thoughts on civil society and digital data.

http://idronline.org/civil-society-and-the-burden-of-data/


Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 11, 2018, 8:08 pm
Remember when philanthropy, foundations, and nonprofits were unknown? Boy, has that changed - they now play regular roles in news and literature.
  • Senator Patrick Leahy asked Mark Zuckerberg why Facebook had to hear from civil society groups before taking action against violent crimes in Myanmar
    • (editor: Why didn't Leahy also ask Zuckerberg about Facebook's labor exploitation of those groups' volunteers - essentially relying on them as his workforce?)
  • Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI are investigating the President's attorney for foreign payments to Trump's foundation.
  • Meg Wolitzer's new novel features a protagonist who works at a foundation. A review of the novel in Bookforum includes this wonderful line:
    • "...it takes an earnest but compromised nonprofit endeavor as a vehicle for its ideas. With its magical relationship to money, the foundation helps insulate Greer and her beliefs from the world beyond, at least until she must confront the reality of what the suits are doing upstairs"
  • Jonathan Franzen's 2010 novel, Freedom, featured a bird rescue nonprofit. 
I guess not all press is good press. 
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 10, 2018, 8:53 pm
(originally posted on DigitalImpact.org)

Have you noticed an uptick of emails from companies like Slack, Google, or PayPal, announcing new privacy policies and terms and conditions? Why the sudden onslaught of updates? The answer is easy. The companies sending these notices are changing their policies to meet the requirements of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR or just GDPR), which will put powerful new enforcement mechanisms into place, starting on May 25, 2018.

If you’re a U.S. resident, or working at a U.S. nonprofit or foundation you may wonder what, if anything, the GDPR has to do with you? Good question. There’s no simple answer for everyone outside the EU. But just as those companies (all of which are based in the U.S.) revisit their policies and practices because of the new law, it’s a good idea for you to do so, too.

First, the GDPR probably applies to you, whether you know it or not. It’s possible – depending on where your clients and donors live, where your data is stored, or where you provide services – that your organization is subject to fines for not following the new law. In this case, compliance is more than just a good idea, it’s required.

Second, the GDPR is a prompt for a worldwide checkup on safe, ethical, and effective data practices. Many of the GDPR’s provisions align with the data governance principles and responsible data practices that we at Digital Impact advocate for in civil society. Think of the GDPR as providing a framework and set of user-centered guidelines about data that may just align with your mission.
Many resources and consultancies are popping up to help organizations comply with the GDPR.

Digital Impact is here to help you navigate through it. We’re on the lookout for credible, accessible, and affordable resources with particular resonance to nonprofits, foundations, and civil society. In the coming months with help from our community, we’ll be curating new content, holding conversations about data governance and GDPR, and fostering discussion at digitalimpact.org/gdpr.

Check out our starting list of GDPR resources, send us others that you’ve found, and join the community in conversation. Want to share your view on the GDPR with the world? Become a Digital Impact contributor. And if there are topics, tools, or templates you need but can’t find, let us know. Maybe the Digital Impact community can help.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 7, 2018, 11:00 am
Gun violence survivors. The extent and reach of this as part of the identity of millions of people in the  U.S. was on heart-wrenching full display on Saturday, March 24. Thousands of people have survived the USA's totemic mass shootings (Columbine, Aurora, Charleston, Virginia Tech, Pulse, Newtown, Las Vegas, Parkland, there are too many to list). Hundreds of thousands, probably millions of Black people and others in poor, urban communities survive daily gun violence, perpetrated by both civilians and law enforcement. People in these communities have been naming the problem, identifying as survivors, and calling out the epidemic for decades. They survive despite the pain, grief, and identity-shaping nature of the experiences. Yesterday, people from across many different communities - bound by a shared identity that none of them chose - took full hold of the attention of the rest of the country, the media, the world.

Part of the NRA's success for so many years has been that gun owners identify as gun owners. It's not just something they care about, it's part of how they see themselves. This is the argument made by Hahrie Han and other scholars. When an issue becomes part of your identity, you act on it - you participate in civic life, you vote, you hold politicians accountable, you show up.

Yesterday was a full scale display of how broad and big is the group that shares this unwanted identity. The breadth and depth and multi-generational nature of people who understand themselves as gun violence survivors.

Now that we've finally heard it and seen how many we are, perhaps this shared identity will contribute to civic action of a scale and persistence to match.



Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 25, 2018, 6:35 pm

 

Thanks to The Engine Room and the Ford Foundation - this report clearly shows how the digital ecosystem is now core to civil society, the expertise needed, and the emerging infrastructure to support digital civil society. Read it now.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 13, 2018, 4:17 pm


This post is an excerpt from Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018, my ninth annual industry forecast. Read the entire Blueprint series and join the conversation on social media with #blueprint2018.




The logic, theory, and experiences that connect an open civil society with a stable majority-run democracy are well known. Civil society is meant to be a third space where we voluntarily come together to take action as private citizens for the public good. Majority-run democracies need to, at the very least, prevent those who disagree with them (minorities) from revolting against the system. Civil society provides, at the very least, the pressure-release valve for majority-run governments. Positioned more positively, civil society is where those without power or critical mass can build both and influence the majority. It serves as a conduit to the majority system and a counterbalance to extreme positions. It also serves as an outlet for those actions, rights, and views that may never be the priority of a majority, but that are still valid, just, or beautiful. When it exists, civil society offers an immune system for democracy—it is a critical factor in a healthy system, and it requires its own maintenance. Immune systems exist to protect and define—they are lines of defense that “allow organism[s] to persist over time.”

Civil society always struggles to define its independence from governments and markets. Civil society is shaped by laws and revenue streams, but has different accountability mechanisms and relies on voluntary participation. It is distinct from compulsory government rights and obligations, and can often operate in ways that aren’t about financial profit. But to describe the resulting space as truly independent is aspirational at best. While universal human rights such as free expression, peaceable assembly, and privacy provide its moral and philosophical underpinnings, civil society is shaped by the laws of the country in question. These include regulations about allowable sources of financing, public reporting, governance structures, and defined spheres of activity. At the very least, the boundaries of civil society in modern democracies are set by government action.

We are surrounded by big, fragile institutions. Global companies, established political structures, and big nonprofits have purchased, suppressed, or ignored the fluid and small alternatives surrounding them. Fluid, networked alternatives exist and will continue to spawn. For some time now, the fate of these alternatives was absorption by the top or diffusion with limited impact. In each sector, there appears to be a notable change of attitude in the way the small views the big. While corporate near-monopolies and dominant political parties are still viewed by some as the natural and best order of things (see, for example, tech executives and incumbent politicians), the big players in each sector are rigidifying. I sense that this is matched by a new attitude from the emergent, smaller, and more fluid groups who aspire to challenge rather than to buttress.

This is where reminding ourselves of the dynamism of a social economy within civil society is so important. It helps us to keep our eyes simultaneously on emerging forms and on the relationships between them (the nodes and the networks). It’s where we see tech-driven alternatives to party politics, nonprofit or research-driven alternatives to corporate data monopolies, and the crowdfunding of public services. What’s changed is not the level of dynamism among these small, fluid, and cross-sector strategies. What’s new is the confrontational nature they now bring. These alternatives don’t see themselves as mere fleas on an elephant; rather, they challenge themselves to be the termites that topple the houses.

The sense of failed systems can be seen in the rise of autocrats where democracy once ruled, in the lived experience of a changed climate even as a few powerful holdouts cling to their self-interested denials, and in the return to prominence of racist or nationalist factions where they’d been marginalized before. Threats about nuclear warheads catch people’s attention. There is a pervasive sense of uncertainty.

Democracies depend on civil society. Closing civil society often precedes a democracy’s shift into autocracy or chaos. Defending civil society is not just an act of self-preservation. Protecting the rights and interests of minority groups, and allowing space for collective action and diverse beliefs, a cacophony of independent voices, and activities that yield neither financial profit nor direct political power, are in the best interest of elected political leaders and businesspeople.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: January 31, 2018, 4:00 pm
This post is an excerpt from Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018, my ninth annual industry forecast. Read the entire Blueprint series and join the conversation on social media with #blueprint2018.


The language of the social economy helps us describe a diverse system of institutions and financial flows. The language of civil society helps us articulate the purpose of the social economy and its role in democratic systems. Digital civil society encompasses all the ways we voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in the digital age.

The hallmark feature of civil society in a democracy is its (at least, theoretical) independence from governments and markets. Civil society is meant to be a “third space” where we voluntarily come together on the proverbial (or literal) park bench to take action as private citizens for the public good. Our use of digital data and infrastructure blurs these distinctions and complicates these relationships for a simple reason: Most of “digital space” is owned or monitored by commercial firms and government.

Illustration by Ben Crothers


The conditions that support civil society’s independence have been weakening for a long time and for many reasons. Support for research from conflicted interests has tainted universities and nominally independent research centers for years. News organizations sustaining themselves via ad and subscription revenue are mostly a thing of the past. A small number of big donors have been shown to shape political campaigns, legislative and legal strategies, and the charitable nonprofit landscape. While crowdfunding and crowdsourcing get a lot of press attention, the other end of the scale is shaped by large concentrations of money from a few interests.

Today we must attempt to understand both the analog and digital relationships between these actors. We must examine how these relationships shift when organizations and individuals become dependent on digital tools, data, and infrastructure. These dependencies do much more than accelerate and expand the reach of individuals and organizations. They introduce new forms of activism such as hacking and raise new questions about authority and control between individuals and the companies that run the digital platforms.Most important, these dependencies bind traditionally independent civil society organizations and activities closely to marketplaces and governments in complex and problematic ways.

Our daily use of the most basic tools of the digital age, such as cellular phones, email, and networked printers, means that our activities are bounded by and reliant on the rules and tools of the companies that make the gadgets and wire the world. As we use these tools, our activities are also monitored by the governments that surveil the digital spaces in which our tools operate. Our actions in this space are shaped by the values of the companies that make the tools (even as the companies seek to deny this) and by the way we respond to being watched by both corporations and governments.

Illustration by Ben Crothers

These digital dependencies significantlychallenge civil society’s independence. This matters to how individuals and organizations work within the sector. And it matters to democracies that have long relied on the “immune response” provided by a diverse and fractious space where minority demands, rights, and ideas could thrive with some degree of independence.

It is no coincidence that experts see signs that the space for civil society is closing, that those monitoring Internet freedom see rising threats, and that those monitoring the health of democracies fear for the future. We can’t decouple these pieces. Efforts to “save democracy” will depend on understanding how digital technologies have changed the relationships between sectors. I discuss this in more depth in the section on digital dependencies.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: January 17, 2018, 4:30 pm
Have you downloaded, read, marked-up, tweeted corrections to me yet about Blueprint 2018? Well, what are you waiting for?



I've been hearing from lots of folks already, arguing with me about buzzwords and commiserating with me about trying to write something for print that addresses tax and telecommunications policy while the U.S. Congress debates tax bills and the FCC kills net neutrality.




Now you also have a chance to join in the prediction business. In the next two weeks the news, trade press, social media, radio, and television will start filling up with end-of-year lists and predictions for next year. YOU TOO CAN BE A PREDICTOR - There are lots of ways to contribute your ideas.



  • Post your predictions for philanthropy, nonprofits and civil society as comments on this blog
  • Then register here to join us on January 11, 2018 for a live discussion about your predictions and those from David Callahan (@InsidePhilanthr), Trista Harris (@TristaHarris), Julie Broome (@AriadneNetwork) and our moderator Crystal Hayling (@CHayling).




Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 15, 2017, 9:11 pm


Blueprint 2018: Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society is now available for free download. Get yours here.

And if you just want the buzzwords, the Chronicle of Philanthropy has them here.

We'll be doing a free webinar discussion on the predictions in January - register here.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 13, 2017, 5:17 pm
The last fifteen years have been hard on journalism.
While the entrants under each of the above bullets would be different, trends seem to be heading in the same direction for nonprofits.
Maybe its just the categories of change that seem similar. Maybe the trends themselves, or the impact they have, will be different.




Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 19, 2017, 10:21 pm
I'm trained as an historian though I spend more time writing about the present and the future than I do in the archives (speaking of which, Blueprint 2018 will be live on December 13)

Learning from the past is key. It's how I understand the present and the future and it's how I find hope when it seems like current events are rushing us over the edge.

(photo: Warshawski in the documentary “Big Sonia.” Credit Gloria Baker Feinstein/Argot Pictures)

I was thrilled to get to know the filmmakers Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday during a fellowship made possible by the Rockefeller Foundation. I was even more thrilled to get early glimpses of their then nascent project, Big Sonia. Meeting Sonia Warshawski, star and subject of this incredible film, made me smile for days. I traveled to Kansas City to meet her, her family, and community, and learn more about her work with prisoners and high school students.* If you need a little perspective on our current world and why each of us needs to do what we can to improve it, see this movie.

Today I opened up the New York Times and found yesterday's review of this (Oscar-eligible) documentary and a story about Sonia. This is fantastic. Reading the news these days is an exercise in controlling panic, channeling outrage, and managing despair. Reading about Sonia will give you much to be thankful for and inspire you to do more, now.

If you're in NY, LA, or KC you can catch the film in theaters. If you're part of a community that cares about the struggles and survival of individuals when entire populations are being targeted by forces of hate, then see this film. If you like great movies, see this one. You can request a screening in your community. Mazel Tov, Sonia, Leah, Todd and team and thank you.







*Full disclosure, my family helped raise a little bit of money for the film but compared to the life chronicled in the movie and the effort by Warshawski/Soliday and team my contribution is miniscule. I call it out in the interest of full disclosure.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 18, 2017, 5:47 pm
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 17, 2017, 6:26 pm
We live in an age of disinformation. Lies under oath, lies on line, bot-spread fake news, the inability to tell fact from advocacy, trolling, doxing,* online/offline harassment - this is the atmosphere in which civil society actors - organizations, activists, and individuals - operate. In many cases we perpetuate these acts.


Yes, that's a harsh thing to admit but nonprofits, groups of citizens, and people coming together are using these tactics to get their messages across, to mobilize people, and to silence those with whom they disagree.

In other words, as a whole, civil society is neither exempt from nor innocent in creating and perpetuating the age of disinformation in which we now live. Some examples:
  • Activists get doxed. White supremacists descend on Berkeley, CA knowing they will attract counter protesters.  They use the opportunity to photograph, identify, and then make life miserable (or worse) for the counter protesters by using those photographs to hassle them endlessly on line and off. The white supremacists groups are exercising their free speech and  associational rights - they are acting in civil society. The protesters are also. The physical gatherings were intentional tactics to lure out the groups' opponents, gather information on them, and use it to impinge on their individual and collective ability to speak out and gather safely in the future. The old tactic of countering bad speech with more speech doesn't work anymore - online, offline, or in the real world in which we live in which these two are very difficult to separate. The transition is to a world in which that physical world engagement generates the raw material for ongoing, online violence. 
  • Advocacy organizations spreading false information about everything from vaccines to gay marriage create online presences (websites, social media accounts) and amplify their messages above and beyond the voice of accurate scientific information. 
  • People let down their guard in an information environment which offers few clues to credibility - and lose the ability, or fail to use their ability, to critically assess fact from fiction.
  • The social media platforms that provide a majority of people with their first pass at "news" do nothing useful to prioritize veracity.
  •  Newsrooms aren't alone in needing to fact check; nonprofits need to do this also - it needs to become part of their communications strategy. And it is not easy to do
  • Doxing, trolling and disinformation are long term issues. They require a sustained ability to respond. Nonprofits and foundations need to be in it for the long term
Nonprofits and foundations that fail to recognize this reality are doing a disservice to their causes. It is not enough to invest in good causes getting their messages out. There needs to be deep reckoning - on all issues - about what is the counter message, where is it coming from, and how do you respond to it in ethical, safe, and effective ways?

This is, in part, a communications issue. And much more. It is really a mission and strategy issue and a reality check on how well we, the people running nonprofits and foundations, understand the digital environment in which we live, the way it can be used to manipulate people, and the ways in which our actions - or inaction - matter. Nonprofits and foundations like to think of themselves as the "good guys." But each and everyone one of them - if they're doing something that matters - faces nonprofits and foundations that disagree with them and are working to achieve a countervailing goal.

We don't live in a world of clear truths (not that we ever have). We do live in an information ecosystem which is extremely easy to manipulate - the social media systems are purpose-built  to manipulate. Facts and good intentions aren't enough. Understanding the nature of the information ecosystem - the ways it makes getting your message heard harder, not easier, and the ways it threatens the well-being and safety of those you are trying to help - is no longer an optional, edge requirement. It's reality for all of us in the digital age.


*to dox, doxxing - to search out and make public personal information (address, kids' names, account #s) of people you disagree with and dump it onto the internet for others to use to harass and endanger those individuals.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 15, 2017, 6:39 pm
Let me say, right up front, I am not a fan of business books. I find the genre stultifyingly dull. Often entire books are written from what was, at best, a very brief PowerPoint's worth of ideas. The authors often seem uninterested in, or incapable of, writing decent sentences, so the bullet point lists, matrices, and icons that fill the pages are simultaneously intelligence insulting and sanity saving. Perhaps because the commercial sector valorizes efficiency above all else, its literature has come to do the same.

(Photo credit: http://www.engineofimpact.org/)

OK. Having gotten that out of the way, let me now express gratitude for Bill Meehan and Kim Starkey Jonker's new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. For one thing, Meehan and Jonker have read the business press so I don't have to.  More seriously, their message is important - the social sector has great responsibilities and concerns and improvement is both necessary and possible. Efficiency matters in service of mission.

Meehan and Jonker have worked in the sector, studied their history, interviewed key players, and can compare and contrast what's known about the social sector with what's known about public agencies and corporate actors. The book is grounded in two careers worth of real work.

Now, as part of the business literature, Engine of Impact provides a requisite list of distinguishing attributes. In this case, it is seven elements of strategy and leadership that successful nonprofits demonstrate. If I were to excerpt the list here you would be hard-pressed to disagree with, or be surprised by, any individual item or even the whole list. It's not the list that makes this book - it's the wisdom from which they extract the list.

Meehan and Jonker are not interested in platitudes. Meehan (whom I know, I haven't met Jonker) is a proud contrarian. He doesn't suffer fools. The introduction of the book lays out a quick history of how we arrived at what the authors call "The Impact era." In it they run the reader swiftly through the events of the last two centuries in the U.S. and zero in on the last two decades. Here they find a great deal of potential - from the building of a digital infrastructure for the social sector to the popularization of impact investing. To the authors, this potential has, for the most part, gone unmet.

At this point I should note that the book's title has two meanings, or meaning at two levels. The "engines" of which the authors write are both individual nonprofits and the entire sector. They are motivated not just by the potential for better performing organizations, but by the need for a sector that can (and must) get better at contributing to the great challenges of our time.  These contributions will come mostly (the authors argue) by working with government and corporations - the global challenges of climate change, population migration, economic dislocation - cannot be solved by any one sector alone.

The idea that the social sector can both improve itself and, in so doing, improve and challenge, cajole and nudge other types of enterprises to greater action sets this book apart. Meehan and Jonker aren't providing the nonprofit sector with "lessons learned from commerce" because business knows best, but quite the opposite. There are plenty of lessons for nonprofits from business, but the social sector's opportunity (obligation?) is to act in such a way that businesses can follow. Collective, they (nonprofits) are the engine of a society that can collectively address its greatest challenges.

The book also points out two things that every decent nonprofit professional knows, but is rarely listened to when she says it aloud. Boards matter and most of them are lousy, and fundraising is a critical part of the work that happens in irrational, resource absorbing ways. Meehan and Jonker's voices should be heard on these two points. They provide proof, they provide examples of better, and they're able to connect both the practical realities of individual organizations with the structural faults that keep those realities in play.

Most of the examples in the book come from organizations of such size and scale that small organizations might wonder what the book offers for them. Stick with it, I say, as many of the examples taken from large organizations are of failure of strategy or limitations of leadership. Meehan and Jonker are not acolytes in the school of "scale at all cost." They are, as the title implies, interested in impact - accomplishing mission in measurable and meaningful ways.

If you, unlike me, appreciate the efficiency of the business book genre then by all means, read Engine of Impact. If you, like me, find the business section of the bookstore the easiest one to skip past, this is one of the rare books worth stopping for.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 6, 2017, 12:14 am
Free is good, right? It's certainly a very attractive price to nonprofit organizations, which are always, shall we say, "resource constrained." (read: broke)

There are lots of reasons to be wary of free, but I'm not going to go into all of them here (again).

Let's just focus on why its a bad idea to become dependent on any single tech service provider - be it a social media platform or a storage service or a shared document host.

It boils down to one simple reason - you're subject to their rules, at all times.

Here's a headline from today: "Why is Google Docs Terrifyingly locking people out of their Documents?"  The examples listed include research on "wildlife crime" and work on "post socialist Europe." Users tried to log in this morning only to find out that their work was suddenly in violation of Google's Terms of Service. Their documents were now off limits.

What happened? At least according the story above, Google updated its software code which may have made "its spam detection go rogue." Or not. We'll only know what Google chooses to tell us.

For those who were working on those documents and are now locked out, they can't get any work done and who knows what they may have lost. This in and of itself ought to scare you into 1) backing up and 2) backing up. But isn't that the plus of these online documents - you don't have to back up?  Hmm, maybe not.

More importantly, if the examples of work I had cited about above had included "documenting White House lawyers hired since January," or "lists of immigration assistance centers," or "a table of registered gun owners addresses sorted by distance from nearest elementary school" you might be less likely to believe a software glitch and more concerned that something else was going on.

Either way, you'd still be stuck. Google's first response to inquiries about today's "mishap" - "We'll provide more information when appropriate" wouldn't be very comforting.

Later in the day,  Google issued this response: "This morning, we made a code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive, which caused those documents to be automatically blocked. A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs." 

Which raises yet another question - before you and your team start working on a shared document, do you check your work against Google's Terms of Service? Remember, you have been warned - the system is scanning your documents at all times. There is nothing private or protected about the information you're putting there, and it's continued existence depends on the ToS which you probably haven't read.


Free is a tough price to beat. But it does mean you get what you pay for, plus the potential for censorship.

*Yes, I know I'm writing this on blogger, owned and hosted by Google. I back it up, offline.





Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 31, 2017, 9:11 pm
I'm delighted to be moderating this conversation with Nate Persily and Franklin Foer.
Join us - November 13, Stanford University.
More information is here


Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 27, 2017, 6:19 pm
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 25, 2017, 9:50 pm
Are you still trying to make sense of how digital tools facilitate efforts to shut down civil society? Read this for my quick primer on how this works. There will be a lot more in the Blueprint 2018 - coming on December 14.

And here's a story from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that adds to the list of how and who (tl:dr - email spear phishing)
 (Photo from EFF: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/09/phish-future)

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 6, 2017, 8:15 pm
This letter, titled White People Show Us, from Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee of PolicyLink makes central what many would prefer to push aside. Racism is a problem created by white people. People of color suffer, but white people are the ones who created it, benefit from it, perpetuate it, and, I believe, also suffer from it. None of us are free when some are not. It's not enough to say this, we need to act to change it, persistently and continuously.

Civil society - associational spaces where we voluntarily come together to do things for others - is home to some of the most powerful forces for equity and anti-racism work. Historically, it is here, in civil society, that political power is built, change is crafted, protest and alternatives are envisioned, and pressure on dominant governing systems - which in the U.S. have always been tools for advancing white interests - builds until those systems change. It is long, arduous, daily work and power never cedes without pressure.

Systems change is particularly hard when the same rules that protect the rights of people to focus on building an equitable society and fighting racism protect the rights of people doing the opposite. Free speech and assembly - two universal human rights (and Constitutionally protected rights in the U.S.) - apply to groups with a range of views. This is by design. As is often noted, freedom of speech only means something if it protects the "speech you hate," not just the things that are easy to say. The right to peaceable assembly applies to groups on both sides of an issue. And a right to due process to determine what is protected and what is not sits alongside these rights, to make sure that lines can be drawn and limits set. Violence and the intent to harm are not protected. Not all speech is protected, and when it is, it's protected from government interference, not private counter speech, or action by non-government actors to determine that certain speech is not to be supported. The right to association is for peaceable assembly - it is not a right to gather to cause harm.

Civil society depends on these rights. It is strengthened by the intentional divisiveness that these rights encompass. In majority run democracies there are, and always will be, many minorities. It is the right of these minority opinions to be expressed - safely and peaceable - that buttress and support and legitimize the actions of the majority-run systems. When any powerful actor (elected, appointed, or market-driven) limits the right of minorities to organize and speak, we fast track out of democracy.

One of the biggest challenges today is that the Internet is an underlying space for civil society but we haven't figured out how to enforce our nation-bound, values-shaped analog norms and rules in this global, hybrid commercial/public space. Internet intermediaries (at many levels) host our discourse, our efforts at organizing, and our protests. They are not democratically elected governments, not signatories to human rights declarations, not publicly accountable as agents of the people.

They may not have chosen this role, but they have it - they intermediate free speech and assembly for people around the globe. In order to exist, civil society's fight for these fundamental rights now takes place on two fronts, facing both governments and Internet intermediaries. While this recognition will be new to some, there are people and associations that have been working on these issues for years, have developed procedures and policies for dealing with these issues, and can help the rest of think this through.

It's painful and ugly to want those with whom we passionately disagree to have the same rights as we do. Passionate disagreement is one thing. Violence and intent to harm are different, and due process is required for determining when this is the case. The intention to exclude, harm, dominate, reject, subjugate, or abridge the rights of others matters. When speech or assembly prepares for, expects, and provokes violence, violence often happens, and lots of people pay attention.

That momentary attention is important, but this is not the only way that racism subverts our society, nor is it the most frequent or possibly even the most damaging. Systems and rules built on racist assumptions and designed to perpetuate inequity are all around us, all the time, doing damage and needing to be undone.  Groups that gather armed and shielded, those that violently beat or murder people with whom they disagree, and actions taken to limit other people's rights to vote - these are all racist acts of violence. The first three are not acts of civil speech or assembly. The last one is not legal.

These are not easy issues. They are not limited to - or even fully exemplified by - horrific, public, violent acts of terror and physical harm. Civil society is home to many groups that know this best; thoughtful, informed experts who've worked to protect civil rights and liberties and those that work to fight racism and other hateful acts in digital spaces. It's time we recognized how much civil society writ large needs these groups, their work, and these rights.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: August 18, 2017, 9:10 pm
Yesterday I wrote about aligning your organization's tech with your mission and values. This has to do with making sure that your organizational approaches to privacy, consent, sharing, data use, etc. carry through from your board through to your software licenses.

Here's the "back of the napkin" from a conversation about this with some funders and nonprofits.

And here's yesterday's post. Here's a related post on digital literacy.

The tools and policies on digitalimpact.io are designed to help.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: August 4, 2017, 8:39 pm
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: August 2, 2017, 9:55 pm
Hey, check this out - The full #blueprint series to-date - all eight years - all in one place - free for downloading.

And yes, it's time to start thinking about number 9. 

I'll be working on #blueprint18 starting now. Please send buzzwords, trends, predictions etc. to me via twitter (@p2173) or in the comments.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: July 14, 2017, 3:47 am

(Photo: http://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/op-eds/2640-the-civicus-monitor-informing-the-fightback-against-closing-civic-space)

Governments around the world are shutting down civic space. They do this in a variety of ways for any number of reasons. Monitors of civil society have been documenting this for years, and attention and concern in the last few years has risen dramatically - the 2017 Civicus Report declares the situation an emergency. Where and how do issues of digital data fit into this phenomenon?

I'm thinking out loud here - let's break it down together:

How do governments close civic space? Generally by passing laws and/or using force to limit free expression, free assembly, and private spaces for planning collective action. Practically, this can happen in many ways:
  • Regulatory changes - stricter registration requirements of nonprofits, requirements on who can be on their boards/staff, more data required on activities, 
  • Financial pressure - either by raising fees that organizations can't afford or limiting the sources of funds that organizations can accept
  • Police monitoring of public assembly - laws limiting protests,* use of state force to break up public gatherings, violence against protesters
  • Limiting speech - forcing media behavior, owning all media, censoring media
(There are more - please add in comments)

So where and how does digital fit in? Look again at that list of bullets. EVERY SINGLE one of those actions is made easier to do in the age of digital data.
  • Reporting requirements? Easier to impose and enforce with digital data? Check. 
  • Financial pressure? Since most money is now digitally transferred monitoring financial transaction is easier than ever. Check.
  • Police monitoring of assembly? Easier than ever, thanks to digital surveillance, social media monitoring, cell phone tracking, etc.  Check.
  • Limiting speech? Digital puts all kind of pressure to consolidate big media and censor or confuse using social media. Check. 
And most of those examples are actually only second order changes - meaning our use of digital just makes it easier to clamp down in the old fashioned ways. Our digital dependencies also provide first order ways - new ways - to shut down assembly, expression, and privacy - thus introducing new ways for governments to shut down civil society. For example:
  • Shut down the Internet. Just turn it off. 
  • Manipulate digital records, foment disinformation
  • Limit access to the Internet - tiering the service (killing off net neutrality), starving out small voices***
  • Allow corporate policies on speech to take precedence over national law**
  • Sweep all Internet traffic into government databases and hold on to it forever 
  • Shut down VPNs, outlaw encryption
  • Manipulate the news, the feeds, the photos, the voices, etc. etc. 
  • Ubiquitous surveillance
(Again there are more - please add in comments)

Digital tools give governments - and corporations - many more ways to shut down or limit citizen actions than they had before. Digital infrastructure and data not only AMPLIFY old mechanisms for shutting down civil society, they also provide NEW MECHANISMS for closure.

When we talk about closing civic space we need to understand this. Efforts to maintain open civil society now require a much deeper understanding of how dependent we are on digital data and infrastructure, how digital changes civil society's relationships to state AND corporate actors, and action on laws about digital (and product-practices) that are new territory for civil society advocates.


*More than a dozen states in the U.S. are currently contemplating such laws.
** This is particularly challenging given the dominance, globally, of a few U.S.-based social media, shopping, and search companies. These companies are "governing" across jurisdictions and setting terms of service that serve their purposes but have nothing to do with democratic practice, human rights, or other norms for expression, assembly, and privacy.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: July 12, 2017, 2:14 am