About 200 New York City-based web technologists gathered after work on a recent Friday evening to hear highlights from two of the civic tech community’s biggest conferences – and for an open bar.
But what was supposed to be a routine debrief of the Code for America Summit and the Mozilla Festival, each held a few weeks earlier, was overshadowed by impassioned post-election calls by many speakers to get more involved in government.
“Government needs more help than it ever has before,” said Andrew Nicklin, open data director at the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx), speaking at the Nov. 18 event held at Civic Hall in Manhattan’s Flatiron District.
GovEx helps governments across the country use data to make better decisions. In one case, it helped boost the capacity of the Seattle Police Department’s SeaStat program, which analyzes real-time crime data. GovEx exemplifies the often blurry line between civic tech, or technology developed to serve the public good, and govtech, technology developed for or used by the government to fulfill its perceived duties and services to the public.
Civic tech and govtech often overlap, but not always. One example to illustrate that point was the hypothetical creation of a government registry of Black Lives Matter activists, posed by speaker Andrew Rasiej, the founder and CEO of both the venue Civic Hall and of Personal Democracy Media. In the wake of recent comments by a high-profile supporter of President-elect Donald Trump, a database of Muslim immigrants also would certainly raise flags in the civic tech community.
So Nicklin, Rasiej and other speakers throughout the night urged attendees to put their talent to work in public service. The most important conversations and, yes, arguments that will lead to major tech policy decisions over the next four years, Nicklin said, will start “behind the walls of government.”
One of those policies being fiercely debated right now is net neutrality, also known as the open internet.
Life in the Fast Lane
The open internet means consumers can go where they want, when they want, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency at the heart of the debate. The FCC’s Open Internet rules, adopted in 2015, also prohibit internet service providers (ISPs), like Verizon, Time Warner Cable and AT&T, from blocking, impairing or establishing “fast lanes” to legal online content.
ISPs – and President Trump – would like to change that.
“If you are pro-net neutrality, you think things should stay the way they are,” said Robert J. Domanski, an instructor of computer science and political science at the City University of New York, and the author of “Who Governs the Internet?: A Political Architecture.”
“If you are against net neutrality,” he said, you believe ISPs “own the cables and pipes [and] they should be able to price it the way they want.” In other words, the government should stay out of internet regulation.
All of Trump’s FCC appointees so far – Mark Jamison, Jeffrey Eisenach and Roslyn Layton – subscribe to the latter belief. And that has some people in New York City’s civic tech community worried.
“There goes net neutrality,” said Jean, a test engineer in the audience at the Civic Hall event, who asked to be identified only by her first name. She tests websites and web products for a financial institution, which she wouldn’t name.
Jean said she doesn’t think the general public understands that consumer protection is getting worse. “Do you want to pay extra for your Netflix?” she asked.
Netflix keeps coming up in the net neutrality debate because video streaming is perhaps the easiest area to see how a faster or slower broadband connection affects the average consumer. If net neutrality regulations are loosened or removed under the new administration, ISPs could charge Netflix more for a faster connection and Netflix might in turn, logically, raise its subscriber fees.
Should we expect a full-blown destruction of the open internet and sky-high rates to watch “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” from the Trump Administration? Probably not, said Domanski.
“If the question is if net neutrality is under threat,” he said, the answer is “absolutely.” But it’s more likely that net neutrality will be “chipped away at – done in the minutia of details and policy.”