why @congressedits?

Note: as with all the content on this blog, this post reflects my own thoughts about a personal project, and not the opinions or activities of my employer.

Two days ago a retweet from my friend Ian Davis scrolled past in my Twitter stream:

The simplicity of combining Wikipedia and Twitter in this way immediately struck me as a potentially useful transparency tool. So using my experience on a previous side project I quickly put together a short program that listens to all major language Wikipedias for anonymous edits from Congressional IP address ranges (thanks Josh) … and tweets them.

In less than 48 hours the @congressedits Twitter account had more than 3,000 followers. My friend Nick set up gccaedits for Canada using the same software … and @wikiAssemblee (France) and @RiksdagWikiEdit (Sweden) were quick to follow.


Watching the followers rise, and the flood of tweets from them brought home something that I believed intellectually, but hadn’t felt quite so viscerally before. There is an incredible yearning in this country and around the world for using technology to provide more transparency about our democracies.

Sure, there were tweets and media stories that belittled the few edits that have been found so far. But by and large people on Twitter have been encouraging, supportive and above all interested in what their elected representatives are doing. Despite historically low approval ratings for Congress, people still care deeply about our democracies, our principles and dreams of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

We desperately want to be part of a more informed citizenry, that engages with our local communities, sees the world as our stage, and the World Wide Web as our medium.


Consider this thought experiment. Imagine if our elected representatives and their staffers logged in to Wikipedia, identified much like Dominic McDevitt-Parks (a federal employee at the National Archives) and used their knowledge of the issues and local history to help make Wikipedia better? Perhaps in the process they enter into conversation in an article’s talk page, with a constituent, or political opponent and learn something from them, or perhaps compromise? The version history becomes a history of the debate and discussion around a topic. Certainly there are issues of conflict of interest to consider, but we always edit topics we are interested and knowledgeable about, don’t we?

I think there is often fear that increased transparency can lead to increased criticism of our elected officials. It’s not surprising given the way our political party system and media operate: always looking for scandal, and the salacious story that will push public opinion a point in one direction, to someone’s advantage. This fear encourages us to clamp down, to decrease or obfuscate the transparency we have. We all kinda lose, irrespective of our political leanings, because we are ultimately less informed.


I wrote this post to make it clear that my hope for @congressedits wasn’t to expose inanity, or belittle our elected officials. The truth is, @congressedits has only announced a handful of edits, and some of them are pretty banal. But can’t a staffer or politician make a grammatical change, or update an article about a movie? Is it really news that they are human, just like the rest of us?

I created @congressedits because I hoped it could engender more, better ideas and tools like it. More thought experiments. More care for our communities and peoples. More understanding, and willingness to talk to each other. More humor. More human.

I’m pretty sure zarkinfrood meant @congressedits figuratively, not literally. As if perhaps @congressedits was emblematic, in its very small way, of something a lot bigger and more important. Let’s not forget that when we see the inevitable mockery and bickering in the media. Don’t forget the big picture. We need transparency in our government more than ever, so we can have healthy debates about the issues that matter. We need to protect and enrich our Internet, and our Web … and to do that we need to positively engage in debate, not tear each other down.

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty. — Thomas Jefferson

Who knew TJ was a Wikipedian…

MayDay – We Can Fix This Thing

We won’t get our democracy back until we change the way campaigns are funded.

TL;DR if you were thinking of supporting MayDay and have been putting it off please act by July 4th. Every contribution helps, and you will only be charged if they hit their 5 million dollar target (2 million to go right now as I write this). Plus, and this is a big plus, you will be able to tell yourself and maybe your grandkids that you helped make real political reform happen in the United States. Oh and it’s July 4th weekend, what better way to celebrate the independence we have left!

If you are reading my blog you are most likely a fan of Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz‘s work on Creative Commons to help create a content ecosystem for the Web that works for its users … you and me.

Before he left us Aaron convinced Lessig that we need to get to the root of the problem, how political decisions are made in Congress, in order to address macro problems like copyright reform. For a really personal interview with Lessig that covers this evolution in his thinking, and how it led to the Granny D inspired midwinter march across New Hampshire, and the recent MayDay effort check out last week’s podcast of the The Good Fight.

Or if you haven’t seen it, definitely watch Lessig’s 13 minute TED Talk:

If you are part of the 90% of American’s who think that our government is broken because of the money in politics please check out MayDay‘s efforts to crowdsource enough money to fund political campaigns that are committed to legislation that will change it.

It doesn’t matter if you are on the left or the right, or if you live in a red or blue state, or honestly whether you live in the United States or not. This is an issue that impacts all of us, and generations to come. We can fix this thing. But we have to try to fix it, we can’t just sit back and expect someone else to fix it for us. Lessig has a plan, and he’s raised 4 million dollars so far (if you include the previous 1 million campaign) from people like you who think he’s on to something. Let’s push MayDay over the five million dollar edge and see what happens next!

Afterword

And as my friend Mike reminded me, even if you aren’t sure about the politics, donate in memory of Aaron. He was such an advocate and innovator for the Web, libraries and archives … and continues to be sorely missed. Catch the recently released documentary about Aaron in movie theaters now or for free on the Internet Archive since it is Creative Commons licensed:

No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance StateNo Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think Greenwald’s book is a must read if you have any interest in the Snowden story, and the role of investigative journalism and its relationship to political power and the media. Greenwald is clearly a professional writer: his narrative is both lucid and compelling, and focuses on three areas that roughly correlate to sections of the book.

The first (and most exciting) section of the book goes behind the scenes to look at how Greenwald first came into contact with Snowden, and worked to publish his Guardian articles about the NSA wiretapping program. It is a riveting story, that provides a lot of insights into what motivated Snowden to do what he did. Snowden comes off as a very ethical, courageous and intelligent individual. Particularly striking was Snowden’s efforts to make sure that the documents were not simply dumped on the Internet, but that journalists had an opportunity to interpret and contextualize the documents to encourage constructive discussion and debate.

In sixteen hours of barely interrupted reading, I managed to get through only a small fraction of the archive. But as the plane landed in Hong Kong, I knew two things for certain. First, the source was highly sophisticated and politically astute, evident in his recognition of the significance of most of the documents. He was also highly rational. The way he chose, analyzed, and described the thousands of documents I now had in my possession proved that. Second, it would be very difficult to deny his status as a classic whistle-blower. If disclosing proof that top-level national security officials lied outright to Congress about domestic spying programs doesn’t make one indisputably a whistle-blower, then what does?

This section is followed by a quite detailed overview of what the documents revealed about the NSA wiretapping program, and their significance. If you are like me, and haven’t read all the articles that have been published in the last year you’ll enjoy this section.

And lastly the book analyzes the relationship between journalism and power in our media organizations, and the role of the independent journalist. The Guardian comes off as quite a progressive and courageous organization. Other media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post don’t fare so well. I recently unsubscribed from the Washington Post, after vague feelings of uneasiness about their coverage — so it was good to read Greenwald’s pointed critique. After just having spent some time reading Archives Power I was also struck by the parallels between positivist theories of the archive and journalism, and how important it is to be aware and recognize how power shapes and influences what we write, or archive.

Every news article is the product of all sorts of highly subjective cultural, nationalistic, and political assumptions. And all journalism serves one faction’s interest or another’s. The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who have none, a category that does not exist. It is between journalists who candidly reveal their opinions and those who conceal them, pretending they have none.

The only reason I withheld the 5th star from my rating is it would’ve been interesting to know more about Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong, his negotiations to seek asylum, and his relationship with Wikileaks and Sarah Harrison. Maybe that information wasn’t known to Greenwald, but it would’ve been interesting to have a summary of what was publicly known.

One thing that No Place to Hide really did for me was underscore the importance of privacy and cryptography on the Web and the Internet. This is particularly relevant today, exactly one year after Greenwald’s first Guardian article was published, and as many people celebrate the anniversary by joining with the Reset the Net campaign. I haven’t invested in a signed SSL certificate yet for inkdroid.org but I’m committing to doing that now. I’ve also recently started using GPGTools w/ Mail on my Mac. If you are curious about steps you can take check out the Reset the Net Privacy Pack. In no place to hide Greenwald talks quite frankly about how he found cryptography tools difficult to use and understand, and how he got help in using them — and how essential these tools are to his work.

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