August 15, 2018

Unlocking Hidden Consensus in Legislatures

A legislature is a small group with a big impact. Even for people who will never be part of one, the mechanics of a legislature matter — when they work well, we all benefit, and when they work poorly, we all lose out.

At the same time, with several hundred participants, legislatures are large enough to face some of the same collective action problems and risks that happen in larger groups.

As an example, consider the U.S. Congress. Many members might prefer to reduce agricultural subsidies (a view shared by most Americans, in polls) but few are eager to stick their necks out and attract the concentrated ire of the agricultural lobby. Most Americans care more about other things, and since large agricultural firms lobby and contribute heavily to protect the subsidies, individual members face a high political cost for acting on their own (and their constituents’) views on the issue. As another case in point, nearly all Congressional Republicans have signed Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, promising never to raise taxes at all (not even minimally, in exchange for massive spending cuts). But every plausible path to a balanced budget involves a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Some Republicans may privately want to put a tax increase on the table, as they negotiate with Democrats to balance the budget — in which case there may be majority support for a civically fruitful compromise involving both tax increases and spending cuts. But any one Republican who defects from the pledge will face well-financed retaliation — because, and only because, with few or no defectors, Norquist can afford to respond to each one.

These are classic collective action problems. What if, as in other areas of life, we could build an online platform to help solve them?

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Political Information Overload and the New Filtering

[We’re pleased to introduce Luis Villa as a guest blogger. Luis is a law student at Columbia Law School, focusing on law and technology, including intellectual property, telecommunications, privacy, and e-commerce. Outside of class he serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Science and Technology Law Review. Before law school, Luis did great work on open source projects, and spent some time as “geek in residence” at the Berkman Center. — Ed]

[A big thanks to Ed, Alex, and Tim for the invitation to participate at Freedom To Tinker, and the gracious introduction. I’m looking forward to my stint here. — Luis]

A couple weeks ago at the Web 2.0 Expo NY, I more-or-less stumbled into a speech by Clay Shirky titled “It’s Not Information Overload, It’s Filter Failure.” Clay argues that there has always been a lot of information, so our modern complaints about information overload are more properly ascribed to a breakdown in the filters – physical, economic, and social- that used to keep information at bay. This isn’t exactly a shockingly new observation, but now that Clay put it in my head I’m seeing filters (or their absence) everywhere.

In particular, I’m seeing lots of great examples in online politics. We’ve probably never been so deluged by political information as we are now, but Clay would argue that this is not because there is more information- after all, virtually everyone has had political opinions for ages. Instead, he’d say that the old filters that kept those opinions private have become less effective. For example, social standards used to say ‘no politics at the dinner table’, and economics used to keep every Luis, Ed, and Alex from starting a newspaper with an editorial page. This has changed- social norms about politics have been relaxed, and ‘net economics have allowed for the blooming of a million blogs and a billion tweets.

Online political filtering dates back at least to Slashdot’s early attempts to moderate commenters, and criticism of them stretches back nearly as far. But the new deluge of political commentary from everyone you know (and everyone you don’t) rarely has filtering mechanisms, norms, or economics baked in yet. To a certain extent, we’re witnessing the birth of those new filters right now. Among the attempts at a ‘new filtering’ that I’ve seen lately:

  • The previously linked election.twitter.com. This is typical of the twitter ‘ambient intimacy‘ approach to filtering- everything is so short and so transient that your brain does the filtering for you (or so it is claimed), giving you a 100,000 foot view of the mumblings and grumblings of a previously unfathomably vast number of people.
  • fivethirtyeight.com: an attempt to filter the noise of the thousands of polls into one or two meaningful numbers by applying mathematical techniques originally developed for analysis of baseball players. The exact algorithms aren’t disclosed, but the general methodologies have been discussed.
  • The C-Span Debate Hub: this has not reached its full potential yet, but it uses some Tufte-ian tricks to pull data out of the debates, and (in theory) their video editing tool could allow for extensive discussion of any one piece of the debate, instead of the debate as a whole- surely a way to get some interesting collection and filtering.
  • Google’s ‘In Quotes’: this takes one first step in filtering (gathering all candidate quotes in one place, from disparate, messy sources) but then doesn’t build on that.

Unfortunately, I have no deep insights to add here. Some shallow observations and questions, instead:

  • All filters have impacts- keeping politics away from the dinner table tended to mute objections to the status quo, the ‘objectivity’ of the modern news media filter may have its own pernicious effects, and arguably information mangled by PowerPoint can blow up Space Shuttles. Have the designers of these new political filters thought about the information they are and are not presenting? What biases are being introduced? How can those be reduced or made more transparent?
  • In at least some of these examples the mechanisms by which the filtering occurs are not a matter of record (538’s math) or are not well understood (twitter’s crowd/minimal attention psychology). Does/should that matter? What if these filters became ‘dominant’ in any sense? Should we demand the source for political filtering algorithms?
  • The more ‘fact-based’ filters (538, inquotes) seem more successful, or at least more coherent and comprehensive. Are opinions still just too hard to filter with software or are there other factors at work here?
  • Slashdot’s nearly ten year old comment moderation system is still quite possibly the least bad filter out there. None of the ‘new’ politics-related filters (that I know of) pulls together reputation, meta-moderation, and filtering like slashdot does. Are there systemic reasons (usability, economics, etc.?) why these new tools seem so (relatively) naive?

We’re entering an interesting time. Our political process is becoming both less and more mediated– more ‘susceptible to software’ in Dave Weinberger’s phrase. Computer scientists, software interaction designers, and policy/process wonks would all do well to think early and often about the filters and values embedded in this software, and how we can (and can’t) ‘tinker’ with them to get the results we’d like to see.

How Yahoo could have protected Palin's email

Last week I criticized Yahoo for their insecure password recovery mechanism that allowed an intruder to take control of Sarah Palin’s email account. Several readers asked me the obvious follow-up question: What should Yahoo have done instead?

Before we discuss alternatives, let’s take a minute to appreciate the delicate balance involved in designing a password recovery mechanism for a free, mass-market web service. On the one hand, users lose their passwords all the time; they generally refuse to take precautions in advance against a lost password; and they won’t accept being locked out of their own accounts because of a lost password. On the other hand, password recovery is an obvious vector for attack — and one exploited at large scale, every day, by spammers and other troublemakers.

Password recovery is especially challenging for email accounts. A common approach to password recovery is to email a new password (or a unique recovery URL) to the user, which works nicely if the user has a stable email address outside the service — but there’s no point in sending email to a user who has lost the password to his only email account.

Still, Yahoo could be doing more to protect their users’ passwords. They could allow users to make up their own security questions, rather than offering only a fixed set of questions. They could warn users that security questions are a security risk and that users with stable external email addresses might be better off disabling the security-question functionality and relying instead on email for password recovery.

Yahoo could also have followed Gmail’s lead, and disabled the security-question mechanism unless no logged-in user had accessed the account for five days. This clever trick prevents password “recovery” when there is evidence that somebody who knows the password is actively using the account. If the legitimate user loses the password and doesn’t have an alternative email account, he has to wait five days before recovering the password, but this seems like a small price to pay for the extra security.

Finally, Yahoo would have been wise, at least from a public-relations standpoint, to give extra protection to high-profile accounts like Palin’s. The existence of these accounts, and even the email addresses, had already been published online. And the account signup at Yahoo asks for a name and postal code so Yahoo could have recognized that this suddenly-important public figure had an account on their system. (It seems unlikely that Palin gave a false name or postal code in signing up for the account.) Given the public allegations that Palin had used her Yahoo email accounts for state business, these accounts would have been obvious targets for freelance “investigators”.

Some commenters on my previous post argued that all of this is Palin’s fault for using a Yahoo mail account for Alaska state business. As I understand it, the breached account included some state business emails along with some private email. I’ll agree that it was unwise for Palin to put official state email into a Yahoo account, for security reasons alone, not to mention the state rules or laws against doing so. But this doesn’t justify the break-in, and I think anyone would agree that it doesn’t justify publishing non-incriminating private emails taken from the account.

Indeed, the feeding frenzy to grab and publish private material from the account, after the intruder had published the password, is perhaps the ugliest aspect of the whole incident. I don’t know how many people participated — and I’m glad that at least one Good Samaritan tried to re-lock the account — but I hope the republishers get at least a scary visit from the FBI. It looks like the FBI is closing in on the initial intruder. I assume he is facing a bigger punishment.