Churchill nailed it in 1947 when he said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others which have been tried from time to time.” For several decades thereafter traditional Western Democracy was the tarnished global standard.
But with the Internet’s ascent many had a gut feeling that something better was possible. An organization I helped found saw the potential for a better democracy emerging from a “civic commons” that became possible with the city’s acquisition of the .nyc Top Level Domain, or TLD. (The .nyc TLD is like .com, .org, and .edu but just for New Yorkers.)
That “civic commons” requires some explanation. The term commons comes from the tradition of common lands, e.g., the village commons. It refers to cultural and natural resources that belong to us all, such as air, language, water, and a habitable earth. Here in New York City our commons include the public squares, parks, roads, and beaches There’s a long history and much research on their workings. Acknowledgement of their current relevance can be found in a 2009 Nobel Prize in economics awarded to Elinor Ostrom, in recognition of her work on governance of the commons.
When the .nyc TLD was activated in 2014 a new civic commons became possible. This commons would be built from digital resources with names such as candidates.nyc, issues.nyc, and voting.nyc. By improving local communication and the decision making processes, we saw them providing the basis for a post-Churchillian democracy.
Three recent reports spotlight the need for a more vibrant civic commons.
A Science article reported on work by Robert Epstein documenting what most of us know intuitively: The more prominent a candidate’s showing on a page of Internet search results, the more likely voters are to choose them. Summarized the impact of his finding Epstein said: “What we’re talking about here is a means of mind control on a massive scale that there is no precedent for in human history.”
That strong claim necessitates a close look at his research. His first experiment tested the impact of Internet search results on the voting behavior of 120 volunteers. The researchers built a fake search engine they called Kadoodle that responded to search inquiries by returning a list of 30 websites, 15 for each of the candidates. What the volunteers didn’t know was that the search engine had been rigged to display biased results.
For example, in one scenario a subject would see a list of 15 websites with information about one candidate followed by 15 sites about the opponent. Predictably, the subjects spent far more time reading Web pages near the top of the list. Before and after questionnaires detailed the impact of the biased presentation: In one instance the rigged search results increased the number of undecided voters choosing the favored candidate by 48 percent.
In a second experiment the scientists recruited 2,100 participants. The large sample allowed them to pinpoint the demographics of those most vulnerable to search-engine manipulation: the divorced, Republicans, and subjects who reported low familiarity with the candidates. From these results, Epstein concluded: “In a two-person race, a candidate can only count on getting half of the uncommitted votes, which is worthless. With the help of biased search rankings, a candidate might be able to get 90 percent of the uncommitted votes [in select demographics].”
A New York Times article, “When Algorithms Discriminate,” talked about ways biased search algorithms strip away hard won human rights. It one instance a job-search site fed more good jobs to men than to women. In another, a search for images of CEOs exaggerated men’s occupancy in top positions.
Finally, highlighting a trend toward monetizing access to civic discussion, a story in Medium by Susan Crawford focused on paywalls that inhibit residents from observing political debates. The article examined a recent Republican presidential debate that could only be viewed on a paid cable channel.
The Civic Commons to the rescue
To grasp the .nyc TLD’s potential one must envision the new “space” it creates. While not as tangible as the land upon which housing and office space are situated, in a digital era it offers vast potential.
In New York, most developments are likely to be of a commercial nature. But as the above digital distortions demonstrate, we also need to identify and develop commons space within the .nyc TLD, if only to protect ourselves.
Here are a few examples of domain names that should be part of a civic commons:
- Search.nyc: If we’re to have fair elections, we must assure that candidate information is evenhandedly presented to voters. One key presenter of this information should be an official search engine. While Google and its cohorts promise that all information is fairly presented, they do so in a secret way. This is unsuitable for a democracy. If we’re to trust the election process, we need to present candidate information via transparent algorithms that provide a level playing field for all candidates. And note, a robust commons offers advantage to all sectors of society: A trusted search.nyc will also provide global visibility to our city’s commercial and cultural products.
- Voter.nyc: The voter.nyc name-set (voter.nyc, voting.nyc, voters.nyc, candidates.nyc) is another part of the civic commons that should be crafted to facilitate elections and election-time decisions.
- Issues.nyc: Long and short term discussions of citywide import should be addressed in a thoughtfully organized issues.nyc space. Ongoing outreach efforts would direct residents to present their ideas and preferences here, so when an issue like homelessness hits the eye or soul, New Yorkers will know where to head. Solutions identified here could stimulate civic actions and even feed into the voter.nyc spaces.
- Neighborhoods.nyc: The nearly 400 neighborhood names – Astoria.nyc, GreenwichVillage.nyc, Harlem.nyc, etc. – can empower local residents to address the concerns of everyday life. Through them, New Yorkers can have access to effective local communications for the first time ever. Perhaps the digital neighborhoods thus created could organize self-help projects, or even have access to guiding city budget decisions.
- Meta Names: Intuitive names that facilitate finding the commons sites need to be identified, developed, and promoted. Here are a few examples of these meta names: CivicCommons.nyc, NewYorkCommons.nyc, and CommonsIndex.nyc. But many others are needed, drawn from our existing expectations.
City Hall and the Civic Commons
In its earliest days, the de Blasio Administration took a giant step toward creating a civic commons when it set aside 800 domain names on a reserved list and decided that .nyc names were for New Yorkers only. As a result, today the adventurous civic leader can go to neighborhoods.nyc and begin the process of acquiring a neighborhood domain name.
But that early vision dimmed when City Hall disbanded the .NYC Community Advisory Board last December 31. The board, an entity on which I was honored to serve, was formed during the Bloomberg years to gather public input on setting the course for this key digital infrastructure. But with no replacement in sight, no provision for ongoing civic input and virtually no transparency or accountability, .nyc’s advance is seemingly rudderless, and we’ve begun to fear a modern Tragedy of the Commons.
Here’s what needs to happen: City Hall must reopen public access to .nyc’s planning and development processes. It should adopt a multi-stakeholder governance model and engage academia, business, civic society, government, residents and the technical community in an open and transparent planning process. This should be followed by the following:
- Autonomy: City Hall must not micromanage the commons. While the operating contract with ICANN (the global entity that awarded .nyc to city hall) puts ultimate responsibility of .nyc in City Hall, the stakeholder communities for the various spaces (domain names) must have rulemaking and management authority, within our system of laws. Few will trust a search.nyc if it’s operated by City Hall.
- Engagement: All New Yorkers should be invited into the planning processes. A supportive organizational structure and staff should empower meaningful participation.
- Promotion: Getting the word out in New York City can be an enormously expensive and difficult proposition. Success here will only arrive if City Hall promotes the commons with the same vigor and persistence used for 311, 911, and nyc.gov. As a symbol of support it should commit, with great hoopla, to moving the city government’s website from nyc.gov to gov.nyc.
- Resources: The sale of domain names is generating a surplus with 40 percent of the wholesale price of domain names coming to the city. These funds should be sufficient to support the development of the commons and should be channeled to a Commons Development Authority to facilitate implementation. Should additional funds be necessary, the Authority should be empowered to facilitate their acquisition.
Finally, London, Paris, Tokyo and 30 other cities have been similarly empowered to create their own civic commons. But for lack of precedent and awareness of the opportunity before them, a civic viewpoint is largely missed. Mayor de Blasio should collaborate with other global cities, develop communication channels and share best practices about identifying, operating, and promoting the civic commons.
The successful development of our civic commons rests squarely on the shoulders of City Hall.
See our Transparent Search wiki page for starting points on building a city-friendly search engine.