Live streaming isn’t new to American politics

Dan Pfeiffer puts it well when he describes Meerkat as a platform “no one seems to know how to use…yet.” It’s brand new and may well be offering something that people find applications for, in politics or beyond. But for now descriptions of how Meerkat is going to change the 2016 elections are premature. Pfeiffer’s hype of Meerkat seems to be a bit much to me, particularly given his apparent ignorance of other live streaming platforms from the present and recent past.

For starters, Pfeiffer seems to be unaware that live video streaming technology already exists and has been around with varying degrees of success since before Barack Obama was even nominated by the Democratic Party for President in 2008. UStream and launched in 2007. Qik launched in 2008. YouTube has had live streaming functionality for quite some time too.

These platforms launched before smartphones with decent video cameras were ubiquitous. But they existed and they have been (and are) used quite widely — to broadcast live streams of puppies, of baby bears, of concerts, and yes, American politicians.

In spring 2007 I went to work for Chris Dodd’s presidential campaign. Dodd, at the time a five term Democratic Senator from Connecticut, never got above two or three percent in national polls and exited the race after the Iowa caucus in early January 2008.

Prior to that exit, though, we deployed live video streaming as a core part of our campaign’s engagement with the public. As deputy internet director, I traveled with Dodd on essentially all of his political trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Michigan and other early states. Along the way, I used UStream to live stream anywhere from one to three speeches and Q&A sessions per day.

People following the presidential primary were able to engage in the same dialogue with a candidate as residents of the early states. Using UStream’s embedded chat functionality, as well as monitoring comments on the sites where our streams were embedded, we were able to bring in questions from people across the country into Dodd’s Q&A sessions with voters in New Hampshire and caucus-goers in Iowa.

The technology was simple and easy. A small camcorder hooked up to a laptop and broadcast on UStream. For the best streams we would use an ethernet cable, but the best was rarely possible. Most of our streams were done over wifi or even a Verizon air card. I was able to set up live streams in back yards at house parties in New Hampshire or in greasy spoon diners rural Iowa. At big political forums I was able to run live streams from the press risers alongside CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.

We promoted live streams on Twitter and kept a scroll of recent tweets and streaming feeds on the home page of the campaign’s website.

During the Google & YouTube-hosted debate in South Carolina we even UStreamed senior campaign staff commenting and fact checking what was being said during the course of the debate in real time. According to UStream, that feed have over 10,000 views. Following the debate commentary, I broadcast live from the post-debate spin room while Senator Dodd answered questions from reporters.

Again, this was in 2007.

The Dodd internet campaign, under the leadership of Tim Tagaris, turned our website into a video hub for speaking directly to voters. Tagaris’s vision was to give people greater access to Dodd and the campaign via streaming video — to create “Big Brother” for politics with brand new technology. We built DoddTV — a multi-channel repository for live streams of speeches, saved videos of Dodd talking on key political topics, and interviews with senior campaign staff talking about our work. DoddTV even included a live stream of the Dodd campaign headquarters to watch staff work (naturally we didn’t broadcast sound).

To state the obvious, the Dodd campaign’s innovative use of live streaming technology and public engagement via streaming video did not move the needle an inch in the Democratic presidential primary. Maybe it’s because we were eight years ahead of our time. But more likely it’s because the forces of political sentiment in America are too big to be influenced by one technology platform or one medium of engagement.

I have no clue if Meerkat will revolutionize political engagement during the 2016 cycle and neither does Dan Pfeiffer. Maybe the spread of smartphones with good video cameras and faster data connections will bring live streaming into politics in a bigger way than we did in 2007. Maybe the fact that recording broadcasts for later viewing is actually a really key feature for spreading what happens at political events won’t be relevant to Meerkat’s growth in politics or beyond.

I just hope we can have a discussion of Meerkat that recognizes the technology platforms that came before it, as well as the applications that those platforms were deployed in, before we anoint live streaming as the “new” technology of the 2016 election cycle.

Cross posted from Medium.

#BlackLivesMatter + Net Neutrality

As I’ve noted recently, there is a need for left movements to recognize their intersectionality. While anti-racism, economic justice, and environmental justice may have strong claims at being the left ur-movement in the early 21st century, the only way I see towards achieving real transformational change is by building off of the intersectionality of these movements and pushing forward together.

Likewise, I believe there to be tremendous potential in marrying these thrusts into an agenda that also includes strong provisions for internet freedom and civil liberties, ideas which resonate in a transpartisan and transnational contexts.

It’s incredibly heartening to see the #BlackLivesMatter movement openly campaigning for preserving a free, open internet and network neutrality. Writing in The Hill, Patrisse Cullors makes a powerful case that net neutrality has been a prerequisite condition for the birth and growth of this anti-racism and police reform movement. Organizers and representatives also held meetings with Congressional leaders, including John Lewis and Hakeem Jeffries, as well as regulators at the FCC, to push for net neutrality.

“We were founded clearly in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, on the key premise of the failure of the media to adequately report on the murder,” said Dante Barry, the director of the group Million Hoodies. “If we don’t have access to open Internet, and we don’t have net neutrality, then it limits the ability for black people to save themselves.”

Racism will persist if impacted communities cannot communicate and cannot organize online. Police violence, disproportionately targeting Black Americans, will persist if net neutrality disappears.

Movements are connected. Most of the time, issue-oriented movements tend to diminish this interconnectivity. But it’s hard to imagine lasting, meaningful change being possible while left movements remain atomized, isolated, and at odds with each other as to whose issues are The Most Important. Finding common ground to campaign on builds trust and trust creates opportunities for greater change.

Hat tip to Sarah Jaffe for sending these stories my way. It’s genuinely some of the most heartening activism I’ve seen in a while.

Another liberal tech company doing work for conservatives

Updated below

NationBuilder is an online campaigning tool kit, providing clients with the ability to do online advocacy, email supporters, raise money and integrate social media. NationBuilder was founded by a group of progressive and Democratic technologists with campaign and grassroots non-profit organizing experience in the Netroots. It’s not particularly different from other online tool kits like Blue State Digital, Salsa or Action Kit, with the notable exception that it is dramatically cheaper, with pricing starting at $19 per month for smaller campaigns and non-profits. Online tools can be quite expensive, beyond the reach of many state level campaigns, or even congressional candidates. NationBuilder has, in my estimation, been successful at making online organizing tools more accessible to people with less money to spend.

All of this is preface to another disappointing development: NationBuilder has announced a deal to be the “exclusive software provider for the Republican State Leadership Committee.”

Excuse me? The RSLC helps elect Republican state legislators, the very people who are going around the country passing things like bans on marriage equality, racist laws targeting immigrants for deportation, and rolling back reproductive rights and environmental protections. These reactionaries think passing laws banning Sharia law is a good use of time. And NationBuilder is going to provide the technology to help more of these people get into office.

Have no fear, despite being started by progressives and made popular in large part from progressive and Democratic business, NationBuilder is only a technology platform.

[Co-founder Joe] Green said he has no misgivings about providing technical assistance to candidates with whom he likely disagrees vehemently.

“Our ultimate goal is simply to level the playing field and let the people decide based on the strength of the arguments, not based on who has the biggest TV ad budgets,” Green said. “We’re proving that political software can and will be nonpartisan.”

I’m sure Green and his business partners won’t mind, then, if Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations fire NationBuilder today.

Much of the controversy around revolved around their construction of an open campaign platform, staffing themselves with many notable progressive campaigners, accepting the mantle (both earned and perceived) as being a progressive piece of infrastructure, and then deployed a defense of “But we’re an open platform!” when criticized for working with union busters.

In fairness, NationBuilder has been more open about a willingness to work with the Tea Party from its earliest days. But its founders’ backgrounds in Democratic electoral politics and the activist-progressive film and organizing group, Brave New Films, have lead to many grassroots progressive organizations to embrace the tools. Again, NationBuilder has said they’re non-partisan, but there’s a bit of a difference between being an open platform and inking a contract to provide tools to just about any Republican state legislative candidate in the country.

It isn’t openness when what you mean is you’ll work for anyone who gives you a big check. That’s what Lanny Davis does with his lobbying services and I don’t think it’d be accurate to call him an open platform.

Technology can be used to do anything. At its most basic level, programming may be fundamentally non-ideological. But once code enters the world, it is used for specific ends. The people who sell technology can decide whether they want their code to be used for good or ill. They have a choice. And NationBuilder is choosing to work for people who want to put women in jail for getting abortions and deport any brown person with a Hispanic-sounding name. That anyone can pay to use NationBuilder’s tools is no defense. It’s an excuse and a sad one at that.

I think it’s time for progressive activists and organizations to start putting out clear expectations about the behavior of companies who want our business. Clearly there is a problem with ostensibly left-leaning technology firms and their willingness to do work with conservative activists.

My recommendation is to deny business to technologists who are working with conservatives to turn America back to the late 1800s. If you are a client of NationBuilder, fire them. If you are considering hiring them, don’t. Make your decision public and make sure that even if NationBuilder isn’t going to change, other technologists will know that progressives won’t work with the people whose code is being used to attack the human and civil rights of women, gays, immigrants, people of color, and workers.

Update 6/29:
I’ve received feedback on this post, both in the comments and offline, and I think it was inaccurate for me to describe NationBuilder as a “liberal tech company.” They are non-partisan and honest about that fact. I noted this in the post, but the headline and lede do not make that clear.

That said, the criticism of any company for objectionable business practices is fair, especially one which derives a significant portion of its revenues from progressive organizations and campaigns. NationBuilder should be treated exactly the same way as any other business which works to help get reactionary Republicans elected. Recent examples would be Waffle House, Koch Industries, and Coors Brewing Company, though online progressive groups regularly run campaigns pressuring businesses which support conservative work, as we saw with tremendous campaigns against ALEC’s corporate donors.

In short: There’s no reason to give technology companies that progressives use any different treatment from any other companies who are doing objectionable things.

The Guardian Project


Nancy Scola at techPresident has a long article about The Guardian Project, an effort lead by my friend Nathan Freitas, that seeks to create secure software for mobile communications. Mobile devices are critically important for activists, dissidents, and leaders of change movements. But most are incredibly insecure and using them can put activists at risk. The Guardian Project seeks to make open-source technology that gives people the ability to talk, message, browse the web, and store data securely on their mobile devices.

[T]he Guardian Project is working on tools to make those devices more secure. Their flagship product is Orbot, an implementation of Tor, a network of servers that routes users in ways that obscure where they’re coming from and where they’re going. Freitas built Orbot with computer security expert Jacob Applebaum. And then there’s Gibber, an encrypted, firewall-evading chat application. The Secure Smart Camera App is an innovation in the works with, the group that sprang up after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles that works to document situations where human rights are at risk. The camera app aims to use automatic facial recognition software to obscure identifies on video taken from mobile phones. It uploads the documentary footage extra-slowly. That’s useful not only in low-bandwidth spots on the globe, but for shielding the video from network censors by making it look like any other type of Internet traffic. There are plans in the works for a “poison pill” program that would allow you or an ally to wipe your phone clean in a dangerous situation. (All Guardians apps in progress are listed on their website.)

This is some of the most inspiring and important work I see taking place at the nexus between technology and progressive activism.

Melber v Gladwell on Egypt & Organizing

With global attention on the protests in Egypt, it’s not shocking that some people have fixated on the role of social networks like Twitter as driving the activities of anti-Mubarak protesters. Indeed, one of the first major steps Mubarak took to try to stymie the dissidents was completely shutting off the internet in Egypt (it was recently restored). Not shockingly, when it comes to triumphalism of technology in activism, Malcolm Gladwell, devote skeptic of all things digital, chimes in as an anti.

Without going at the thin and dismissive post by Gladwell myself, I’m turning it over to Melber, who writes:

The overarching problem here is the false premise, frequently employed in these disputes. No one is arguing that this is the first protest in world history. Very few people think the Internet is an essential prerequisite to revolution. Instead, they’re exploring whether the web and networked communications open up new and effective ways for citizens to converse and organize each other in repressive societies. (Access to mobile phones and text-messaging, for example, may have helped young people organize in Egypt and Tunisia in a different way than landlines or websites.) We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution. Now, whether people “always” communicate grievances in authoritarian societies—a dubious claim—is less important to foreign policy than what comes of those communications.

[W]hen Gladwell simply announces that how people communicate is “less interesting” than why, he’s just stating his personal, editorial preference as accepted fact. The banal reality is that different people find different things interesting. And really, by ending his defensive post with that line, Gladwell sounds a bit like the recent Onion headline tweaking his predicament: “Panicked Malcolm Gladwell Realizes Latest Theory Foretells End Of His Popularity.”

Actually, Melber’s conclusion reminds me a lot of his demolition of Lee Siegel’s book, Against the Machine. In 2008, Melber wrote:

By combining the fact-free observations of a futurist pundit and the hypocritical tirades of a sinful preacher, Siegel’s book is as unreliable as it is insufferable. Ironically, he sounds like the caricature of bloggers he denounces: uninformed, shrill, defensive, and self-obsessed. The nascent web culture does have problems, which fine thinkers have tackled before (Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler, for example). But Against the Machine fails to support its antiweb hostility, let alone offer specific reforms, because it’s too busy ranting in the mirror.

Gladwell really does sound eerily like Siegel, whose old man yelling to get off his lawn routine is getting quite old by now.

But to back up a step, Gladwell’s overall critique is that social networks and the internet are incapable of building the sort of deep ties which he says are requisite to produce meaningful social and political change. First, this denies that most social networks are, in fact, social and built upon close personal relationships. But more importantly, in the situation we have in Egypt now, what evidence is there that this mass uprising is built on deep ties between the anti-Mubarak activists in the street? What says that two strangers standing next to each other, sharing shelter from thrown rocks, must or even do have a deep tie? More likely they are there because they both knew it was time for change and time for action. They may have been brought there by a tweet or by a phone call, but they’re there. There’s no unitary way that people come to action and that’s totally fine. Hopefully Gladwell grasps this and will stop pissing into the wind sooner rather than later.

Mid-East Protests & The Internet Kill Switch

As the world watches massive demonstrations in Egypt, the Egyptian government has shut down the internet. There are also reports that Syria has done the same. These are desperate acts from governments that are terrified of their citizenry. Killing the internet is an effort to silence their citizens.

With that as a background, let’s take a look at Joe Lieberman, who is still pushing for an internet kill switch under control of the President in the United States. CNet reports:

A controversial bill handing President Obama power over privately owned computer systems during a “national cyberemergency,” and prohibiting any review by the court system, will return this year.

Internet companies should not be alarmed by the legislation, first introduced last summer by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), a Senate aide said last week. Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In the pantheon of bad ideas that Joe Lieberman has pushed over the last 20 years, this has got to be one of the worst.