February's Open Letter from OTI's Director

Getting Companies to Do the Right Thing

In last month’s letter, I talked about the “7 Cs” that the Open Technology Institute would prioritize as it developed its positive agenda in response to the incoming Trump administration. This month, I’ll be focusing on one of those Cs: Companies.  A core part of OTI’s work is to encourage internet companies to adopt internal policies that will better protect the openness and security of the internet, while working with them to promote governmental policies that do the same. Which raises the question: how best can we convince companies to do the right thing?

That’s the focus of OTI’s new project launched in February, aptly titled Getting Internet Companies to Do the Right Thing. We mapped the adoption over time of three positive company practices—the deployment of web encryption by default, the issuance of transparency reports, and the offering of two-factor authentication tools—so that we could identify the various technical, political, and social influences that helped transform these practices from something that no company did, to something that a few companies did as a best practice, and finally to something that all major companies are expected to do as a standard practice. Our hope is that the lessons we’ve derived from these case studies will be helpful to advocates both inside and outside the tech industry as they agitate for continued positive change at the company level.

As we were putting the finishing touches on our report, a fresh case study of companies doing the right thing was unfolding in the news as the tech industry responded to President Trump’s executive order on immigration. OTI does not work directly on immigration issues, but just as we aspire to have an internet that is both open and secure, so too do we seek a more open and secure society. Therefore, we were heartened to see the tech community unite in its resistance to this misguided new policy that undermines America’s openness while also threatening its security.

The internet industry’s willingness to unite and resist policies that threaten its employees and its users will become even more important over the coming months. With a new attorney general that prefers surveillance expansion to surveillance reform and has encryption technology in his crosshairs, a new homeland security secretary threatening to demand the social media passwords of foreign visitors (amidst reports that border police are already pressing some U.S. citizens to unlock their digital devices), and a new FCC chairman set on taking a “weed whacker” to the Commission’s net neutrality rules (and undermining innovation and the tech economy in the process), the tech industry will need to be ever-ready to defend internet openness and innovation in the face of what is likely to be a steady wave of new attacks. Of course and as always, OTI will stand ready as an ally in those looming policy battles.

However, the federal policy landscape isn’t the only battleground. Technology itself will continue to play a key role in defending our rights and values, and just as we’ve seen companies respond to the new administration’s more troublesome policies, so too have we seen the broader community of software developers and engineers spontaneously self-organizing to provide technical tools and capacity to promote social progress through new efforts like Tech SolidarityTech Forward, and Tech Resistance. Meanwhile, OTI and the broader New America community are moving forward with our own Public Interest Technology initiative, focused on building the field of technologists who work in service of the common good. OTI will be a key partner in that multi-year project, which—thanks to the support of the Ford Foundation and Reid Hoffman—is currently accepting applications for its first round of tech fellows. So, if you know any talented technologists looking for a new way to deploy their skills and advance the public good, regardless of political ideology or agenda, please send them our way. Please also consider sharing OTI’s other job listings with your networks, as we grow to meet the formidable new challenges of the coming year. It looks like we are going to need all the help we can get!

Author:

Kevin Bankston is the director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, where he works in the public interest to ensure that all communities have equitable access to an internet that is both open and secure. He previously served as OTI's policy director.