January's Open Letter From OTI's Director: OTI’s Positive Agenda in a Post-Trump World

Happy New Year and welcome to 2017! I hope you had a restful holiday and, like us here at New America’s Open Technology Institute, are gearing up for what is likely to be a critical year on the issues we care most about.

I’m writing this open letter to our friends and supporters today because I felt it necessary to address how we at OTI are thinking about a future that suddenly looks much darker than we expected. Of course, OTI, and its parent organization New America, are non-partisan, and have always been eager to work across party lines wherever possible in order to best serve our mission. However, and regardless of your political ideology, the hard truth is that the election of Donald Trump to the nation’s highest office—a man who was elected in no small part due to his reliance on hateful rhetoric against women, people of color, and immigrants, who openly hates the free press and protesters, and seems eager to dismantle the federal agencies and regulatory regimes that protect our rights—poses an unprecedented threat to OTI’s work toward a digital future that is more equitable and toward an internet that is more open and secure. It’s a threat that we must and will meet, with all the strength we can muster.

Therefore, our most immediate and obvious priority will be resistance, and we are now digging in and preparing for a years-long fight to hold our ground here in DC. We need to defend the hard-fought victories we’ve won over the past few years around net neutrality, surveillance reform, and consumer privacy. We need to slow the advance of any dangerous proposals that threaten the openness and security of the internet. And we need to help ensure that communities under threat have access to the tools they need to organize, to speak publicly and be heard, to speak privately and be secure in that privacy.

Our response to these threats over the coming years will likely be the most important work we’ve ever done. But we can’t fall into a siege mentality that wholly prioritizes defensive action. We also need to start planning now for how we can make progress—and provide continued hope of progress—outside of the defensive game. Indeed, the reason this open letter is our first major communication about how the results of the election will impact our work is because I wanted to wait until we’d had enough time to really think through how we will not only hold the line but also move forward in the difficult years ahead. We have seven specific priorities on that score that I’d like to share, which will be growing in focus over the coming months. Conveniently and alliteratively, they all start with the same letter, hence we're calling them the "Seven Cs":

Cities and Communities. DC isn’t the only place to make positive change. Whether building networks with community members at the neighborhood level or supporting broadband efforts at the municipal level, OTI has a demonstrated track record of working locally to help ensure equitable access to open and secure networks. Of course, community engagement takes many forms, and a wide range of other organizations are making great strides at the local level already. OTI will therefore be focusing more on ally-ship rather than leadership at the local level, seeking to deepen our relationships and collaborations with grassroots and community partners on key issues—for example, advocating for local policies to protect vulnerable communities against the abuse of new policing technologies like body-worn cameras and “Stingray” devices, and advocating against local collection of data on immigrant populations that might be used against them by the Trump administration. We will also reinvigorate our efforts in coalition with local groups to help lower barriers to internet access, and support state- and local-level advocacy to promote innovative, community-driven networks. Finally, we will continue to build opportunities and relationships around new projects, such as our pilot in Seattle where we partnered with city leaders to develop localized tools for mapping broadband access and quality of service, allowing the city to identify which communities are least served.

Code. Software code, that is. Building on OTI’s experience with technology projects like Measurement Lab and our success with the TechCongress fellowship program, OTI and New America are kicking off a five-year project to nurture and support the growing field of public interest technologists, including helping insure a robust pipeline of technologist talent into government, nonprofits, and social enterprises. With the generous support of the Ford Foundation and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, this project will be a home for a cohort of tech fellows exploring what works and what doesn't in the existing public interest technology field, cultivating innovative tech collaborations across organizations, and experimenting with new ways to cross-pollinate technology and policy to support the development of policy ideas that are informed by technological realities—and oppose policy ideas that aren’t.

Companies. Even when we can’t make progress on federal policy, we can still make positive change to the internet environment by pushing the products and policies of major tech companies in the right direction. Whether we’re pressuring them to improve their practices (such as through our multi-year project to improve the state of company transparency reporting about government demands), or working in concert with them through the OTI-convened Stronger Internet coalition (most recently to fight off bad encryption policies and win surveillance reforms), OTI will continue to work both with and against the tech industry as necessary to ensure a more open and more secure internet.

Courts. As it becomes harder to make positive change through the Executive Branch or Congress, the courts will offer an important third avenue for advancing our goals. Of course, OTI ultimately isn’t a legal services organization and we don’t intend to start representing clients in litigation; we prefer to stick with our core competencies. But that doesn’t mean we won’t go to court to represent our own interests, such as when we intervened in Verizon’s court challenge to the FCC’s Open Internet Order, or to offer our views as a friend of the court in key cases. We’ve already been slowly increasing the rate at which we participate in court as amici, especially in key surveillance-related cases, and we hope to slowly but surely expand that work over the next few years.

Convening. OTI is fortunate to have an extensive network of allies and stakeholders, as well as excellent physical facilities for public events and private meetings, and we will continue to leverage both of those resources to serve as a convener that can bring together diverse voices to address tough problems. For example, last month we were able to offer our space for a day-long convening of key funders and allies to discuss how to proceed with our work in a post-Trump world, while also bringing together civil society and internet companies for an end-of-year strategy session as part of our Stronger Internet coalition. We will continue to serve as a private gathering space for our friends and as a public venue for wide-ranging expert events in the coming years.

And finally...

Care. The question of how to foster a culture that values care as much as it values career is a key theme for my boss at New America, Anne-Marie Slaughter—indeed, she wrote a whole book about it! I’ve been thinking hard about the same thing in the context of our movement, and all the more so since the election. How do we foster a more caring community, when it comes to how we interact with each other in the movement at a time when unity has never been more important? How can we expand our community to build stronger alliances with other communities, especially those most likely to face attack by the new administration? And finally, how do we promote greater self-care for our people? That question is hard enough in normal times, when hardworking and dedicated non-profiteers often feel on the verge of burnout. It’s going to be even harder when we are operating in an unprecedentedly hostile environment, often working even more for even fewer victories. I don’t have answers to these questions, but I’m prioritizing them even more now.

On that note, I want to close by saying thank you for caring—caring about OTI, caring about our work, caring about our shared future and how we can make it more just and equitable both online and off. Despite the profound challenge that history has now thrown in our way, and although I’m admittedly afraid of what new threats the next year may bring, I still look forward to 2017 with more hope than fear. That is because I believe that history’s arc and that of the internet itself will still bend toward justice in the end—so long as we persevere, together, united.


The Open Technology Institute is a program within New America that works to ensure that every community has equitable access to digital technology and its benefits. New America is a heterodox, non-partisan organization that houses a broad set of programs and viewpoints, and is dedicated to renewing American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age.

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.