Ideas - Policy

What online petitions are really good for

Published on February 08, 2018

“Clicktivism” and other internet-fueled activism have long been criticized as a way for people to feel that they’re taking a stand on important issues, when in reality they’re just poking ineffectively at their phone or computer. When I began working for a digital advocacy nonprofit in 2015, I certainly had my skepticism about the model. But as I worked in the space for over two years, I learned that though they can’t change the world alone, digital campaigning organizations fill a specific niche and fulfill their role very well.

As I see them now, digital campaigning organizations have three primary roles. First, is that they can summon a deluge of vocal criticism for brands, politicians, or other actors that are deeply invested in their public image, creating a sense of accountability. Second, they can bring national or international scale attention to small local battles. And third, they are some of the most effective fundraising nonprofits, enabling not only their activities, but those of other organizations too.

So what’s the deal with all the petitions?

It’s true that there are very few decision makers that care how many people “signed” an online petition — there’s too little accountability for the names and the number of signatories. But online petitions themselves still serve three important purposes, which is why they’re the bread and butter of digital organizing. First, once a petition has enough signatures, it allows campaigners to deliver the petition, creating a spectacle at the office of their target, and usually getting attention from local or even national media, and thereby putting the target’s name in the press in connection to the campaign.

Secondly, and most banally, petitions serve as a growth engine. Sign a petition and you’ll likely be asked next to share the petition on social media. Each friend who clicks through and signs the petition is now on the organization’s contact list, growing the digital campaigners’ reach. This model, emailing people who then sign and share petitions, prompting their friends to sign and thereby begin to receive emails, has been a massive growth model for many advocacy organizations.

Third, and most importantly, online petitions serve to aggregate email lists of people who care about specific issues. By signing a petition, you add yourself to a list of people that care at some level about a certain campaign, a list of people that are most likely to take the actions that can actually effect change — applying pressure and donating money.

Where the real power comes from

The greatest people power I’ve seen in digital organizing is when it comes to making a target feel the heat. Dozens of people calling in to the offices of a politician is effective when the callers are residents in the politician’s district, and dozens of people calling in to every extension at a small company can quickly turn their whole day into damage control.

More publically, large brands seem to become immediately apoplectic when their facebook page is overrun with hostile commenters demanding answers on their supply chain. It may seems bizarre that they would even care, until you realize the massive resources that these brands pour into social media management and brand curation. It takes a sustained and varied campaign, but I have been deeply impressed by the sense of outrage and scrutiny I have seen digital campaigners subject their targets to, simply by directing passionate people to call, email, tweet, write letters, and post on target’s facebook pages.

For example, in 2015 my organization was working with a coalition of partners to convince Starbucks to buy palm oil only from sustainable and ethical sources. The company was largely ignoring the campaign, but when over 18,000 people commented on Starbucks’ Facebook page, they caved and arranged a meeting with their director of ethical sourcing. Several meetings and months of pressure later, including videos, tweet surges, and in-person petition delivery, Starbucks substantially improved their palm oil policy.

This sort of attention can be very effective on campaigns that are already covered in the press and have received national or international attention, but it’s even more impressive when used to escalate small local resistance against a much larger entity. In the cases I saw most often, communities would organize against extraction or water, fuel, or precious metal in their area. It dramatically alters the equation when the local opposition is suddenly echoed by tens of thousands of people around the world who want to escalate the situation.

I watched this pattern play out several times during my tenure, including a handful of consistent campaigns against Nestle. Several times, Nestle’s water bottling operation would sign a deal with a local or regional government or water authority to allow it to pump and bottle water from an aquifer, usually for only a few dollars per million liters. The digital campaigners would amplify the local resistance to the project and bring national level scrutiny, until the extraction deal was dropped or re-negotiated.

The final unique capability of digital campaigning organizations is their ability to fundraise. As online donations have superseded direct mail as the most effective method for nonprofits to raise money, digital campaigning organizations have not only the interfaces and infrastructure to receive donations, but the ability to contact large numbers of sympathetic people and solicit donations for specific causes and actions. Digital campaigning orgs can raise funds to sustain their own staff, but they can also raise money on behalf of other organizations or local groups. This money enables entire suites of splashy campaigning tactics toward the same fundamental goals: raise the risks and PR costs for companies or public officials until they’re willing to change their behavior.

It doesn’t work every time, and with so many different entities advocating in so many directions, it’s very hard to attribute impact to any one organization. But as I watched the campaigns of my organization and others unfold, I was deeply impressed by the effect that digital campaigning can have, well beyond the boundaries of the Internet.

Cutting off federal funding to sanctuary cities won't be easy

Published on December 17, 2016

Both before and after his election as President of the United States, Donald Trump has vowed to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities. Though there are several different ways that he could attempt to do so, each is fraught with complications and opposition.

Sanctuary city policies have existed for decades, primarily as public safety measures in places home to large numbers of undocumented immigrants. Effective law enforcement is dependent on the co-operation of witnesses and victims. In a city like Los Angeles, today home to over 1 million undocumented immigrants, it’s imperative that undocumented immigrants can talk to law enforcement officials without fearing repercussions.

Actual implementation of sanctuary policies vary widely by jurisdiction, and have changed substantially over time. One cornerstone of any sanctuary policy is to ensure that people can interact with local services and law enforcement without fear that their immigration status will be communicated to the federal government. However, the Immigration Reform Act of 1996 introduced Section 1373, which prohibits state and local policies that restrict information flow to immigration authorities. This means that if a city employee asks about someone’s immigration status, they can’t withhold that information from federal agencies, but it doesn’t mean that employee must ask about immigration status in the first place. Now many jurisdictions have policies simply not to ask.

The other cornerstone of sanctuary policy is to ignore detainer requests made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s standard procedure for local police departments to send the fingerprints of arrestees to the FBI to check for outstanding warrants and criminal history. The FBI then shares these fingerprints with ICE, and ICE may request to the police that they detain the person until ICE agents arrive. However, in a test case brought by the ACLU, it was ruled that these requests must be optional, as compulsory orders would violate judicial precedent around the Tenth Amendment. Many cities and states have policies to simply ignore these requests.

So what can the federal government do to punish cities and states that do not help them enforce immigration policy? Any laws that undermine the federal government supremacy over matters of immigration can be challenged in court, as the Obama administration did to Arizona’s infamous S.B. 1070. However, the rhetorical focus has been on using federal funding to these cities and states as leverage to force compliance.

In summer 2016, a bill by Senator Pat Toomey that proposed to exclude sanctuary jurisdictions from Economic Development Administration grants garnered 53 votes, short of the 60 votes needed to proceed. Although the Republicans held a majority in both houses of Congress, they did not have enough votes to push through legislation against sanctuary cities. After Inauguration Day 2017, their majority will have shrunk by two seats, making the chance of such legislation even more remote.

However, the aforementioned Section 1373 has already been invoked by the executive branch to try and force sanctuary jurisdictions to communicate with immigration enforcement. In 2016, Rep. John Culberson of Houston prodded the Department of Justice to clarify the terms of Section 1373 to its grant recipients. That prodding led to a report by the Inspector General that found that many of their sampled jurisdictions did not comply with the spirit, and in some cases the letter, of Section 1373. The Department of Justice has now clarified that certain FY 2017 grants are contingent on certified compliance with the Section 1373.

In an appearance on Fox News, Culberson crowed that this certification represented “an off-switch” for all federal law enforcement funding to sanctuary cities. In reality, the policy changes apply only to the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) and State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). Across the entire country, SCAAP awarded $210 million in grants for FY 2016 to fund states’ housing of aliens in custody, and JAG awarded $86 million nationwide for a broad array of criminal justice functions. To put the programs in perspective, for its 2015-2016 budget Los Angeles received $8.2 million between JAG and SCAAP, and took in $148 million from parking fines - almost twenty times as much.

Though the fiscal impact of law enforcement cuts is small, the symbolic impact is much greater. The threat of these cuts drew the condemnation of the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union that endorsed Trump during the election. In fact, funds for policing is perhaps the last thing that Trump, who pitched himself as the “law and order” candidate, would want to withhold. However, there is strong judicial precedent that while federal funds can come with conditions, those conditions must be related to the programs they fund. That means that Section 1373, which concerns law enforcement practices, cannot be used to condition, say, health care financing.

Which isn’t to say that they won’t try. Indeed, that same judicial precedent could invalidate Toomey’s Senate bill, but he introduced it anyway. Any such withholding would be challenged vigorously in court, but the opportunity for delays of funds could wreak some havoc.

It is mildly reassuring to step back and recognize that this is where the battle lines have been drawn. The issue in contention is not whether ICE can directly deputize state and local law enforcement to carry out workplace raids and the like. Even Section 1373 only mandates sharing information gathered, not gathering information in the first place. Cities and states even have further options to protect their immigrants, such as guaranteeing a right to attorney for deportation cases.

But though this is where the battle lines have been drawn, it will require great political will and legal diligence to hold them fast. The federal government has the ultimate power on immigration and massive amounts of financial leverage, and is led by a man with few scruples and an authoritarian streak. It remains to be seen if our courts, our constitution, and our local institutions will be able to hold up.

Why I believe Hillary's billionaire backers support her reforms

Published on June 05, 2016

Over the course of Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign, lots of people have expressed doubts about the sincerity of her proposed reform. A major sticking point is her obviously strong connections to elite financiers and the contributions they've made to both her campaign and to the Clinton foundation. It seems like such strong financial support from those most benefitting from the system of great inequality would undermine her ability to achieve the reforms she's outlined. And she has outlined lots of serious reforms around college and healthcare, which will, according to Hillary's official campaign website, "be fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers."

I struggled with this discrepancy until I compared her promises to those made during the progressive era in the early 1900s, as I was reading "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn. Zinn claims that the reforms initiated in the early 1900s (such as worker's compensation, santiation inspections of food and workspaces, and limits on weekly working hours) were initiated with the support of the same large businesses that would be regulated. According to Zinn, their primary intentions weren't to improve the lives of their employees, but rather to diffuse the great political energy that was gathering for fundamental reform. The modest concessions aligned with the long term interests of the wealthy and powerful.

In an example given in Zinn's book, Theodore Roosevelt once wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge about railroad lobbyists opposing the Hepburn Act, which allowed the federal government to regulate and limit railroad fares. He said "I think they are very short-sighted not to understand that to beat it means to increase the movement for government ownership of the railroads." Roosevelt believed measured reforms would placate demands for fundamental change, and they did.

It was a time when there was a major sentiment that the system was rigged, and when socialism was a viable political option. Today, we find the two most popular candidates beyond Hillary are a socialist and an anti-free-trade, anti-establishment maverick. There is clearly a tide of energy in the country questioning the obscene levels of economic inequality, the absurd price of higher education, and the grim stagnation of real wages. The 2016 presidential election really seems to be a choice between upheaval and incremental improvement. So when Hillary claims to want to make state universities debt-free for all students willing to work ten hours per week, I really do believe that the wealthiest elite support her in pushing a modest goal to help out American citizens - and making sure they don't challenge the system.

Whether that's good enough for you is another matter. There's definitely appeal in promises of radical change. But when it comes to the credibility of the promises made by the presidential candidates, Hillary's promises seem the most credible in historical context - because of her ties to those perched atop the inequality in America.

Clippy Inc. and transhuman corporations

Published on September 24, 2015

Recently, both Elon Musk and Bill Gates posted publically about their long-term fear of artificial super-intelligence. It's a popular apocalypse fantasy - that some human-created intelligence could learn to better itself, become more and more capable until we simple humans can neither control nor fathom it. Such a creation would wield intellectual power many times greater than a single human, and there's no guarantee its incentives would be aligned with ours.

There's a canonical thought experiment on this topic called the paperclip maximizer. Clippy is an AI designed for a totally benign objective - to get as many paperclips as possible. Its objective function, or internal metric of success, is simply how many paperclips it has. Clippy realizes that by improving its own intelligence, it can become more and more effective at getting paperclips, and so incrementally becomes a super intelligence - but still one entirely focused on accruing paperclips. It begins to chew relentlessly through the world's resources, disregarding the wellbeing of affected humans, all to maximize its arbitrary paperclip objective.

The thought experiment puts the lesson pretty clearly. When creating a powerful and efficient non-human entity, it's critical to sculpt its objective function to make sure that its incentives are aligned with those of the world around it. It seems obvious that if you created something with that level of power, you wouldn't let it pursue some arbitrary objective function to the detriment of real people's lives.

But what's crazy is that there already exist autonomous non-human entities pursuing arbitrary objective functions with the intellectual power of thousands of humans. Transnational corporations. They transcend the abilities and mortality of any human, sustained by the employees that apply their human intelligences to together achieve the ends of the company. But what are those ends? The generation of profit. A metric reported once every three months that singularly determines the success of the company - but one that can be entirely orthogonal to the holistic well-being of its customers, employees, suppliers, or even sharehoders.

This isn't to say that corporations are something bad. They're the engines of not only our economic growth, but of advancement in culture, technology, and quality of life. They're the most efficient method devised to leverage many people working together to produce goods and provide services. It's no surprise that many advocate the hegemony of the private sector given how effectively private firms achieve their goals.

But just as any super-intelligent AI would need rigorously defined objective functions to ensure that it respected the public good, so too do corporations. Regulating corporations is how we ensure that their relentless pursuit of profit causes positive rather than negative externalities. It's bountifully clear that if unconstrained, the profit seeking of corporations can have consequences no person would really want, from halftime shows that can't stop repeating the sponsor's name to reckless pollution and resource extraction.

The beautiful part is that the metric of profit provides units for government adjustment. By incorporating the cost of externalities into the financial bottom line, we can leverage the brilliance and efficiency of enterpreneurs and corporations toward ends that serve the greater citizenry. A great example is cap-and-trade systems. If implemented effectively, they create a market for pollution mitigation technology and carbon offsets that would never otherwise exist.

However, this type of regulation is unpopular in the United States. In fact, the Obama administration has been pushing for international trade agreements that would not only discourage it, but create international courts to allow corporate entities to sue sovereign governments if their laws obstruct the corporation's ability to make profit.

Such a treaty seems bafflingly naive about the double-edged sword of corporate efficiency. I can imagine establishing a system to regulate and wield super-intelligent AIs, if they ever came to exist. But I cannot imagine granting those AIs the power to sue democratic governments for obstructing their ability to pursue an objective function which does not correlate with human good.