Highlighted Selections from:

The Emergence of Digital Civil Society


Bernholz, Lucy; Cordelli, Chiara; and Reich, Rob. “The Emergence of Digital Civil Society.” Stanford PACS: Project on Philanthropy, Policy, and Technology (2013): 1–41. Web. http://www.stanford.edu/group/pacs/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Emergence.pdf

p.4: Our work began with a clear sense that the boundaries between government, business, and the nonprofit sector are shifting dramatically. Public agencies don’t simply partner with nonprofit organizations and foundations; public coffers provide about thirty percent of all funding for nonprofits. Beyond providing funding, local, state, and federal agencies are increasingly seeking to stimulate social innovation, whether delivered publicly or privately. In the commercial marketplace, businesses have adopted codes of social responsibility, and we see more frequently the creation of social enterprises, for-profit companies dedicated both to profit-making and a social mission. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.5: 1. The so-called “independent sector” is harder and harder to draw a border around. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.5: 2. The use of private resources for public good is regulated primarily via institutional form—the various kinds of nonprofit corporations, commercial corporations, and new hybrid corporate forms—even though the practice of devoting private resources for public goods is now found across all sectors. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.5: 3. Digital assets, as much as money and time, constitute a civil society resource. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.7: Markets, governments, and philanthropy are each subject to the same forces of technological, demographic, or cultural change, though perhaps not at the same time, in the same direction, or with the same momentum. When changes come along that shift any or all of these sectors strongly enough to upset the dynamic between or among them, then we can assume that new practices will emerge across sectors. When enough such shifts occur, in each sector independently and in their relations to each other, we must ask whether the overall system is still working. In particular, we must ask if the rules that were created for the old structures still apply to or still work for the new ones. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.9: We started by identifying seemingly significant areas of change (impact investing, alternative enterprise forms, digital goods, biotechnological advances, political activity, and the health of democracy) and then clustered them into three overarching themes (markets, technology, and democratic structure) -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.11: Cutting through the very thick hype around the sharing economy, we would focus attention in two places. First, the rise of Internet-enabled sharing companies has created a “living experiment” around enterprise forms. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.11: Second, if these experiments demonstrate meaningful differences in the capacity of taxable or tax-exempt forms to deliver certain “service” or outcomes, what policy implications arise? -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.13: That sharing enterprises are now popular as an investment opportunity (Avis recently purchased ZipCar) is ironic, given the long history of sharing material resources as a survival strategy for the poor. The readily available investment capital for commercial car-share services, coupled with their limited use for poor populations, weakens the justification, we conclude, for government subsidies of these enterprises. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.15: It once made sense to equate a particular social purpose or mission with a particular enterprise type—a 501(c)(3) public charity—and to link certain incentives or privileges to those enterprises. The sharing economy, in which the very same purposes are being pursued and achieved by many different kinds of enterprise forms, shows the fragility of this relationship. The role of the IRS in making determinations about these relationships is fraught for both practical and political reasons. Recognizing the growing role of sharing services, especially in transportation, the mayors of more than a dozen large American cities stated their intention to revisit policies that can facilitate these services and supported a resolution to this effect signed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors at its 2013 conference. - Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.21: We posit that there are three types of digital public goods to consider:

  1. Digital infrastructure. In this instance the digital platform—the infrastructure of the Internet— is the public good. The public policy questions that arise have to do with the architecture of the Internet (e.g. net neutrality and open source code) and the ubiquity of access to it (e.g. universal access).
  2. Digital data. Perhaps the public interest is in the actual content that is stored and accessed on the Internet, in the data and data sets comprised of billions of bits of information, much of it personal and personally identifiable. Here the public-policy questions center on data ownership issues and access to personal data.
  3. Digital social connections and engagement. In this instance the focus is on the relationships and networks that individuals build and use as part of their civic life. Here the public-policy issues are questions of personal privacy, national security, and the speech and associational rights in online domains.

-- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.24: “Build it and they will come” has not will come” has not been an effective been an effective model in open model in open data. data. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.24: Just as we have seen the relationships between the public sector and independent organizations shaped by decades of contracting, outsourcing, and financial relationships, we can assume that data use, sharing, and code development will become another “strand” of interaction between the public and social sectors. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.28: Medical disease research may be a harbinger of things to come in which control over data and data access proves to be a shaping force in the pursuit of social goods. Systemic reform efforts are under way within medical research. Some of these, such as the Portable Legal Consent initiative that uses data ownership and privacy as its lever of change, are being created and tested with the deliberate intent of shifting both practice and regulation. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.29: The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in January 2010 in Citizens United v. The FEC, was recognized immediately as a dramatic shift in the landscape of campaign finance. In its controversial decision, the Court effectively freed corporations to spend money on so-called “electioneering communications” and to directly advocate for or against the election of particular candidates (although not to contribute directly to them). In the immediate aftermath of the decision, few worried about the impact of the decision on the nonprofit landscape itself. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.29: Further, some nonprofit corporations have the special advantage—special from the donors’ point of view—of not having to disclose their donors. Social welfare organizations provide their donors with a cloak of anonymity for making political contributions, since, unlike political action committees and PACs, they are managed as nonprofits who need not publicly disclose their donors. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.32: This open door to nonprofits for political activity creates a loophole that effectively renders political donation disclosure rules moot. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.32: There is no “red line” for political activity that demarcates a social welfare organization from a political one. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.33: What role do foundations play in democratic societies? What role ought they play in democracy? While the broader nonprofit sector has become a key structural feature of American civil society, the presence of private, independent, donor-directed and endowed foundations raises a particular set of questions about privilege and plutocracy. Broader associational life, frequently in the form of a not-for-profit organization, can be seen as the embodiment of pluralistic values, some whose mission is in keeping with decisions made by the voting majority, but others in protest or dissent. These organizations embody the diversity of a civil society independent from the state. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.33: But endowed, independent foundations raise different issues. Although they also represent a diversity of views and values, because they are primarily the purview of the wealthiest Americans, they are -virtually by definition—the embodiment of plutocratic preferences, that is, the interests of our wealthiest citizens. Foundations are institutional forms that enable the wealthiest citizens to direct their private assets for public purposes, and that enshrine donor intent as effectuating the purpose of the foundation over time, even after the donor’s death. And foundations are, of course, significantly tax-subsidized. The idea of independent largescale philanthropy must be considered in this light. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.34: what purpose do these organizations play in a democracy? Or, more precisely, is there any distinctive or unique role that foundations play in a democracy—a role that is able to justify at least some of the many tax advantages and privileges that foundations enjoy? -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.37: Governments should perhaps risk more than they actually do. But as long as they are unwilling or unable to confront undeniably important long-term problems—climate change, for instance—foundations, given their long-term and flexible structure, may play a distinctive and helpful role in counteracting short-termism by making long-term, risky investments. Risky investments are certainly needed in the ambit of environmental policies—we need to develop effective strategies and new technologies for reducing carbon emissions and leading others to do the same. Foundations can and often do play a positive role in this respect. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.38: The questions focus on the murky reality of philanthropy’s relationship to the commercial marketplace. The last decade has seen, through social enterprise, the sharing economy and impact investing, countless experiments to tie philanthropy more closely to market mechanisms. We have few conclusive results from these experiments other than the need to acknowledge that there are many more points of intersection than previously recognized. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014

p.39: In the specific case of medical research, the Portable Legal Consent Initiative and the shifting power dynamics between patients and researchers show that rules and practices about data ownership and privacy are clear levers for system-wide change. -- Highlighted mar 18, 2014