Technology companies have developed unprecedented power to observe, shape, and intervene in people’s everyday lives. While people benefit greatly from the digital communication and connection these companies provide, so too do they bear the harms that the companies’ new technologies impose. Society needs trustworthy, independent research to reveal and relieve these harms and to advance the common good. Research can help us understand these technologies more clearly, identify problems, hold power accountable, imagine the world we want, and test ideas for change. In a democracy, this knowledge comes from academics, journalists, civil society, and community scientists, among others.
Because independent research on digital technologies is a powerful force for the common good, it also faces powerful opposition. Tech companies have obstructed and undermined research necessary for the public to understand the ways in which their platforms are shaping society. Companies often forbid researchers from collecting data independently — for example, directly from users or from public-facing pages — even in privacy-preserving ways. When researchers have attempted to collaborate with companies, the arrangements tend to rise and fall on the whims of corporate leaders, who often renege on their promises to cooperate. Meanwhile companies have amassed large teams of talented researchers, but their findings are typically not shared with the public and are aimed at supporting for-profit goals.
In short, these private companies have demonstrated that they cannot be expected to work in the public interest. Something more is needed. Government policies in the United States could enable independent research, but poorly crafted or enforced laws could also obstruct that work. Rightly concerned about ethics and privacy risks, governments have adopted policies that companies have cynically used as shields from accountability. Independent research can best serve the public and earn public trust when we respect people’s rights.
Better standards and regulations could unlock the benefits of independent research while ensuring that people are protected.
CONVERTING CRISES OF CORPORATE RETALIATION INTO LONG-TERM CHANGE
Companies often block independent research even after it is well underway, and one such case inspired us to form the Coalition for Independent Tech Research. In August 2021 Facebook abruptly disabled the accounts and data access of Laura Edelson and her team at NYU’s Center for Cybersecurity, who had found that extreme, false content received more engagement on the platform than accurate posts.
Edelson’s experience was emblematic of a much longer pattern of behavior by many tech firms to prevent, control, or disrupt independent research. To support Edelson, a group of us wrote a public letter of protest to overwhelming support. So many colleagues eagerly signed that we saw it was time for a durable, united effort to protect independent research. A small group gathered in Washington, DC in October 2021, and soon wrote a manifesto describing our mission and plans.
Since then we have been steadily building the Coalition, mindful of the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s observation that the internet makes it easy to quickly gather large numbers of people – and to skip the essential organizing that holds a group together and creates sustained change over time. In May a few dozen people gathered for an online big tent meeting to share and sharpen the Coalition’s plans, and in June a smaller group gathered to formalize and launch the Coalition’s activities. We plan to hire an executive director and staff in 2023.
To achieve our mission, the Coalition will organize front-stage crisis response, advocacy, and communications, while also doing the essential back-stage work of strengthening and supporting the ecosystem of independent researchers. Our activities will include:
Organizing Mutual Defense: Companies continue to attack and obstruct independent researchers whose commitment to truth and transparency put the companies’ profits at risk. When independent researchers come under attack, we will organize to defend and support them together.
Making the Case for Independent Research: For independent research to be effective, we need the public, policymakers, and corporate actors to understand how it serves the common good and to communicate the ethics and values of our work. We also need them to understand the threats that independent researchers continue to face.
We will publish interviews about the value of independent research and the obstacles to carrying it out. These interviews will also provide an avenue for input from journalists whose codes of ethics prevent them from joining an advocacy organization.
Creating Standards and Oversight: Public trust in independent research is hard to earn and easy to lose. We will work to merit durable public trust by contributing to standards and oversight of independent research. These standards will be flexible enough to enable diverse contributions of knowledge and a wide variety of research methods, including those that do not require permission from tech companies. The standards will also be strong enough to protect the people in whose interests we work.
We will develop a proposal to create a code of conduct for independent research, led by coalition members who facilitated the European Digital Media Observatory Working Group on Platform-to-Researcher Data Access. This code of conduct will lay out a framework for evaluating the risks posed by various research projects and will support development of inclusive, equitable ways that research and researchers can be vetted in advance for ethics, privacy and data protection considerations based on the level of risk involved in a research project. Such standards and practices should protect both the data itself and the people affected by the research. The work will consider and envision standards for both permissioned and non-permissioned research projects and methods. It will also consider how such a code can operate alongside and in conjunction with more formal regulatory measures.
Conducting Advocacy: We will engage in advocacy because the capacity to conduct independent research depends on policy decisions at federal and state levels. We will collectively advocate models of governance and oversight of tech companies built on industry-independent research.
Convening Communities of Practice: The Coalition will convene and support researchers who collect data with and without permission of tech companies. By sharing resources, collaborating on best practices, and creating standards, we can ensure that independent research serves society and upholds the highest level of ethics and privacy. We are organizing a network of the engineers who currently develop systems for industry-independent research. This network will offer mutual support on topics including security, privacy, and ethics, in order to protect individuals whose data is included in our research.
Growing Funding & Sustainability of Independent Research: Research on technology and society is dominated by corporate funding that has captured the focus of thousands of researchers due to a lack of independent funding sources. The growing number of independent researchers find themselves competing for funding sources that are significantly smaller than needed to address society’s needs. To address this, we are organizing a working group to collaborate on increasing the pool of available resources for industry-independent research as a whole, across all of the relevant sectors. This working group is particularly focused on diversity and equity in funding.
ABOUT THE COALITION FOR INDEPENDENT TECH RESEARCH
Evidence-based governance of digital technologies depends on independent research. The mission of the Coalition for Independent Tech Research is to advance, defend, and sustain ethical research on the impact of digital technology on society. The coalition values and supports research that is responsible, ethical, transparent, privacy-respecting, and rigorous. We are committed to supporting research by individuals as diverse as the societies we share. We are also committed to making our findings freely available, especially to the people most affected by the phenomena we study.
Why a coalition? This Coalition organizes institutions and individuals who care about independent research. We are committed to including and supporting independent research wherever it is carried out, whether those involved are within formal institutions or not—across civil society, journalism, community science, academia, and elsewhere. Since risks, needs, and resources vary by circumstance, this broad coalition can effectively marshall the most helpful resources for each situation or issue. The Coalition will also organize unified action and a collective voice on issues affecting independent research.
This Coalition will be an ongoing, long-term endeavor that can respond to urgent needs while also working on long-term issues. Evidence-based accountability in any field depends on ongoing support from organizations that protect public-interest work and support the ecosystem of people doing that work.
The Coalition held its first meeting in Washington DC in October 2021. At that time, the founding Organizers agreed on the need for a coalition, drafted a manifesto, and developed a governance structure. They began fundraising and planned a series of surveys, interviews, and consultations toward a founding convening in June 2022.
The coalition formally began activities in June 2022, led by a circle of Convenors and Organizers. This group will fundraise and recruit an Executive Director, who we expect to start in the spring of 2023. At that point, we will transfer leadership to the ED, supported by a Board of Directors.
Before the Executive Director is hired, a leadership circle of Convenors will chair coalition decision-making meetings and approve decisions (see Appendix for governance processes).
The Convenors are also responsible for administering the code of conduct, as well as monitoring and ensuring equity across the coalition. The initial convenors are (alphabetically):
Alex Abdo, Knight First Amendment Institute
Susan Benesch, Dangerous Speech Project
J. Nathan Matias, Citizens and Technology Lab
Rebekah Tromble, The Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics
Membership in the coalition will be open to individuals and organizations, to be listed publicly on the Coalition’s website. Members will have access to a shared communications infrastructure and will be supported in carrying out mutual support and to initiate projects that receive Coalition branding and support. To join, members must agree to a set of values, disclose any conflicts of interest, and agree to recuse themselves from any Coalition activities where their personal interests in the technology industry might represent a conflict of interest. Membership will not be a condition for receiving support from the Coalition in times of crisis.
As of June 2022, over 80 individuals — representing a diverse range of researchers across multiple sectors — have expressed interest in joining the Coalition.
Coalition Organizers are members who participate in regular Coalition decision-making meetings, vote on which activities the Coalition undertakes, review membership applications, and commit time and resources to leading coalition activities. Organizers will be selected to represent perspectives across community science, civil society, academia, and journalism and will collectively vote on coalition actions (see Appendix). Once the Coalition has hired an Executive Director, the Organizers and Convenors will collaborate with the ED to transfer the relevant parts of their responsibilities to staff, while still maintaining leadership continuity for specific projects within the Coalition.
The initial organizers are (alphabetically):
The coalition will also maintain communication with circles of Supporters and Allies who share our values but who may not be able to list their involvement publicly or who might face significant conflicts of interest.
Convening to finalize & establish the coalition
Begin organizing activities, including publications, mutual defense, standards, and communities of practice
Secure funding for initial staff
Announce a call for Executive Director
Executive Director Starts
Annual convening, led by Executive Director
STAFFING & ORGANIZATION
The coalition is a fiscally sponsored project within HOST ORGANIZATION, a 501(c)(3), with plans to create a new entity and apply for independent 501(c)(3) status. The Coalition has sought the advice of Holly Schadler (a law partner at Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold PLLC) with respect to compliance with 501(c)(3) requirements.
We anticipate hiring an Executive Director by the spring of 2023, with an initial staff of:
Part-time Editor & Communications Director
Before the coalition hires an Executive Director, the coalition will operate on a mix of consultants and in-kind support:
Part-time organizing/administrative support, funded by the George Washington University Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics
Technical infrastructure (Consultants):
Coordination and communication technologies
Website and publication capacities
Writer/editor for publications: consultant
Convenings and communities of practice:
Academic Convening: The Institute for Rebooting Social Media, Harvard University
Engineering Community of Practice: Citizens and Technology Lab, Cornell University
We are grateful to everyone who contributed to our initial gathering and the organizing team between October 2022 and our founding event in June 2023:
J. Nathan Matias
J. Bob Alotta
We are also grateful for guidance and logistical support from:
Elizabeth “Bit” Meehan, Coalition Program Coordinator
Coalition Decision-Making Process
Coalition Code of Conduct
COALITION DECISION-MAKING PROCESS
Agreed on November 2021. Last updated November 2021.
The Convenors are responsible for:
Accounting for and spending money
Managing the process of keeping the coalition going
If any document/website/article is published publicly specifically on behalf of the coalition, at least one convenor needs
to be a co-author or have read it and verified that it is consistent with what the rest of the coalition is doing
The Organizers are responsible for:
Contributing to group decisions about the coalition
Participating in working groups
Voting on group decisions
Working groups, which are comprised of Organizing Team members can:
Contact outside parties
Speak for the coalition, with the expectation that decisions will be made jointly in coalition meetings
Submit proposals to the organizing team for substantive decisions (at coalition calls or on Element), for example:
Who to include in the coalition
What responsibilities to delegate to working groups
Getting quotes and submitting proposals for what to spend
Fortnightly Coalition Call:
Quorum (able to make a decision on behalf of the coalition):
3 organizing team members
Can Approve proposals, with a majority vote
Proposals need to be sent to the whole coalition on Element through Google Docs, dated, 48 hours before the meeting so everyone has a chance to review the proposal, aspiring to send it in 48 hours before, measured in business days (for example, Friday at 2pm before a Tuesday 2pm meeting)
Discussion/deliberation/negotiation should happen on the Doc and Element rather than the call, since we will need to
get a *lot* done in those meetings
The proposer is responsible for producing a “final” version of the proposal by the meeting, and presenting the proposal
at the meeting
Can Delegate power to working groups and individuals
Can Authorize the Convenors to take actions that involve spending money, if 2/3 of convenors also agree
Decisions on Group Chat, if a decision needs to be made before the next meeting:
Check with convenors first before posting a proposal. If 2/3 agree, you can post the proposal
Post a Google Docs proposal link, link to it in the “Organizing Team” channel, using “@room” to notify everyone,
and provide everyone with 48 hours to review
The proposal should include a bullet point area at the top for people to add their name and the time that they vote to
approve of the proposal
Use @room again to message everyone on the last day for feedback, reminding them to vote
Meeting Notes and records of approved proposals, are stored in dated documents in folders in the organizing team
We will amend this process as we learn what works and what doesn’t, and as the coalition evolves.
COALITION FOR INDEPENDENT TECH RESEARCH CODE OF CONDUCT
Last updated June 17, 2021
Communication spaces for the Coalition for Independent Tech Research are hosted by the Citizens and Technology Lab (CAT Lab) at Cornell University. CAT Lab is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone we work with and who participates in our events. We do not tolerate harassment of participants in any form. This code of conduct applies to all CAT Lab spaces, including public events, private channels and direct messages, online and off.
CONDUCT WE ENCOURAGE:
Respect for others
Listening, guided by curiosity
Collaborative problem solving
Honesty and openness about the issues being discussed, including emotional honesty in any critiques
The coalition convenors are J.Nathan Matias, Rebekah Tromble, Susan Benesch, and Alex Abdo. Please contact us if you have any questions or observe/experience any issue.
CONFIDENTIALITY AND ACKNOWLEDGMENT:
All communications and documents within the Coalition for Independent Tech Research spaces and folders are confidential unless otherwise indicated. If you have any questions about confidentiality, please contact the convenors. We expect everyone in these spaces to balance the need for confidentiality with just and equitable credit for people’s contributions. Before sharing any non-confidential idea that you learned from someone else, please contact them to ask their preferences for acknowledgment. Since this coalition is fundamentally committed to integrity of knowledge, all participants are expected to enact that value by giving fair credit to others.
Anyone who violates this code of conduct may be sanctioned or expelled from these spaces at the discretion of the administrators.
Offensive comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, mental illness, neuro(a)typicality, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion
Unwelcome comments regarding a person’s lifestyle choices and practices, including those related to food, health, parenting, drugs, and employment
Sustained disruption of discussion
Deliberate misgendering or use of “dead” or rejected names
Threats of violence or other intimidation
Stalking or following
Unwelcome sexual attention
Gratuitous or off-topic sexual images or behaviour in spaces where they’re not appropriate
Physical contact or simulated physical contact (eg, textual descriptions like “hug” or “backrub”) without consent or after a request to stop
Continued one-on-one communication after requests to cease
Harassing photography or recording, including logging online activity for harassment purposes
Deliberate “outing” of any aspect of a person’s identity without their consent except as necessary to protect vulnerable people from intentional abuse
Publication of non-harassing private communication
We value a culture of honest critique and will assess the relative power and privilege of people involved in any complaint.
We do not consider the following to be harassment:
Reasonable communication of boundaries, such as “leave me alone,” “go away,” or “I’m not discussing this with you.”
Criticizing harmful or oppressive behavior and assumptions
PRIVACY AND ANONYMITY
Participants at our events sometimes face risks related to their name and identity. Before attending, participants with privacy needs should contact us so we can make adequate accommodations for your privacy.
We expect all participants to adopt the preferred identity markers of other participants. We expect you to ask for permission before making any public statements or publishing any media that includes another person’s face, name, or other personally identifiable information.
If you are being harassed in a Coalition space, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please find and contact the Coalition convenors.
This code of conduct applies to Coalition spaces, but if you are being harassed by a participant outside our spaces, we still want to know. We will take seriously all good-faith harassment reports by Coalition participants. This includes harassment outside our spaces and harassment that took place at any point in time. We reserve the right to exclude people from Coalition activities based on past behavior, including behavior outside Coalition spaces and behavior towards people not connected to the Coalition.
We will respect confidentiality requests for the purpose of protecting victims of abuse. We will not name harassment victims without their affirmative consent.
Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the Coalition team may take any action they deem appropriate, up to and including expulsion from all Coalition spaces and identification of the participant as a harasser to other summit participants or the general public.
This document is modeled after the Women in Technology (WITCHAT)’s code of conduct. We are grateful for the leadership they have demonstrated on this professional practice.