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Alexander Howard
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In May 2015, Alexander B. Howard became the first senior editor for technology and society at The Huffington Post. He is a former research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the Ash Center for Democratic Innovation in Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2013, Howard founded, a blog focused on open government and civic technology. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent for O’Reilly Media, an associate editor at TechTarget, and contributed to TechPresident, TechRepublic, WIRED, National Journal, PBS Mediashift, The Daily Beast, NextGov, Forbes, Buzzfeed, Slate, The Atlantic, Govfresh, ReadWriteWeb, Mashable, and The Association for Computer Manufacturing, among other fine publications. Howard is a frequent speaker, conference moderator, and occasional analyst for public radio. He is a graduate of Colby College. You can reach him at

Entries by Alexander Howard

If 1 Million People Get New Drones This Holiday, Registering Them Better Be Easy

(0) Comments | Posted November 23, 2015 | 10:55 AM

The feds would like drone drivers and their devices to get a license plate and registration, please.

If the United States government really will follow through on plans to set up a functional drone registry by Christmas, the registration process needs to be extremely easy for...

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Mayors Take On Crucial Roles Fighting Climate Change

(0) Comments | Posted November 21, 2015 | 12:47 PM

As the world considers how to respond to our changing climate, mayors have become even more critical in not only driving a global discussion but leading their cities toward more sustainable futures.

The vast majority of cities are located in coastal regions, putting their inhabitants at greater risks from rising...

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As Encryption Debate Gets Fiercer, Silicon Valley And D.C. Collide

(1) Comments | Posted November 20, 2015 | 10:11 AM

The drum beat in Washington is growing for tech companies and politicians to come to some kind of agreement on encryption. 

In the wake of the Paris attacks last week, the White House on Thursday invited executives from Silicon Valley technology companies to come to Washington and...

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How To Avoid Online Charity Scams This Holiday Season

(1) Comments | Posted November 19, 2015 | 12:11 PM

The giving time of year is upon us, and it's never been easier to make a holiday contribution to your favorite charity or cause.  

Twitter and Facebook offer tools for donating to nonprofits, and crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and Indiegogo Life provide a way to...

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Here's How Google Will Get You To Use Google Plus Again

(0) Comments | Posted November 17, 2015 | 4:25 PM

You may have heard that Google Plus, Google's response to Facebook, is dead, dismantled or defeated, but the company has carried through on its commitment to keep it online as a connection platform. On Tuesday, Google announced a new...

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After Paris, What We're Getting Wrong In 'Privacy vs. Security' Debate

(0) Comments | Posted November 16, 2015 | 7:54 AM

On Nov. 15, Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said on "Face the Nation" that militant extremists are using encrypted apps to communicate, making it difficult for law enforcement or governments to monitor them. In the wake of the coordinated attacks in Paris...

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After Criticism, Mark Zuckerberg Says Facebook Will Activate Safety Check For More Human Disasters

(0) Comments | Posted November 14, 2015 | 7:37 PM

In the last 24 hours, 4.1 million people marked themselves safe using Facebook's Safety Check, after the social media platform activated the tool for people near the terror attacks in Paris, enabling them to easily tell their friends and family that they were safe. As a result...

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How New York City Is Using Big Data To Serve Its Residents

(0) Comments | Posted November 13, 2015 | 11:47 AM

City government works better when the people running it can anticipate problems and when the residents it serves know what's happening in their neighborhoods. 

For years, New York City has been using predictive data analytics to save lives and taxpayer dollars. A department embedded within the mayor's office digitizes and...

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People Fighting For A Sustainable Future Have A Powerful New Tool

(0) Comments | Posted November 12, 2015 | 1:04 PM

Satellite images are helping humanity better understand our changing world. It's never been easier to access recent pictures of the changing face of our planet captured by NASA and a growing constellation of satellites from public and private companies. The challenge is that there's still a knowledge gap...

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U.S. Launches New Streamlined Website For Veterans

(0) Comments | Posted November 11, 2015 | 11:28 AM

On Wednesday, as the United States honored Veterans Day and tens of millions of former military men and women, a new government website for veteran services went live., which is still in beta, aims to give users a streamlined version of the vast digital system managed by the...

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100 Million People Use GovDelivery -- And Most Probably Don't Realize It

(0) Comments | Posted November 10, 2015 | 3:41 PM

If you've ever gotten an email from a government agency in the United States, the odds are good that GovDelivery sent it.

This private tech company isn't trying to clog up your inbox with newsletters or ads telling you to buy the latest gadget. Instead, GovDelivery wants to connect you...

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What A Clash Between Press And Mizzou Protestors Can Teach Us

(0) Comments | Posted November 10, 2015 | 12:49 PM

A clash between University of Missouri journalists, staff and students Monday is a crucible for discussions about First Amendment rights in the United States. Now that so many American adults carry around smartphones that can capture and disseminate photos and videos instantly, ethical decisions that once were...

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A Man Died At An Airbnb Rental. Here's How The Company Responded.

(7) Comments | Posted November 9, 2015 | 12:44 PM

The story of a man's tragic death at an Airbnb rental in Texas is drawing more attention to the responsibilities tech companies have in keeping their users safe. 
Freelance journalist Zak Stone, in a wrenching feature published Monday on Matter, recounted his family's stay at an Airbnb...
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7 Things You Should Know About The Future Of Your Genetic Data

(0) Comments | Posted November 5, 2015 | 1:19 PM

Over the last decade, more than a million people have spit in a vial, sent it to 23andMe and received a report on what their personal genetic information says about them. In the decade to come, many more may join them using the first consumer testing kit approved by the Food...

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Bad Technology Is Failing Good People -- But That's Changing

(0) Comments | Posted November 4, 2015 | 12:50 PM

The software people must use to register for food stamps should be just as user-friendly as ordering a car through Uber. Today, it’s not, but there’s hope for the people trapped in bad code. That's where "civic technology" comes in.

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Why Twitter's New 'Like' Button Is A Big Deal

(0) Comments | Posted November 3, 2015 | 11:14 AM

Faced with stagnating user growth, Twitter needs to make itself more accessible to mainstream users. But is copying Facebook really the best way to do that? 

Twitter replaced the star icon for "Favorites" with a heart on Tuesday. The feature, which has existed since 2006, will now be called "Likes."

"We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers," Akarshan Kumar, a Twitter product manager, wrote in a blog post announcing the change.

"You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite," Kumar wrote. "The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it."

Twitter is right: Everyone in the world understands what a heart means. As BuzzFeed pointed out, this shift represents prioritizing mainstream user growth over "power users," the base of core users who produce the majority of tweets on the site. 

According to the company’s financial reports, Twitter’s monthly active users only grew by 4 million users last quarter, from a total of 316 million globally to 320 million.

Still, Twitter knows that alienating its longtime users is a business risk, as it acknowledged in its S-1 filing to become a public company in 2013. Yet the creation of the "like" feature -- which has already been criticized by journalists, other longtime users and at least one actual Twitter employee -- suggests the company is courting the masses at the expense of the people who made the platform into a global nervous system for information exchange.

Many of those power users, particularly women and minorities, knew for years that Twitter has had an abuse problem, and yet it was only until celebrities started fleeing the platform that the company's management did something real about it. Targets of abuse might not Like the Heart, either.

The reactions of people I follow suggest that there are many other reasons longtime users do not Like the change. 

Personally, I have used the Favorite feature to bookmark, acknowledge, wink  or wave. It’s never been just a positive Like, despite what the word "favorite" might imply.

 Vivian Schiller, Twitter's former head of news, said the same thing on Tuesday.

The research on all of the reasons that people favorite tweets makes it clear that people have adopted and adapted the tool for a variety of reasons. 

While the addition of "Like" doesn't change the core functionality and will not, I think, drive power users away, it will pose a particular quandary for journalists.

For instance, say there's breaking news about a nuclear power plant explosion. Members of the media will want to bookmark these tweets, perhaps as a way of saving or curating them. Now they'll have to Like the tweets instead. When considering news coming out of war zones or stories of abuse or natural disaster abuse, it's easy to see how this could be a little dicey.

At least one Twitter employee, engineer Peter Siebel, acknowledged a potential problem here. (In subsequent tweets, however, Siebel clarified that he intended his observation to be ironic.)

Over the years, many of the best features on Twitter have been pioneered by users -- from the #hashtag to the retweet -- and later adopted into the product by the company itself. But the Like button was popularized by Facebook, while the Heart icon is a core feature of Instagram. By adopting both concepts, Twitter is swiping conventions from other platforms, rather than adapting user-driven innovations.

Still, in light of Facebook introducing more nuanced feedback options, moving to a Like button feels like adopting a feature from 2009, not 2015.

Did Twitter executives see Facebook users asking Mark Zuckerberg for a “Dislike” button for years and think, "Hey, we want that problem, too!" 

Honestly, though, this is ultimately a small tweak to Twitter, not a fundamental change, like extending the famously short character limit or giving the option of making some tweets private. It's not a brand-new product, like an unbundled, dedicated messaging app. And it's not a new strategy, like acting as connective tissue for machines or as an identity provider for services or governments.

Turning Favorites to Likes won't sink or save the company. It does suggest, however, that Twitter executives still aren't using the product that much themselves, or interacting with the people who use it most. 

Until that changes, Twitter continues to risk losing the qualities that, against all odds, have enabled it to...

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What Snapchat's Latest Privacy Update Actually Means For You

(0) Comments | Posted November 2, 2015 | 10:52 AM

Every time a tech service poorly communicates changes to its Terms of Service or Privacy Policy, the users of its platform lose. This weekend, it was Snapchat's turn. 

The ephemeral messaging startup added some new features to its app on Oct. 28 and quietly updated its terms for using the service. After various news outlets dove into the text of the new policies and reported on some of the broadly worded changes, people became concerned that Snapchat was reserving the right to store and use people's private selfies and nude photos, even after that content disappeared from users' devices. 

But Snapchat disagrees with the public's interpretation of its new terms and is now trying to calm people down by clarifying some of the changes.

Part of the confusion here stems from the fact that virtually no one reads the terms or privacy policies for the apps they download. It's far easier to tap a button saying you agree than to slog through those dense forms. 

Another reason people got angry is that Snapchat, which claims to have over 100 million daily active users, didn't write a blog post, send an email or tweet about the changes to its user agreement. The company spoke up only after a backlash erupted on social media. 

On Sunday, Snapchat published a post on Tumblr about "protecting your privacy" in which it tried to debunk rumors that it was storing private snaps. It also highlighted the post in a tweet that night. 

"We never want to create any misunderstanding about our commitment to user privacy and we're going to keep working to communicate that to our community," a Snapchat spokesperson told The Huffington Post on Monday.

Below, we read between the lines of Snapchat's blog post to explain what's really going on with the updated Terms of Service.

Snapchat: "There’s been some confusion about the updated Privacy Policy and Terms of Service we rolled out last week. We never want to create any misunderstanding over our commitment to protecting your privacy.

Translation: A lot of Snapchat users read our update and freaked out. We’re under a consent decree from the Federal Trade Commission, so if we don’t get this right, we could be in hot water with the federal government. We used to claim that we didn't collect location data, but we do. So now we have to list all of the data we collect about you in our privacy Policy. We may use "cookies and other technologies, such as web beacons, web storage, and unique device identifiers." (If you want to learn what a "web beacon" is, though, or how the technique for tracking users works, you'll need to Google it.)

Snapchat: "First off, we want to be crystal clear: The Snaps and Chats you send your friends remain as private today as they were before the update. Our Privacy Policy continues to say—as it did before—that those messages “are automatically deleted from our servers once we detect that they have been viewed or have expired.” Of course, a recipient can always screenshot or save your Snaps or Chats."

Translation: After the FTC cracked down, we worked on addressing the complaint, cutting off access to the third-party apps that were saving updates. People can still take screenshots of your snaps or use other apps to record videos, though, so we can't claim that your snaps are more private now without getting in trouble with the feds.

Snapchat: "But the important point is that Snapchat is not—and never has been—stockpiling your private Snaps or Chats. And because we continue to delete them from our servers as soon as they’re read, we could not—and do not—share them with advertisers or business partners.

Translation: We're relying on young people trusting us not to leak their private messages, so people freaking out over us keeping your snaps is a huge business risk. Users might still find ways to save your private messages, but we aren’t. Unless our business model changes, we won’t share them with advertisers. 

Snapchat: "It’s true that our Terms of Service grant us a broad license to use the content you create—a license that’s common to services like ours. We need that license when it comes to, for example, Snaps submitted to Live Stories, where we have to be able to show those Stories around the world—and even replay them or syndicate them (something we’ve said we could do in previous versions of our Terms and Privacy Policy). But we tried to be clear that the Privacy Policy and your own privacy settings within the app could restrict the scope of that license so that your personal communications continue to remain truly personal."

Translation: Yes, our new Privacy Policy really does let us store and reuse your photos if you add them to a public "Live Story," where users send snaps directly to us to create a crowdsourced documentary of an event. We're making a lot of money from selling ads on Live Stories and want to make a lot more, so we want you to feel good about contributing free content to us. If you don't want us to use your pictures or videos, you shouldn't submit them to this section.

Snapchat:  "You may wonder why we revised the Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. Here are a few of the key reasons:"

Translation: We did a poor job of explaining this when we rolled it out. Now that you're all freaking out, let's try again.

Snapchat: "The main thing we did was to rewrite the Terms and Privacy Policy so that they’d read the way people actually talk. We always try to be upfront and clear with our community."

Translation: We haven't actually changed that much. We just made how we're using your snaps clearer, but once we did that, you all got really upset

Snapchat: "We added language to the Terms of Service regarding in-app purchases. We needed to do that now that we’re selling Replays—and have some other cool products and services we’re looking forward to bringing to you soon."

Translation: The feature where you can pay us to replay a message is going well, and we're planning on expanding ways to give us money, so we needed to make the rules clearer, with clauses like "it’s your sole responsibility to manage your in-app purchases." That means if you run up a huge credit card bill watching funny pictures or intimate videos from your ex again and again, it's not our fault. If you're under 18, you should really talk with your parents about buying things in apps, because we're going to be trying to sell you more, soon. 

Snapchat: "To make it a little easier for friends to find you on Snapchat, we’ve clarified what info—like your name—will be visible to other Snapchatters and how you can modify that info." 

Translation: We want to help your friends find you on Snapchat, so our updated Privacy Policy now lets us show them your real name when they search for you. We also might show them the names of users you are friends with, along with anything else you've told us you're OK with making public. If you want to keep your relationships on Snapchat private, you might want to look into this.

This post has been updated with a comment from a Snapchat...

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Julian Assange: Google Is Hillary Clinton's 'Secret Weapon'

(0) Comments | Posted October 30, 2015 | 2:45 PM

MEXICO CITY -- When Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told an open government conference Thursday that "Google was now Hillary's secret weapon," he provided ample fertilizer for a year's worth of conspiracy theories in this overheated election season.

Assange was referring to The Groundwork, a stealthy startup...

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Wikileaks Founder Defends Publishing CIA Director's Private Email

(0) Comments | Posted October 30, 2015 | 1:01 PM

MEXICO CITY -- Wikileaks founder Julian Assange defended his decision to post the unredacted personal emails of Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan -- and his organization's continued focus on American and European intelligence agencies -- during a question-and-answer session at an open government conference...

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Mexico Misses An Opportunity To Address Corruption And Press Freedom

(0) Comments | Posted October 29, 2015 | 1:50 PM

MEXICO CITY -- When President Enrique Peña Nieto spoke at a global conference on open government Wednesday morning, he could have addressed Mexico's record on human rights and press freedom, including a still-unexplained attack on 43 Mexican students one year ago. He did not.

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