Zuckerberg’s Poltical Group: What To Know and What To Hope For

If you’ve been following recent tech news, you’ll know that Mark Zuckerberg is starting a new foray into the world of politics. The Facebook founder joined forces with a group of wealthy techies and put up $20 million to fund a new non-profit organization with the intent of lobbying the US congress on issues pertaining to technology. The group’s first order of business is immigration reform, specifically making it easier for skilled engineers from outside the US to obtain permanent visas. Zuckerberg and 100 other tech leaders already wrote to President Obama earlier this month highlighting their concerns. However, the group is also expected to give priority to educational reform. Zuckerberg is no stranger to advocacy, having donated $100 million to a New Jersey school district in 2010 (around the same time The Social Network came out) and recently participating in a campaign to promote the teaching of programming in schools along with Bill Gates, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and many others.

That’s what is known so far. The group is still in its early stages, they have yet to make any public statements or even pick a name, leaving much to speculation about their future. The entry of a conglomeration of nerds into politics could bring a much needed scientific perspective to an array of critical issues. In that same vein, a gang of billionaires influencing political decisions regarding the regulation of their businesses is an broken record we don’t want to see replayed with the internet. So what exactly do we want to see then?


Protection of Internet Freedom

In 2012 SOPA and PIPA (along with other legislation around the world) threatened internet freedom by trying to grant government the power to regulate internet activity by blocking websites alleged to have infringed copyright. Widespread outrage and internet activism stopped them for a while but similar bills have appeared since then like CISPA. CISPA’s focus is cyber security as opposed to intellectual property and according to CNET it would remove legal barriers that prevent ISPs, cellphone companies and websites like Facebook from giving your data to the US government, even if the investigators don’t have a warrant.

Image courtesy of Alain-Christian

Since it pervades every aspect of modern life, it’s understandable that some individuals want the law to have some sort of presence on the internet. However, if laws like this are to be made then people who understand how the internet works and the implications of government regulation should be actively participating in the process. For example, in its recent transparency report, Google released data about government requests for user information revealing that over 2012 the US government alone made 16,000 requests, 88% of which were complied with to some extent. Someone from Google would know better than anyone what kind of information governments ask for and thus how much or how little they should be able to ask for. However, at this stage Google doesn’t seem to be involved with Zuckerberg’s group and it seems that Facebook itself is actually supporting CISPA along with Microsoft and many others, which means either that they have reviewed the bill and it’s not as bad as some claim to be or that these companies in some way benefit from this legislation.


Promotion of Scientific Research

No developed nation can stay developed for long if it isn’t actively funding scientific research. Scientific research may not necessarily pay off in the short run but it contributes a lot to GDP in the long run. Cutting funding even by a little bit can be detrimental economically. A report from Research Councils UK estimated that in the UK, cuts of just £1 billion annually could lower GDP by over £10 billion. On top of that, some (if not all) of the most amazing technologies of the modern era were a direct result of government funding of research. The internet was a result of DARPA researching networking and Google’s self driving car technology is built on advances made by several universities in the DARPA grand challenge.

Image Courtesy of smadness on flickr

Stanford’s car Stanley, winner of the DARPA grand challenge

Although I am not particularly a fan of anything to do with the military and I am not personally invested in the US economy (not directly at least), there is an important message here. Groups like Zuckerberg’s have a responsibility to give a voice to the geeks that usually sit out of politics. By pushing for strong government support of scientific research and development, they can ensure that the US continues to create scientific advances that benefit us all and set a precedent for wealthy techies elsewhere to do the same in their countries. After all, there is no such thing as too much knowledge.


Being a Voice of Reason

Scientists don’t normally do politics. It’s not their thing. Why bother with all that headache? This unfortunately means there aren’t many people in government to represent science. That means that you end up with people in the US Congress who believe embryology is a “lie from the pit of hell“, the earth is 9000 years old and that there is such a thing as “legitimate rape” and some of them end up being on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Image courtesy of KOMUNews

Todd Akin- The congressman who made the controversial “legitimate rape” comment

Again, I don’t want to get too much into US politics but this is a problem in a lot more places than just the US. Scientists for whatever reason are not always active in politics and are thus disenfranchised. While this is not the first time a group of scientists (yes, computer scientists count as scientists too) have tried to get involved, Zuckerberg’s group is unique in that it has a massive pool of money to fund itself from and it will be readily listened to by the media. In essence, if Zuckerberg’s group takes this route they can single-handedly give a voice to science in the US and give more legitimacy to science lobbies in other countries.


Zuckerberg’s new direction may come as a surprise to many but it was only a natural step for him to take. He changed the world once with some code he wrote in his dorm room but the question is: can he do it again from the seat of power? And will it be to the benefit of the rest of us?


Gapslot: Version 1


Last week, I was sitting with some friends as we discussed our newly assigned schedules for the semester. Naturally we were trying to figure out when everyone was free so we could hang out. As we scratched our heads trying to coordinate 6 or so schedules (each one more scattered and hideous than the last) I made a passing comment that it probably wouldn’t be too hard to write a program that solved this problem. One of my friends suggested that we instead just write everything down on a piece of paper. Anyone who knows a computer scientist will tell you how much comments like these make us twitch. Why? Because it is our (or at least my) firm belief that any task that can be automated should be automated.

So I took his statement as a challenge and decided to make an app just for fun. I worked on it intermittently over a week and this is what I came up with. It’s coded with python on Google App Engine (side-note, they limited my choice of names so I had to pick one I didn’t really like), using jinja2 for templates and I learned a little bit of javascript/jquery to make the interface. It’s quite lacking in the design area because I am not well versed at making things pretty but it should work well. There are a couple of bugs; I know. If you think these are bad, you should see the ones I spent the week fixing. I would have fixed the rest but this project was taking too long so I decided it’s better to post something that works with one or two bugs than to get sick of it, give up and have nothing to show for all my work. If I get around to making a V2 I’ll fix them but for now I’ll just note what I know about.

Here’s the link to the app if you want to check it out, and below is a walkthrough of the app’s functionality.


I made the homepage as simple as possible. Apps should try to guide the user where they want to go and minimize confusion.


Assuming you’re a first time user you’ll click the right button and be taken to a page where you create a group. Obvious issues: nothing to stop you from messing up your password and nothing to stop a script making tons of groups. Worst case scenario: the app exceeds the datastore write limit and nobody can make new groups for a day. Precautions I DID take: passwords are hashed (with a salt to prevent the use of a rainbow lookup tables) and html is escaped.


Now you have a group, and you want to add your schedule.


Type in your name and click and drag to fill out the table. I tried to program the click and drag functionality myself using jquery so it gets a little funny sometimes. You can click slots individually if it does and submit when you’re done.


Once you submit you’ll be taken to your group schedule page. A slot is red if at least one person is busy. If you want to plan a group activity, go for white but if you find yourself free during one of the red slots, hover over to see who else is free. You can also navigate to this page from the “View Group Schedule” button. If you go back to the main page from this one you can try it but you’ll have to refresh the page or empty all fields except for the group name and password. This is another minor bug but it’s a step up from having the entire app crash whenever one field was wrong.


And there you have it! First pet project of the semester. Check it out, play around with it and let me know what you think. More to come soon.