Tuesday, March 29, 2016

From Money to Meaning

Big complex social problems.

Your skills and experiences.


Combining those three potent ingredients is how we change the world. If you’ve been burning to use your considerable talents to make a difference, rather than make a lot of money, it’s time you considered joining our growing team.

We are looking for more than a dozen motivated individuals to make the leap to positive social impact. From executives to summer interns, from engineers and product managers, to communications and outreach professionals, we have a wide range of opportunities.

From children with disabilities to African human rights activists, you will have direct exposure to how Benetech’s products and services change lives for the better. Our benefits are great, and our pay is excellent by nonprofit standards! Flexibility is one of our core values. It’s just one of the reasons that Benetech is the rare software company that is majority women (also true of our managers). We believe in wildcards: if you have a creative way to address one of our needs, let us know!

Silicon Valley is an incredible force for change. Unfortunately, the economic model that works so well for creating wealth, falls short when it comes to helping the poor. Communities that most need our help are often the least able to afford it. That’s why Benetech is organized as a nonprofit: we can afford to work on exciting problems. We just have to find a way to break- even!

If you have read this far because this is what you are truly wishing for in your career directions, or because you know of someone great who has been dreaming our shared dream of tech for good, check out our list of openings. We would love to hear from you!

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Ratify Marrakesh!

The United States Senate has a terrific opportunity to expand opportunity

The United States Senate has just been presented with the ratification package for the Marrakesh Treaty. We are joining with our peers in the disability and library community in a joint statement to strongly encourage the Senate to ratify the treaty and for Congress to implement the minor legislative changes recommended as part of the package.

We know a great deal about this Treaty, which is designed to help people who are blind or have other disabilities that interfere with reading, such as dyslexia. Our nonprofit organization operates Bookshare, the largest online library in the world that focuses on the needs of people with these disabilities. The creation of Bookshare was made possible because of an enlightened copyright law exception. And, that American copyright exception was the inspiration for the Marrakesh Treaty!

Because the Marrakesh Treaty was modeled after the Chafee Amendment, as the Section 121 copyright exception is widely known in honor of the senator who proposed it in 1996, only minor changes have been recommended to align U.S. law with the Treaty language. As the operators of the largest library using this exception in the United States, we see these changes as minor and helpful clarifications. We do not see these changes as having a major impact on who we serve in the U.S., or the work we do. Here are the three changes of note:
  1. Clarifying the definition of a disability that qualifies. We see the new recommended language as replacing antique and obsolete language (“reading disability from organic dysfunction” is one example) with language that describes functionally someone with a disability that gets in the way of reading print. While we already serve many people with dyslexia, or returning veterans with traumatic brain injuries, these changes will be remove much of the confusion that exists in the field because of ambiguous, older language. 
  2. Including illustrations as part of books to be made accessible. We include illustrations in our accessible books because many of our users can see them. People who are low vision can usually magnify pictures to see them better, and our dyslexic users often get much more out of illustrations than they get out of text. We often add image descriptions to illustrations, as well as supporting partners developing tactile versions of illustrations today, to further improve accessibility. 
  3. Serving U.S. citizens abroad under Section 121 as if they lived in the U.S. This question has also been unclear, and different libraries have treated this inconsistently. Our default setting in Bookshare has been to treat an American with a disability living in another country as being only allowed the books we have permission to provide there, which leaves out over 100,000 titles that are only available inside the United States to Americans. This change would allow us to better serve American overseas.
These three changes clarify Section 121 in minor ways that are quite helpful to Americans with disabilities.

Of course, the biggest change that the Marrakesh Treaty makes is easing the import and export of accessible books. This cross-border exchange will make the lives of people with these disabilities better worldwide, as we reduce needless duplication of effort. Americans with disabilities will have access to far more accessible books, especially in languages other than English. And, it will become possible for nonprofit organizations such as ours to help bring accessible books to people with disabilities in developing countries, often the poorest of the world’s poor, who have mostly lacked access to books entirely.

We’re excited about the prospect of Marrakesh ratification and implementation by the United States to make our work more straightforward in serving Americans with bona fide disabilities the books they need for education, employment, and social inclusion, as well as lowering the barriers to serve people around the world with similar needs!

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Silicon Valley’s Developing Conscience: It’s Called Apple

Silicon Valley has a problem. In our quest to build better products and better meet the needs of the world for information, we built the most amazing system for effortless government surveillance as a byproduct. It is now incumbent on Silicon Valley to remedy this situation.

Forcing tech companies to weaken their products through compelling the creation of backdoors would be a massive step backwards.

Whatever the power of search engines or social networks, it’s really the smartphone that is the most incredible tool for tracking our every move and activity. With access to the information collected by a person’s smartphone, it’s probably straightforward to figure out everything important about that person. Who they love. What religion they profess. Their ethnicity. What drugs (legal or illegal) they consume. What content they read or watch. What laws they violate. Every secret.

And, without encryption of this information, the makers of smartphones had effectively handed those secrets to governments. Not just the U.S. government. Just about every government. For very little expense compared to other ways of gathering secrets.

Over the last couple of years, Apple figured out the implications of this expanded surveillance. They decided that their value proposition to smartphone users did not include making it easy for governments (or others) to collect everybody’s secrets.

As a society, Americans have frequently decided to put limits on our government’s powers, because we were founded in a period where government abused its powers extensively. We don’t allow our police to torture suspects for confessions. We throw out evidence gathered through illegal searches. The government does not, and should not, have automatic access to every secret.

The battle between Apple and the FBI is one of those crucial limit-setting moments. And Silicon Valley understands it as such a moment for the tech industry generally. If the FBI can force Apple to construct a back door for one iPhone for the U.S. government, we techies understand why this sets a strong negative precedent for extensive surveillance in the U.S. and globally.

This is not a theoretical problem. We have seen this problem here in the United States and around the world. My nonprofit creates the Martus software for human rights activists to securely store their sensitive information (via encryption). It may be documentation of atrocities they plan to use in later advocacy, or simply items like current membership lists. When we called an LGBT organization in Africa last year for a regular check-in, we found that they took the call from the back yard of their offices. They were burning all of their records because they had a tip that their government was going to raid them. Luckily, their records were already safely stored in Martus. Without a backdoor for that government, or any government for that matter.

As a society, we should not make it easy for governments or other interests to get lists of all of the gay people, or Christians, or Muslims, or rape survivors, or HIV positive people, or supporters of the opposition. We need to make it harder to find out our sensitive personal information, whether it’s our medical information, or when our 11-year-old child is home alone. And encryption without backdoors is how we secure that information against attackers of all stripes. A backdoor is an open door for any one that’s willing to try hard enough to gain entry.

That is why we, and so much of the technology sector, stand with Apple today. This is not a tradeoff between security and privacy, as this issue is so often portrayed. This is a tradeoff between security of our sensitive information and surveillance. And, making it easier to surveille us by weakening the technical protections on our private information makes it possible for governments, especially repressive ones, and others to exploit a user’s or organization’s vulnerabilities.

We should not be able to compel software developers to sabotage security protections that they carefully built for excellent reasons. We should not compel them to work against the interests of us, their users.