September 20, 2020

How I Became a Policy Wonk

It’s All-Request Friday, when I blog on topics suggested by readers. David Molnar writes,

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how your work has come to have significant interface with public policy questions. Was this a conscious decision, did it “just happen,” or somewhere in between? Is this the kind of work you thought you’d be doing when you first set out to do research? What would you do differently, if you could do it again, and what in retrospect were the really good decisions you made?

I’ll address most of this today, leaving the last sentence for another day.

When I started out in research, I had no idea public policy would become a focus of my work. The switch wasn’t so much a conscious decision as a gradual realization that events and curiosity had led me into a new area. This kind of thing happens all the time in research: we stumble around until we reach an interesting result and then, with the benefit of hindsight, we construct a just-so story explaining why that result was natural and inevitable. If the result is really good, then the just-so story is right, in a sense – it justifies the result and it explains how we would have gotten there if only we hadn’t been so clueless at the start.

My just-so story has me figuring out three things. (1) Policy is deep and interesting. (2) Policy affects me directly. (3) Policy and computer security are deeply connected.

Working on the Microsoft case first taught me that policy is deep and interesting. The case raised obvious public policy issues that required deep legal, economic, and technical thinking, and deep connections between the three, to figure out. As a primary technical advisor to the Department of Justice, I got to talk to top-notch lawyers and economists about these issues. What were the real-world consequences of Microsoft doing X? Would would be the consequences if they were no longer allowed to do Y? Theories weren’t enough because concrete decisions had to be made (not by me, of course, but I saw more of the decision-making process than most people did). These debates opened a window for me, and I saw in a new way the complex flow from computer science in the lab to computer products in the market. I saw, too, how public policy modulates this flow.

The DMCA taught me that policy affects me directly. The first time I saw a draft of the DMCA, before it was even law, I knew it would mean trouble for researchers, and I joined a coalition of researchers who tried to get a research exemption inserted. The DMCA statute we got was not as bad as some of the drafts, but it was still problematic. As fate would have it, my own research triggered the first legal battle to protect research from DMCA overreaching. That was another formative experience.

The third realization, that policy and computer security are joined at the hip, can’t be tied to any one experience but dawned on me slowly. I used to tell people at cocktail parties, after I had said I work on computer security and they had asked what in the world that meant, that computer security is “the study of who can do what to whom online.” This would trigger either an interesting conversation or an abrupt change of topic. What I didn’t know until somebody pointed it out was that Lenin had postulated “who can do what to whom” (and the shorthand “who-whom”) as the key question to ask in politics. And Lenin, though a terrible role model, did know a thing or two about political power struggles.

More to the point, it seems that almost every computer security problem I work on has a policy angle, and almost every policy problem I work on has a computer security angle. Policy and security try, by different means, to control what people can do, to protect people from harmful acts and actors, and to ensure freedom of action where it is desired. Working on security makes my policy work better, and vice versa. Many of the computer scientists who are most involved in policy debates come from the security community. This is not an accident but reflects the deep connections between the two fields.

(Have another topic to suggest for All-Request Friday? Suggest it in the comments here.)

Introducing All-Request Friday

Adapting an idea from Tyler Cowen, I’m going to try a new feature, where on Fridays I post about topics suggested by readers. Please post your suggested topics in the comments.