Susan Crawford

Susan Crawford is the director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She is interviewed in person on August 20, 2012

JEGAN VINCENT DE PAUL (JVDP): I want to get at the underlying code by which technological entities (particularly those of Silicon Valley) and political entities (particularly those of Washington, DC) operate in relation to each other.

And see if their codes of conduct are mutual or in contradiction, as far as producing necessary change and progress within the United States. The Stop Online Piracy Act and The PROTECT IP Act boycotts by Google, Wikipedia and others, was a glimpse into the possibility of increased conflicts.

Can you talk a little bit about the role of Silicon Valley technology today in relation to Washington policy for a healthy and open democracy?

SUSAN CRAWFORD (SC): That is a sweeping question! Well, the first thing to understand about the SOPA and PIPA controversy and the way these cultures came together, was that, what happened a bunch of Washington lobbyists overstepped and they had one bill pending in congress that was about to pass and would have helped them a lot.  The Motion Picture Association of America had this draft legislation. They decided it wasn’t passing quickly enough and so they introduced an absolutely outrageous piece of legislation in another house of congress.

And it was that outrageous piece of legislation that included things like blocking domain name servers and bringing all kinds of technical companies into the service of the Motion Picture Association. It was a bridge too far.  The Washington code, the code trying to maneuver something through congress, suddenly came into conflict with the Silicon Valley code, which is we innovate without permission, we don’t need to wait for people to tell us what do, and we don’t want an internet that is blocked and not useful for our new things.

And what was fascinating about that particular conflict was that it was extreme in both cases. So the draft language, the Washington language, the Washington code was far too dangerous and really sort of unthinkable from the technical point of view. The reaction of people who cared about the internet was enormous. And when those two things clashed – it was actually a perfect storm – the bill was blocked on the hill in Congress.

The trouble is that things in Washington happen much more incrementally and much more smoothly than with that particular conflict. Its not clear that there is a large group of people in Silicon Valley who care enough about the details of what’s going on in Washington and how those details might affect innovation. So it’s a long answer to a sweeping question. But the answer is that these two world’s need to intersect more than they do and that particular conflict showed the power of the technical sector to fight aback against unreasonable language.

JVDP: Where do you think some of the unreasonable elements of these legislations come from? Is it because there is no understanding of how technology works or there is no understanding of internet culture by those that make law in this country?

SC: I think it’s a combination of both.  There is still a lot of people in Washington who don’t understand what the internet is and how its different from a telephone system. And that’s been a huge problem for the last ten years. They see the internet as a kind of broadcast medium. I remember dealing with a very senior official in Washington – I was telling him that it was important that we subsidize internet access for Americans just as we used to subsidize telephone service. He said but the telephone system is two way, you can talk back and forth on the telephone, you can’t do that on the internet. And that’s a very basic misunderstanding. He saw this as a broadcast medium – it’s just something that is used to show video that no one interacts with. You could call that internet culture, you could call that lack of technological know-how. There is a pretty old generation in charge in Washington and they don’t understand how easy it is to communicate online and when they do understand it, they’re scared. It’s very unsettling for a lot of incumbents, including government. So not just companies but also governments are really worried about the effect of the internet on their business model.

JVDP: Which bring me to my next question. With cases like the suppression of Megaupload  – it’s increasingly obvious that Washington, almost by default, supports big content producers like the Motion Picture Association of American and views with suspicion new models of internet based-distribution.

Do you think Washington’s current outlook on protecting intellectual property works against open sharing and production of content by individuals and small groups?

SC: Well you are taking a very broad approach with this question. After all, what is Washington but a collection of people who care about policy? There are lots of people who want to make sure there is an open internet that is available for lots of innovation and creative activity.  There are lots of people who wouldn’t want to see blocking of censorship online.

At the moment the problem is we’ve got trade associations that are extremely well organized in Washington who are able to get their point across for protecting intellectual property in a way that is sort of out of proportion to their actual contribution to the US economy.  And the tech sector, which is actually building all kinds of new jobs and is responsible for lots of new innovations in America, has withdrawn in a way that is not helpful.  So Washington isn’t a monolith. Its just that the people who come to speak to Washington aren’t as well organized on the side of technology as they are on the side of content.

JVDP: Facebook is encouraging organ donations. What are you thoughts on social media companies like Facebook openly entering into domains that are traditionally part of activism.

SC: Facebook and organ donation seems like a funny framing for this. Let me just thing about this for a second. Facebook is just ESPN. Its just a media company that happened to aggregate a lot of people’s likes and dislikes. People use it. It’s a useful place to see their friends. Some other platform could emerge that could be a great actor for activism – something like Kickstarter or an eBay for activism online.  Facebook just happened to get there first and has hundreds of millions of people who’ve signed up. I don’t see any particular reasons of why Facebook has to be in charge of activism. They’ve just been very very successful.

JVDP: But what do you think of that general direction of media companies that are not just doing media but supporting other causes other than the distribution of information and other content.

SC: Well, for a long time, we’ve had enormous aggregated media companies that have points of view. They really do. And they shapes those points of view from the advertising they choose or reject. They editorialize constantly, run public service announcements of one kind or another. Facebook in this way is really no different from any major media company that we’ve ever had. I think people misunderstand Facebook to be a neutral platform. It’s a business and it has a business of running ads and making sure people watch its stuff, does these joint ventures, like with Comcast for the Olympics.  It’s not neutral. In fact, it’s a walled garden. In lots of ways it shapes people’s preferences, the things they decide are important. Facebook chooses fonts, it chooses colors, it runs code that doesn’t interoperate with other online platforms.  So I am pretty secure in my belief that Facebook is just a media company like any other.

JVDP: A related area is that of transparency and privacy.  It can be argued without much contention that while individuals have a right to privacy, powerful institutions must operate transparently.

What is the role of densely connected digital networks maintained by a small number of technology companies in protecting privacy and encouraging transparency compared to methods put forth by law makers?

SC: Again, it’s a fascinating question because our lives are being lived online. The dossier of absolutely everything you’ve done, all your friends, all your connections, is potentially available.  It’s a honey pot for law enforcement, a mother load of information.  Again it’s not much of a change from what we had in the past, with the ability to track what phone calls your were making and to whom you were speaking with using older networks. The difference now is so much more of our lives is on social networks or is made apparent that way. I think another difference is people are more willing to give up more and more of their privacy. My students believe you have to have a driver’s license to walk on the streets of New York or be in Boston. That’s just not true, but they believe now that everything should be available to government as a condition of living in a public space.  So we’ve had this perfect storm of lowered expectations of privacy. At the same time, the gathering of much more information by social networks and federal authorities have an unlimited appetite for this kind of information.

There is no check on any of this and I am not sure what’s going to change that state of affairs. I am not sure transparency will change that.  Because knowing to whom you’ve given an initial piece of information, doesn’t tell you anything about how that information was then aggregated with other information to provide a dossier of your life. Being informed constantly about how these bits are interacting would be annoying, we wouldn’t actually want that.  So I am not sure what the solution is here, but there is an insatiable appetite both in the private sector and government to be gathering all this information and no reluctance on the part of citizens to give it up.

JVDP: The State Department’s and Whitehouse’s reactions to Wikileaks shows that Washington could be against the kind of transparency allowed by new network technologies.

Do you think the hostility comes from specific materials being revealed or a more general fear of new forms of communication that cannot be controlled by law or force.

SC: I think that case is pretty easy to respond to. The Wikileaks fear inside the government was that lives would be lost because names of confidential sources or name of contacts would be revealed inadvertently by the Wikileaks revelation of all those cables – hundreds of thousands of State Department cables. So there were mistakes made on all sides. The defense department over classified this stuff and had made a lot of it available to many hundreds of thousands of people, so it was leaked. At the same time there was great concern that people would be killed if the information was made available.

So, things have to be fixed. The leaking policy of both the State Department and major news organizations needs to be looked at. I don’t think its just fear talking, fear of new networks. In fact the State Department has been our leading agency of government when it comes to finding ways of using technology to solve problems around the world. They’re really pushing for an open internet. They are our best explainers of the importance of the internet.

JVDP: At the same time it is well know that non of the materials that were revealed by Wikileaks has caused harm that we are aware of and yet there still seems to be continuous hostility.  To me its seems like it was the highly networked way in which they were distributed that made it easy for everyone to see it. Do you think that could contribute to government fear of  certain information put online by its citizens?

JC: There is a conflict in the government among the agencies and the State Department actually is the group pushing for the freer flow of information, because their believe is that it forwards democracy.  There are other parts of the government like the defense department that want to lock things down. The president actually said, when he first got into office, that if they had their way, they would have his Blackberry locked up in a casket in a basement. They would like to avoid the free flow of information. This tension is going to continue, but on the whole I think we are heading in a more positive direction when it comes to government policy towards networks. After all, they get a lot of very useful information from these networks that people use so freely. So it’s in their interest to support them. As government bureaucrats learn more about what the internet is and particularly as the older generation ages out and the new generation comes – the people who care about open government and transparency – I think you will see a much richer relationship and more meaningful relationship to the internet and data in general.

JVDP: I want to ask a little bit about minority rights and majority rule, which is believe to be one of the strongest principles of a democracy. An increasingly networked society also means more participation and perhaps even greater consensus by a large number of people.

SC: In a sense nothing goes away, all the internet does and all this technology does is make it easier to speak, make it easier to add up some of those voices and should make civic participation easier because you can use just a sliver of your time rather than have to go to a two-hour meeting.  So there are great benefits that come with this network society. The graphical interconnected screen is the most important development in my lifetime. At the same time, people who are marginalized offline continue to be marginalized online, if they can’t aggregate their voices. So in the sweep of time, I actually don’t think the advent of the internet changes whether voices are more marginalized online than they would have been offline.  It just makes more apparent what already existed in society. It has great potential to enrich democratic discourse.  Make it possible for people to be better informed about their lives and have a sense of agency and autonomy that they didn’t have in the offline world. But we are just at the very beginning of this whole story. We don’t even know what is going to happen ten years from now to democracy, to the internet. Its all a mystery to us. So any big prognostications we give right now will look silly in a few years.

JVDP: Will the way in which democracy change over the next ten years be affected by the internet.

SC: I do think that there are very important things happening to democracy.  One of the key elements here is the role of the sovereign. If the state is the only entity people look up to and is the source of all good things, that is a limiting role for the individuals on the ground because they are really bounded by their physical borders. Borders right now are becoming both less important and more important. They are becoming less important because you can communicate with people across the world and let them know about the troubles you are facing or the riots you want to cause or the humanitarian disaster that just happened. At the same time borders are becoming more important because states are so anxious about the effect of the internet on their own power, own sovereignty, so they are starting to rebuild those borders online to make it more difficult for bits to pass easily between countries. So the whole thing is up for grabs.

More authoritarian states may gain more power if they try to lock down the internet or make communications impossible. At the same time people who want to run revolutions, they also could become more powerful if they can find ways to reach people across borders. So it’s a really interesting turbulent time. So I think democracy is changing, but I don’t think we can predict right now how.

JVDP: Google developed under a policy of “don’t be evil”.  Compared to Washington politicians, are individuals in large institutions like Google thinking politically about questions fundamental to democracy and human rights in the 21st century in relation to their services?

SC: Google is a profit seeking company, it was from the beginning. To have imagined that it wouldn’t use all the forces it had at its disposal to make money would be naïve.  It is not an NGO and is not a company that was formed for the public good. I do think in their DNA as a company, they had the idea that more information was better and gathering the world’s information was a good idea for society. That was all true. In recently years we’ve seen even that basic impulse can become harnessed in the service of making lots and lots of money. So I am pro Google in many ways, I have may friends who’ve worked there, but was it was always  going to be doing its job in the service of its shareholders and not necessarily in the service of the greater social good. So you’re right, we take the good from Google and we appreciate it daily and the trade-off for all the free services that they offer is a lot of opportunity for advertising and opportunities for understanding very deeply what it is we do online and we have to trust that they will be accountable to their shareholders over time in acting well and not running afoul of any national,  international laws.

JVDP: What do you think of a Google executive openly supporting the anti-Mubarak protests last year in Egypt?

SC: Well I think particularly in Egypt we had the example of a Google executive who was very much an Egyptian and felt very tied to that area, but he was not acting their in the name of Google, he as acting as an individual. Google executive are people too. I think what Google did in responding to censorship in China was much more significant, saying that they wanted to make sure that their services were available on open a basis as possible,  that was an important move.  The jury is out. Google is becoming a much more vertically integrated company, going into devices, networks and sort of soup to nuts provisions of very deeply personalized services for people around the world. And what relationship that has to the greater social good is unclear at this point.

JVDP: You are known to be an advocate of net neutrality. Can you speak a little bit about its current development and future direction.

SC: Net neutrality is just a symptom of a much larger problem in American, which is that of truly high-speed connections in this country. Cable incumbents who are monopolists where they operate, will have almost no competition for high speed connections. For eight percent of the country, your only choice for high speed download service will be your local cable monopolists.  If that cable monopolists has an interest in favoring their own stuff, their own video, making sure they are able to monetize every moment of your experience using their network, you could call that a net neutrality problem, but what it really is, is a competitions and communications policy problem.
We should have a basic, really fast network for everybody in America, that allows new businesses to start, new ideas to come to fruition, new ways of making a living to become obvious, without a single gate keeper picking winners or losers. We don’t have that situation in America. So net neutrality is just this tiny problem of what is this enormous policy problem for this country.  No competition, we are paying too much for speeds that are too slow. We are paying too much for asymmetric service, that doesn’t have fast uploads and we’ve allowed a very few, very large companies to dictate information policy for this country. I can’t imagine a bigger problem than that, and that’s where I am focusing a lot of my energy these days.

JVDP: Another area of your focus is the First Amendment.  What is the significance of the internet for the First Amendment?

SC: The internet is the greatest vessel for free speech that we have ever seen. It actually extends the idea of free speech around the world. The internet is this democracy forwarding engine for the United States in many ways, in that it allows lots of people around the world to discover for themselves the benefits of autonomy, agency. It’s a real weapon in a sense against authoritarianism. If you think of the First Amendment as a protection against government squelching of speech, which is what the First Amendment really is, the internet is the best tool we’ve ever had for that speech. On the other, internet access itself was built by private actors, who are now claiming that they themselves are First Amendment speakers. Verizon says we are just like a newspaper, we should get the right to edit what everybody does online. This is shocking – to use the First Amendment as an argument to support corporations in squelching speech online. It s gotten perverted.  So the big challenge we have over the next years is to make clear that when you are running internet access, you’re not a speaker, you are like a provider of water or electricity. Its your job to make sure that the bits flow and they flow freely, and the government has a role to make sure that everybody has that access.

My concern is that the First Amendment has been perverted in the name of corporations. Its like Citizens United, corporations say we get to speak and so we can control campaigns. Now Verizon and Comcast want to be able to say we can speak  and so we can control internet access, which is absolutely upside-down.


Interview conducted by Jegan Vincent de Paul with sound recoding by Yae Jin Shin

This interview of Susan Crawford was conducted as part of Compare and Contrast: Codes of Conduct, a project by Jegan Vincent de Paul commissioned by ZERO1 and curated by Regina Moller with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

For further information about this project please see: