Blog Post

What should the White House seek in its next privacy czar? Someone who can explain the internet

Nicole Wong, a former top lawyer at Google and Twitter, left the White House last week after working on privacy and big data issues for a little over a year. Her official title was “deputy chief technology officer” but, for all intents and purposes, Wong was the closest thing the Obama administration had to a privacy officer.

“Nicole is an incredibly talented and insightful leader, who has made major contributions to big data, privacy and Internet policy during her time at the White House,” said chief technology officer Todd Park in a statement to the Washington Post about Wong’s departure.

Her exit also touched off a [company]Twitter[/company] debate about who is best qualified to succeed her. It started with the ACLU’s head technologist, Chris Soghoia:

The tweet, spotted by National Journal, did not go over well with others on Twitter, who challenged the idea that law and technology expertise are mutually exclusive:

I agree with Mclaughlin, an ex-Googler who is now an entrepreneur-in-residence with Betaworks, that there’s no reason to think a lawyer doesn’t have the tech chops to be a privacy advocate. But I also wonder if the top privacy position is a job for wonks in the first place.

Instead, the job might be better suited for someone who can explain online privacy issues to the average American, including the inherent trade-off that lies at the heart of the consumer internet: free services in exchange for personal data. That trade was explained beautifully in the Atlantic last week by pop-up ad inventor Ethan Zuckerman, who described the ad-based business model as the “original sin of the internet” and pleaded for a better way — perhaps one in which consumers pay [company]Pinterest[/company] or [company]Facebook[/company] $5 a month to keep the companies away from their personal information.

This idea of paying for privacy is not new or complicated, but the White House or Wong have yet to broach it directly. Indeed, Wong’s most tangible achievement was as a co-author of a “big data” report published this spring — a worthy enough initiative, but not one that has done anything to change the privacy protections of the average person.

In choosing Wong’s successor, the White House may not need to find the best technologist or tech lawyer in the country. Instead, the Administration should look for someone with a high public profile capable of broadening the debate beyond the recondite circles of tech policy, and into the language of ordinary internet users. It’s perhaps a long-shot but, in the age of Facebook and YouTube, a well-known social media personality may be as capable of promoting privacy for the Administration as a tech or legal expert:

The White House could also show it is serious about the position by calling it “Chief Privacy Official” — which is what initial leaks suggested Wong’s title was supposed to be.

4 Responses to “What should the White House seek in its next privacy czar? Someone who can explain the internet”

  1. I wouldn’t have high hopes for this administration choosing someone competent, or someone who isn’t a lawyer.

    We need to stop hiring lawyers for just about everything in government. The Judicial, Federal, and Legislative branches are filled with lawyers and look at just how wonderful things are.

    I’m not one of those people who hates lawyers mind you. I believe they serve a noble purpose, particularly as advocates for the underdog. However thinking that they are an appropriate choice for so many highly technical jobs is just silly. Lawyers are not solution oriented. They are argument oriented. So you seldom see them trying to solve problem as much as argue about them. When they do try to solve a problem, their solutions are, you guessed, more laws.

    I doubt very much that POTUS thinks of privacy as a serious national issue. Without being able to understand the intricacies of how people are tracked on the Internet, one takes a pledge from companies like Google and Facebook to protect identity seriously. I suspect he’s not even aware he doesn’t know what the Internet is. I suspect he would be loathe to hire someone who did understand because that someone would likely be a person he couldn’t understand! He’s more likely to find another sycophant who speaks his language, and think he can trust that person to cope with the techno-jargon for him.

    At best he’d probably hire some ex Google, Facebook or Microsoft person. Or worse a lobbyist.

  2. snuggles

    I’d be more worried over the ex-Googler connection versus them all being lawyers.

    So what exactly have these three individuals accomplished during their time in office? Can you answer that?

    • I agree with you. Having credentials from a power corporation doesn’t lend itself to protecting the rights of individuals to well. Case in point: Has anyone actually read the Facebook Privacy Statement and what liberties they strip from their users? I sure wouldn’t look toward hiring any “professional” from Facebook to head up national privacy. Or anyone from any company (like Google, for instance) wanting to provide similar services like Facebook where similar privacy principles would exist.