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 Twitter debate about who is best qualified to succeed her. It started with the ACLU’s head technologist, Chris Soghoia:
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) August 15, 2014
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:
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) August 15, 2014
— Andrew McLaughlin (@McAndrew) August 15, 2014
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 Pinterest or Facebook $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:
Russian hackers have stolen over a billion passwords. Can one of them send me my login info for SeamlessWeb?
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) August 7, 2014
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.