At home with the idea of fibre-optic cable to every house
President Obama’s first internet czar, Susan Crawford, wants to ensure that the internet makes it possible to start businesses and connect people across the world. It’s a utility these days, she says
The impact of fibre on mankind is unimaginable. But there’s lots of incumbents who have every reason to slow the transition to fibre
TO AN ONLOOKER, the journey from being a violist to becoming President Obama’s internet czar and a member of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s council on technology and innovation might seem very curious indeed.
But for the lawyer and leading US internet-policy thinker Susan Crawford, in Ireland last week to speak at Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery, it all makes sense.
The daughter of two composers was born on the east coast of the US and brought up in southern California, surrounded by music. She had every intention of pursuing a professional musical career but decided to attend Yale Law School, primarily because “I decided I wanted to support myself” in continuing her musical studies.
She notes with amusement that her parents were very unhappy with her decision to study law rather than music – the opposite of the preferences of most parents, and the type of life they themselves had rebelled against. (One of Crawford’s grandfathers was a lawyer.) But in practice the choice was hardly an abandonment of music: she was principal violist for the Yale Symphony Orchestra during her time as a law student.
But a summer legal job at the New York Times altered her future forever.
While there she was fascinated by the role of one of the newspaper’s lawyers, managing and defending its intellectual-property rights.
“I decided to become an expert in intellectual property. It wasn’t even taught in Yale,” because it wasn’t considered particularly important at the time, she says. She threw herself into gaining knowledge in the area, and although she ultimately didn’t go into that branch of law, she says it shaped the rest of her career.
She went to Los Angeles to work for an intellectual-property law firm that was handling the world’s first software IP case.
“I was right at the heart of the first legal things having to do with the internet. And I thought this was the most interesting thing ever, this intersection between the internet and copyright.”
She zigzagged back to the east coast, starting and eventually becoming a partner at the blue-chip Washington DC law firm of Wilmer, Cutler Pickering – which just happened to be one of the first law firms with a desktop PC for all its employees, and the place she first encountered the internet.
In 2000 she became the first privacy lawyer for the young internet company Yahoo – “because no one else knew anything about this”. It was a fantastic place to work, she says, as well as “the hot place to be” in the internet world.
But by this time she was feeling another calling: to academia.
“I just really wanted to teach and write, so I stepped off the cliff and quit, and started a whole second career.”
She worked first at Cardozo School of Law, in New York, went to the University of Michigan as a professor and then returned to Cardozo, where she teaches now, although this year she is also visiting Stanton professor of the first amendment at the Harvard Kennedy School and visiting professor at Harvard Law School.
But it was during this time that she found herself increasingly involved in a number of outside roles setting national and international internet-policy priorities.
First came a stint, starting in 2005, on the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), an internet governing body.