While she might be the new CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, Alexandra Reeve Givens isn't new to the D.C. circuit nor leadership roles.
She was founding executive director of Georgetown Law's Institute for Technology Law & Policy, and before that, served as chief counsel for IP and antitrust at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee under ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. It was there she met Alvaro Bedoya, who was then working as Sen. Al Franken's, D-Minn., chief counsel, and who she'd later work alongside at Georgetown Law when Bedoya joined as the founding director of the Center on Privacy and Technology.
Now, she takes the reins from former CDT president and CEO Nuala O'Connor, who stepped down in September 2019. CDT, based in Washington, D.C., works to shape tech policy in ways that empower individuals and protect against discriminatory of exploitative uses of data or technology, curtail government censorship, and "free people from unwarranted surveillance."
On the phone as she works from home near downtown D.C. during the COVID pandemic, Reeve Givens is kind, eloquent and poised, even as her 2-year-old daughter protests in the background — as two-year-olds will — that mommy's on the phone with a journalist and so not available for the moment. (Told she can pause the call to attend to toddler things if needed, she chuckles and notes, "No, no, we've realized that's not the right approach." Best stay firm on the issue.)
It's the issues that clearly drive Reeve Givens professionally, as well. It's true her resume would indicate as much, but it also comes through conversationally in talking about why she decided running CDT was the right move for her now. She wants to talk about equity and access, civil rights, algorithmic discrimination and the tension between free speech and hate speech, among other priorities for her tenure. She said there's no place like CDT to be "at the forefront of conversations"
"I come to these issues through a social justice lens," Reeve Givens said. "For me, the issues that we umbrella under 'tech policy' really encompass the most pressing social justice issues of our time."
Noting CDT's important work in the tech policy space fighting for civil liberties and civil rights, she said she sees room for growth.
"I think the most notable lens I bring to this is that I’m very conscious that CDT has a long history of fighting for civil liberties in the digital era, but in my mind time, it's time to focus on civil liberties together with civil rights. We can’t just talk about individual freedoms anymore, we have to recognize that people aren't equally situated to benefit because of systemic inequality."
She sees a broadening of CDT’s language on questions of equity and civil rights "alongside our longterm commitment to civil liberties" as key. And she doesn't just mean equity as it relates to gender or race, but also an often overlooked marginalized group: those with disabilities.
"There is a growing and very important conversation about algorithmic fairness and the risk of bias, but for the past couple years it has focused mainly on gender and race inequality without thinking of complex questions like discrimination on the basis of a disability that’s a very important piece of the puzzle," Reeve Givens said. "We need to start thinking about technical solutions but also about oversight and potential policy."
Her passion for including disability discrimination in conversations about unequal access comes from first-hand experience. Her father is the late Christopher Reeve, famous for his acting role as comic book superhero "Superman." Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down following a horseback riding accident in 1995 and spent the rest of his life fighting for research on spinal cord injuries as founder of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Reeve Givens still remains on the board there. It's an experience that clearly shaped some of her passion today.
"I'm deeply committed to the lived experiences of people with disabilities," she said. "There no question that has increased my interest in artificial limits on people's opportunities and how do we make sure that technology is not adding to those artificial limitations but is being used instead to create more positive opportunities. I would say even more generally, that's how I view the lens of tech policy in general. How do we leverage tech policy to be a force for good?"
In that vein, Reeve Givens brings with her to CDT the project she led on algorithmic fairness and disability rights at Georgetown.
"It integrates very nicely with CDT’s long history of working on algorithmic fairness, and why that really matters to me is right now there is a very noticeable gap," she said. "Where are the points of intervention?"
She said she's pleased to see companies starting to think about the risks algorithmic bias presents and taking steps to address it.
"There are tough questions about detecting or identifying bias to begin with," she said. "In the disability space that’s particularly hard because oftentimes people don’t identify as being disabled, so it's often hard to track the outcomes at the same rate. So we need bright minds focusing on these questions again through a technical lens or a policy lens.
As might be expected, for now, CDT is "deeply mobilized" responding to the COVID pandemic and hosting conversations among civil society and technologists to look at how data can be used responsibly to fight it.
In addition, Reeve Givens said she's committed to CDT's continuing work on defending consumers' in the digital age and the ongoing discussions on federal privacy legislation. CDT has introduced its own draft legislation into the mix. She noted provisions on data-related discrimination in some of the bills on the table are "very very welcome," and said there's some work to be done on defining what that looks like. CDT is also doing some heavy lifting on health data with a task force looking at stronger guidance for best practices in health apps or wearables that are generating data not covered under health privacy law.
While there are a lot of problems to solve, she's sure she's at the right place to help solve them.
"One of the things I feel strongly about is we need more space for policymakers and affected communities to come together to forge responsible policy solutions," she said. "In my mind, CDT is very well positioned to do that, leveraging its broad networks and deep expertise."
Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash
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