Nuala O'Connor, CIPP/US, CIPP/G, is a stenographer’s nightmare. If ever you’ve spoken with her on the phone or in person, you get it. The speed with which she moves and speaks can be dizzying. But move she does, whether you can keep up or not.
Since she started as president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), O’Connor has been moving at a dizzying pace, indeed. Following her appointment by the CDT’s Board of Directors last December, O’Connor has hired 13 new staffers for positions from general counsel to privacy director to “free expression fellow.”
“Someone said to me that I’m hiring superstars,” O’Connor said. “I’m not afraid to hire superstars. I want a team of hard-charging, fast-moving, really talented people who can go in a lot of different directions. The policy world could change tomorrow.”
Some of those hires were made possible by cy pres funds; some filled positions that were simply open. A nonprofit that aims to protect the open Internet and its users by ensuring it remains a tool for freedom of expression, the CDT is mainly funded by direct donations from businesses. From its HQ in Washington, DC, the organization operates offices in San Francisco, Brussels and the UK, driving policies on consumer privacy, security and surveillance and digital copyright issues, including advocacy for net neutrality and stronger legal controls on government surveillance.
“We see ourselves as advocates for the human being, for their civil liberties, their digital online liberties,” O’Connor said. “We’d like to see people thinking about their LinkedIn profile, their transactions with big brand names, as part of the digital self.”
Because it’s such a fast-moving world, she needs her staff to collaborate.
“The real CDT voice I’m looking for is respectful, thoughtful, firm and assertive but at all times collaborative,” she said. “I’m really hiring for quality as well as domain expertise and talent.”
One of the talents O’Connor recruited recently is Michelle De Mooy, who’s now the CDT’s deputy director of consumer privacy. De Mooy came from Consumer Action, an advocacy group with a focus on digital privacy. She says she was drawn to the CDT because of O'Connor's idea to create CDT 3.0—a crew of talented people with a diversity of experience and opinions.
In fact, that was one of O’Connor’s chief missions. She reports that of the 30 full-time staffers and 28 full-time equivalents, CDT has significantly increased its diversity in race, gender, national origin and LGBT members. When she started, she said, the staff was about 25-percent female. Now, it’s closer to 50 percent.
That’s because the CDT should represent the necessary voices in these very important debates going on, voices that can represent what changes in technology and society mean for our relationships, our institutions, our daily lives, O’Connor said.
De Mooy said there’s a sense that she and the team at the CDT can really make an impact on crucial issues because its reputation as an institution that is fair and balanced often has key players asking for its feedback and viewpoints.
“The primary goal of our team is to find sensible and workable solutions that give consumers control over their data,” De Mooy said. “At its heart, our message to the public is simple: The Internet is yours. There’s no reason to passively give away your data without your permission. Privacy is at the heart of freedom and autonomy, and the web was originally built to facilitate and reflect this. It’s up to all of us to get involved and speak up so that it stays that way.”
Chris Calabrese left the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to join the CDT team. He did so, he said, because of his respect for the CDT as an organization and for a chance to work on a broader spectrum of issues than he necessarily was at the ACLU. He’s the CDT’s senior policy director, meaning his job is to keep his finger on the pulse, which he calls “both a fun and slightly intimidating thing.” He’s tasked with keeping the organization strategic and coordinating projects so the team is able to help each other and reinforce each other’s work.
Calabrese said ultimately one of the hardest parts of the work is staying focused on the long-term strategy when so many competing issues arise.
“Ultimately, one of the things that’s hardest about policy work is sustaining focus over a long period of time,” he said. “Change doesn’t happen quickly; it happens incrementally. There can be a temptation to respond to the newest news story and get distracted by something that’s hot in the moment.”
Sound like working in Congress? No wonder Erik Stallman feels right at home. As the CDT’s new general counsel, he had deep experience on Capitol Hill, working as policy advisor for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and later as legislative counsel for Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). That background gives him a lot of familiarity with the Internet as a means of communications, a forum for freedom of expression and a tool for innovation. For the CDT, he'll be focusing on telecommunications policy such as net neutrality, a topic near and dear to the CDT’s institutional heart, and digital copyright.
He said what feels different about working for the CDT is that his constituency is now a bit broader.
“It’s a lot different to think of an entire community of Internet users as being the constituency for whose concerns you’re watching out for rather than an individual client,” he said.
He’s most excited about the connection the CDT has with the technology community, especially that the CDT has a chief technologist of its own. “So a lot of the times, when we are working on policy matters, we can actually talk to engineers,” he said. “It’s really important when you’re talking about Internet policy questions to be informed by actual engineers and not just what you want out of a policy outcome.”
Ali Lange also has a background with Congress, coming to the CDT as a policy analyst after working at the Senate for a number of years for Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), who represents her home state of North Dakota. She later went to work with now-FTC Chief Technologist Ashkan Soltani, who was looking for a second hand while he did independent research on technology policy. She’s joined the CDT’s privacy team and is working on decedents' digital assets, or what happens to your digital data when you die, and how to hold algorithm- or machine-learning accountable.
Lange says she’s working with a wide range of stakeholders, advocates and thinkers on developing policy around decendents' digital assets. Currently there are politicians drafting legislation on the matter and other stakeholders working to draft competing models. The CDT is mainly evaluating some of these drafts and doing a lot of thinking about what makes sense.
In speaking with her, her excitement to be working at CDT is palpable. Part of that, perhaps, is the buzz she’s been feeling around the changes at the CDT.
“It’s fun to watch people react” to the new roster, she said. “We just keep hearing great things. I feel very proud to be part of that, and I’m flattered to be part of that perception.”
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