I had the great pleasure of participating in a workshop last week — “Connecting the Digital Rights Field with Academia: Exploring Models for Collaboration” — organised by the Digital Freedom Fund and hosted at Amsterdam Law School. I played a tiny role in helping to shape the event, but all credit goes to the extraordinary DFF team for bringing everyone together and making sure we stayed on track.
This was one of those workshops that just (for lack of a better word…) worked. The participants were enthusiastic; the agenda struck the right balance between fluid and focused; and the overall tone was one of collaboration and collegiality. I know I am not the only attendee who came away having learned a lot and feeling energized about future opportunities.
I am happy that DFF asked if I might share a few words about the workshop, and I thought I would focus in part on some substantive themes that characterised the discussions and in part on some more practical or process points that made the convening such a success.
DFF provides funding and other institutional support for strategic litigation in Europe relating to digital rights. In doing so, it works with European NGOs and supports their efforts to tackle complex law and policy problems on issues ranging from privacy and surveillance, to online speech, to algorithmic fairness and accountability. These issues are also the domain of scholars throughout Europe, whose research might inform (and be informed by) the work of litigators and activists. In conceiving of last week’s workshop, DFF sought to ensure that academics and activists had the opportunity to compare notes, build networks, and identify points of connection and potential collaboration.
I am not an European academic, nor do I work for an NGO focused on digital rights in Europe. (Cue Admiral James Stockdale, “Who am I? Why am I here?”)
I am a US-based lawyer and law teacher, with a background in copyright, tech, and issues relating to free expression. I am on the faculty of a US law school. And, I work with an amazing team of fellow law-teachers-cum-practitioners, along with a rotating cohort of extraordinary law students, in a law school clinical program that focuses its docket on technology law and policy. The Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School was founded twenty years ago at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society (now the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society). Over the last two decades, the Clinic has offered pro bono legal services to a wide range of clients and collaborators, with students on the front lines providing legal support (under the supervision of attorneys) and learning the day-to-day skills required of tech lawyers.
The Cyberlaw Clinic is one node in a larger network of US-based technology law clinics, each with its own substantive focus, but all dedicated to considering issues such as free expression, privacy, open government, freedom of information, transparency, intellectual property, and — broadly — the impacts of technology and the use and development of digital tech in ways that promote social justice and the public interest.*
The Cyberlaw Clinic — like many of these other clinics — regularly collaborates with scholars from a wide variety of disciplines and with advocacy groups pursuing agendas around promotion of technology development and tech policy in the public interest. A clinic like ours might write an amicus curiae brief with a group of scholars and file the brief on the scholars’ behalf in a case with far-reaching implications for intellectual property law, innovation, and access to information; prepare comments on behalf of an NGO about a pending policy proposal and submit those comments to an administrative agency or other governmental institution; or conduct foundational legal research to inform an advocacy group’s legislative or litigation agenda.
In this sense, a technology law clinic like the Cyberlaw Clinic can serve capacity-building and capacity-expanding functions for academics and NGOs, all while dedicating itself to its twin mission of legal service to advance the public interest and education and training for enrolled law students. Of course, these collaborations are two-way streets — technology law and policy clinics are heavily informed by the work of scholars and advocacy organisations as clinics work with students to set their programs’ pro bono practice priorities.
This explains my presence (and the presence of tech clinic friends and colleagues from NYU and Berkeley) at DFF’s workshop. Specifically, I felt that we were there to do three things:
- identify areas in which US-based technology law and policy clinics might support European scholars and NGOs in their work;
- learn about modes of engagement and points of potential influence in European tech policy conversations, where clinics might have an impact (analogous to the modes we regularly employ in our US-based teaching and practice activities); and
- offer thoughts to the European digital rights community about the US tech clinical model and how it might be replicated, adjusted, or expanded upon in European law schools (where clinical teaching is less likely than in the US to be a core component of the law school curriculum).
I learned an enormous amount on all three scores. Of particular note:
- We identified a number of key substantive issue areas that are subjects of significant attention in both the US and Europe, as to which international collaborations and/or efforts to perform comparative legal analyses might advance clinics’, NGOs’, and scholars’ missions throughout the world. Two of the largest buckets of issues seemed to be (perhaps unsurprisingly): (a) privacy and data protection; and (b) the use of algorithms, development and adoption of machine learning tools, and the move toward widescale implementation of artificial intelligence technologies. As to the former, participants shared a considerable interest in tracking the impacts of GDPR — as an active construct in the EU and as potential inspiration for legislative reform in the United States. Significant attention will be devoted in the coming years to the landscape for GDPR-related litigation, as the protections afforded by this new and developing regime are defined and refined. As to the latter, participants shared concerns about the unfettered adoption of autonomous, opaque technologies — particularly by government actors — and identified a number of points of potential cross-border comparison and collaboration.
- The group spent a lot of time talking about modes of intervention in the development of national and transnational tech policy in Europe. Some of the most productive conversations involved mapping typical outputs for US tech clinics against the kinds of interventions that European NGOs and scholars might pursue in advancing a tech policy agenda or ensuring that research supports the development of robust and evidence-based legal regimes. I was particularly interested to learn about opportunities in the EU for engagement with Data Protection Authorities, which are without a clear analogue in the US.
- We had very robust conversations about the American law school clinical model, particularly as it has been adopted and applied in the arenas of technology and civil liberties at law schools throughout the United States. We talked about challenges we face in the US, employing this model in support of a tech law and policy docket, and about the institutional differences between European and US law schools that make it difficult to simply port the model over to Europe. But, we also spent a lot of time identifying opportunities and learning about the efforts of a number of scholars in Europe to engage students in real-world law and policy advocacy projects.
I have been affiliated with the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard for nearly eleven years, and — in various roles there — have hosted and participated in my share of workshops, conferences, skillshares, symposia, and strategy sessions. I can attest that one does not go through the effort required to bring people together in hopes that participants walk away thinking merely that the event was well-managed and well-run. The primary goal is always the substance — fostering dialogue, promoting collaboration, advancing a cause. Indeed, the best events are often those where operational elements fade into the background.
That said, I can’t help but offer a few brief observations about the practical elements that made this workshop such a great success: it was small (fewer than twenty participants); it was well-scoped (with significant thought given to the order of operations, the flow of larger and smaller breakout sessions, and the establishment of interim goals); it was hosted in a location that was conducive to both large group discussion and small breakouts (i.e., the University of Amsterdam’s “Amsterdam Law Hub” which was clearly designed with group projects in mind); and it was expertly facilitated (with Allen “Gunner” Gunn of Aspiration Tech guiding participants through a series of breakout sessions, ensuring we captured the fruits of each round of discussion, and striving to have conversations build upon conversations toward the group’s ultimate goals). A lot of thought and advanced planning went into ensuring we were well-positioned to hit the ground running for our two days together in Amsterdam, and that preparation surely paid off.
Our students in the Cyberlaw Clinic respond with great enthusiasm whenever our docket includes international projects, and we actively seek out opportunities to lend our expertise to projects with a global dimension and take advantage of opportunities to learn from partners throughout the world. Last week’s event was a great first step toward establishment of a network that will ensure we continue to have the opportunity to share knowledge across borders for years to come.
About the author: Christopher Bavitz is the WilmerHale Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He is Managing Director of HLS’s Cyberlaw Clinic, based at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, and a Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Klein Center.