Connecting Information Technology and Policy

Jul 19 2017
By Gillian E. Samios
Source Woodrow Wilson School

How to effectively regulate and oversee the internet has become increasingly complicated for policymakers. Today’s information revolution has contributed to unanticipated policy issues concerning privacy, intellectual property and free speech, among others.

A spring 2017 course taught by Princeton University Professor David Dobkin and Joanna N. Huey, associate director at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP), challenged students to grapple with these pressing topics by discussing policy through a technical lens.

“The course taught me to accept that technology brings uncertainty and to be wary of regulations that are created without a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the technology,” said Annie Khoa MPA ’17.

The course, “Topics in STEP - Information Technology and Public Policy,” was offered to 18 Princeton graduate students, primarily from the Wilson School and bridged the gap between the often disparate fields of policy and information technology.

“Every aspect of life has been transformed by information technology (IT) in recent years, and the change has happened quickly,” said Dobkin, the Phillip Y. Goldman '86 Professor in Computer Science. “Policymakers need to be educated about IT and current policies in order to be prepared to enter the policy world. Similarly, IT developers need to be aware of the potential impacts of the technologies they are developing.”

The course began with an introduction to the basic issues of IT policy with an overview of how policy issues are discussed and resolved. Building off this foundation, the remainder of the semester was divided into six units, which covered topics like privacy and cybersecurity. Each unit began with a series of lectures by Dobkin and Huey and ended with student presentations on the various subtopics of the unit.

These presentations allowed for a more in-depth analysis of topics of particular interest to the students. For Tomer Kremerman MPA ’18, the presentations opened his eyes to new issues in information technology.

“Personally, I’ve worked on online privacy. I initially set out to work on regulations to improve the effectiveness of online privacy policies. However, I quickly realized through several students’ presentations that mere tweaks to existing policies are futile, given the extent of user information already in the hands of data brokers,” Kremerman said.

This particular issue of user privacy versus the advantages of collecting user data was the topic of one of Dobkin’s favorite lectures.

“Among the specific topics, I found the discussion of how much Google, Facebook and others know about you and how they can and do use that information to be one of the most interesting lectures,” said Dobkin. “It is part of the larger issue of personal privacy and our ability to protect our privacy when so much data is being gathered about us.”

Aside from the engaging lectures, Huey’s favorite aspect of the course was its constant adaptation to new developments in the field of information technology.

“New developments would occur each week, whether in net neutrality, Internet of Things security, data privacy or another area. The pace of change meant that many subjects introduced in the class needed updates before the end of the semester.”

To keep the course topical, Dobkin and Huey integrated examples from the news that would help drive each lecture home. For example, the class included discussions on cyber warfare in the context of the Russian interference in the election and the role of artificial intelligence with a special focus on self-driving cars.

“When an issue arose during the semester, we incorporated it into a class discussion providing appropriate background as needed,” Dobkin said.

Khoa noted how the class was most challenging in the way it made her question her position on certain policy issues.

“I thought that I would end up with all the answers to difficult policy issues concerning the impact of technology on our lives, but instead I spent the majority of the semester grappling with the tensions and tradeoffs inherent in this space,” Khoa said. “I came out with more questions than answers.” 

Dobkin and Huey hope the students will take the information presented in this class and use it to make informed decisions as the next generation of policy makers and analysts.

“I hope that policy students come away with enough knowledge of information technology at a high level to know where to look should they be in a situation where they need to make a decision — either as part of their job or for themselves personally — about which course of action to follow,” Dobkin said.

A revised version of this course will be taught next Spring 2018 by David Dobkin and Jonathan Mayer, who will be joining the Wilson School and the Department of Computer Science as assistant professor of computer science and public affairs.