• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).



And its lessons.

February 27, 2017

When I became Director of IT Policy at Cornell in 2001, the internet was hot. It was a perfect way to bring a legal education together with a life-long dedication to higher ed. The field exploded with excitement  I remember well the night my husband brought home a modem, connected to the computer and our telephone to get online. Remember that two-tone “eee-eee” screech? Or the sessions in law school when we learned how to search with Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis electronically. Employers thought me brilliant when I would return from the law library in minutes instead of hours to do legal research until I explained the trick. Or the time I asked my father-in-law, who also had a legal education but worked in computers, how people find stuff online and he introduced me to Google. September 11 and a community’s response to the USA-Patriot Act, patriotic democracy at work.

I am forever grateful for the opportunities that the people and position at Cornell provided me. The first time I ever heard Lawrence Lessig speak was at a conference at Berkeley. I attended one of his founding seminars at Stanford on law and internet. The Institute for Computer Policy and Law, as well as the University complement, UCPL, featured so many fantastic speakers: Deanna Markum (digitization and the Library of Congress), Miriam Nisbit (ALA and copyright), Dan Solove (privacy), Yochai Benkler (internet governance). Remember the night we hosted top representatives from the RIAA, MPAA and EFF for a pinot-noir infused debate on copyright? (It is too bad that the powers that be at Cornell have taken those videotapes down; even if dated they were a great resource, especially since the law has moved so little, many are still very much on point).
I am deeply saddened that the energy we put into trying to figure out intellectual property, privacy and citizenship – to name a few topics -- in the age of the internet is all but drained off by the state of contemporary politics. I would like to sit down and write a blog about, I don’t know, social networking, just like the afternoon 11 years ago this March when I wrote “Thoughts on Facebook,” without thinking about Donald Trump. That is an almost impossible task in a week when he talks crazy at a conference, his special advisor has called for the destruction of the administrative state, and his press secretary cordoned off a meeting from major news outlets.

A few weeks ago, David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times who, on balance, has been moderate among his brethren, offered three scenarios for how to resist: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (fight against fascism), St. Benedict (head in the sand monasticism), or Gerald Ford (patient democracy). It was a clever trope, and I found myself weighing the options until Marissa Tomei came to mind saying, from her role in My Cousin Vinny, “It’s a trick question!” All three are appropriate.

If we could go back, what would we do differently? For general policy, attack those tax laws that have allowed the extreme wealthy to deeply enhance their pockets at the expense of everyone else and the health of this country. Also, we should have created retraining programs for people displaced by the shift from an industrial to an information economy. That policy remains the biggest mistake in the Democrats presidential platform. Hand in hand with that effort would have been to expand the internet geographically, make service affordable, and insist on digital and information literacy at every level of education.  In other words, to use the full potential of the internet. Finally, we should have aligned the law with technology in ways that would have extended our country’s time-honored tradition of fairness. I have written much on this topic over the years, so will not repeat specifics; go here if you want a list. It is appalling that Congress has yet to address these points.

 We should have pushed forward an achievable agenda that might have pre-empted Trump. I sincerely believe that if we kept momentum going from the turn of this century, he would not be in office. The quality of that change might have made a difference to the 77,000 people in key states who voted for him.  His appeal would have revealed itself as opportunistic cant.  In the lacuna of his narcissism-as-governance social instability foments. More malevolent forms of government lie in wait. If the society had been moving in a more positive direction, he might not have forged this fateful moment. 

Here is where David Brooks, who chose Gerald Ford, missed a beat. That approach assumes that our democratic structures will quietly stay in place until this moment passes and that we will re-emerge robust. A historian Mr. Brooks is not. We and our institutions are very much affected by this moment, from the silent license that xenophobia gives mentally ill people to shoot immigrants to the patently ridiculous notion that a society as complex is ours can function without an administrative apparatus. We resist, but not just for nostalgia’s sake. It is time to take the gloves off and fight for what was right before the politician Trump.


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