Summer fellowship gives students hands-on experience with public interest technology

Summer fellowship gives students hands-on experience with public interest technology

For the fourth consecutive summer, Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy gave 13 college students an inside peek at the workings of federal, state and local government in the Siegel Public Interest Technology Summer Fellowship program.

For Katherine Wang, a rising sophomore at Princeton who was assigned to the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Advertising Practices, it meant helping regulators research evolving advertising technologies and deceptive practices, helping the agency update its guidance on best practices, and assisting with investigations of potential wrongdoing by advertisers on the web.

“Getting to know peers and mentors with the same interests and interdisciplinary mindset has instilled in me a confidence that I can make a meaningful impact as a technologist in the public sector, whether it’s right after graduation or a few years down the line,” Yang said.

On August 10 and 11, Yang and the 12 other fellows visited Princeton for a two-day conference to present lessons learned and hear from experts in the field.

Alondra Rodriguez Solis, a rising senior at University of California, Berkeley, majoring in social welfare and global environmental politics, was assigned to the ConnectALL office of New York State’s economic development agency, working to deliver high-speed internet access to New Yorkers.

“It can feel difficult to break into the public sector without connections but PIT-SF gave me the resources to succeed in building relationships with experts in the broadband field,” said Solis.

The students, four from Princeton and nine from other universities, spent roughly eight weeks working for agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, attorney general offices in Texas and Colorado, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Among their summer projects, students helped federal regulators manage consumer privacy, supported plans to extend high-speed internet to underserved communities, and examined the legal implications of workers and workplace surveillance.

Person speaking, smiling; backs of heads of audience in foreground.
Prof. Arvind Narayanan spoke with the fellowship participants.

In the conference’s opening session, Arvind Narayanan, director of CITP and professor of computer science, traced his own interest in public interest technologies to his time as a graduate student when his early work on data privacy prompted regulators and policymakers to seek him out for advice. The experience underscored the profound need for people in technology and policy who can communicate with each other and bridge their respective domains.

“There aren’t many people in tech doing this, and that continues to be shocking to me,” he said. “Things have changed a bit of course but still there is just such a disparity between how much tech expertise is needed in government, and how much there actually is.”

Helping to bridge that gap is the purpose of the summer fellowship program, which is geared toward rising college juniors and seniors, from any university, interested in working on government policy.

This year’s program was organized by Nia Brazzell, a fellow at CITP in the Emerging Scholar’s program aimed at providing recent college graduates research and work experience in technology policy. “As an emerging scholar on my own journey with public interest technology, it has been tremendously rewarding to coordinate the program and work with our fellows,” said Brazzell.

She said she is often frustrated by technology deployed without careful consideration of its users and want to be a part of building solutions to remedy these harms. “Public interest technology is all about harnessing emerging tech for good and prioritizing people in order to get us closer to a more equitable and just society Brazzell said.

The fellows said the program helped contextualize their studies, build relationships with experts in their fields and confirm their career plans.

“I am grateful that PIT-SF helps students engage with experts on an unmatched range of issue areas,” said Tairan Zhang, a rising senior at Cornell University, majoring in government and information science with concentrations in data science and ethics, law and policy. He worked at Upturn, conducting legal research on labor protections for surveilled workers and investigating digital disinformation that endangers pregnant individuals.

“Public interest technology is a relatively novel field, so this program has been a life-changing opportunity to meet an innovative and diverse group of experts united by a common purpose: ensuring that technology is a force for social good,” Zhang said.

Katerina Kaganovich, a rising senior at Barnard College who was assigned to the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, assisted attorneys during consent negotiations, investigated potential privacy violations and providing research for rulemaking projects. “My experience at the FTC will allow me to come back to the classroom and the academic setting with a richer understanding of what problems are most prominent in the privacy and technology space and what tools are most valuable for federal attorneys and regulators,” said Kaganovich, who is studying political science. “Throughout my time in college I have always tried to balance practice and theory, and my experience at the FTC helps me contextualize my studies in privacy and tech ethics.”

Students stands while speaking to fellow students.

Wang, who is majoring in computer science at Princeton, said the experience gave her a new appreciation of how challenging a job regulators have given the lack of historical precedent for today’s rapidly changing tech landscape.

“How do you squash deceptive and misleading claims in advertising at an effective scale when algorithms spit out a million different versions of an ad and render them all obsolete before the agency can investigate them?” she said. “The importance of precedence and history also made me understand why agencies must operate on a longer and more cautious timescale than the private sector, focusing its resources on strategic upstream actions that will stand the test of time.”

During the conference, the fellows heard insights from leading experts at the forefront of technology policy and regulation. They included:

  • Stevie DeGroff and Jill Szewczyk, assistant attorneys general for data privacy and cybersecurity, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office
  • Sheetal Dhir, equity fellow, New America
  • Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel, Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Monica Greco, senior program officer, Open Society Foundations
  • Erie Meyer, chief technologist, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  • Andrés Monroy-Hernández, assistant professor of computer science, Princeton University

Mihir Kshirsagar, who leads CITP’s Tech Policy Clinic and created the Public Interest Technology Summer Fellowship Program, said the program is set to grow next year with new funding from Siegel Family Endowment. One area of growth will be to expand the range of opportunities to include non-profit organizations, Kshirsagar said.

Applications for next year’s program are expected to open at the end of 2023.

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