A Silicon Valley lawyer who has headed free speech efforts at Google
(GOOG) and Twitter is in the running to be named a top Obama administration
adviser on privacy issues.
Nicole Wong, who was deputy general counsel at Google before leaving last year to become Twitter's legal director, is widely praised for her smarts, thoughtfulness and consumer focus. "She's as hard-core on free speech as anybody you could ever find," said Andrew McLaughlin, who as Google's public policy director worked closely with Wong on requests to take down content foreign governments deemed objectionable.
CNet initially reported Tuesday that Wong would be named President Barack Obama's chief privacy officer, which would have been a first for any presidential administration. But a source familiar with the situation said the White House is in discussions with several people about the position, which would be a senior adviser to Obama's chief technology officer.
Wong, via a Twitter spokeswoman, declined this newspaper's request for comment.
In a 2008 interview with The New York Times, she discussed the delicate balance between promoting American ideals of openness and respecting local laws. Under her watch, for example, Google removed several YouTube
videos critical of former Turkish President Kemal Ataturk and barred Holocaust-denial sites from turning up in Google searches in Germany and France.
"Free-speech law is always built on the edge," she told the Times, "and in each country, the question is: Can you define what the edge is?"
Among the many online privacy issues facing Obama are the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, passed last month by the House of Representatives. Critics have called the legislation, which gives the government easier access to user data from Internet companies, overly broad, and Obama has threatened to veto it.
Open-source advocate David Landry, in a series of Google+ posts Tuesday, worried that Obama was putting "a fox in charge of the hen house" by naming a veteran of big Internet companies to a privacy oversight role.
"Which side is a 'chief privacy officer' supposed to be on?" Landry wrote. "The side of the people helping them protect their privacy? Or the side of the corporations wanting easier access to people's private information?"
But other privacy advocates noted that both Google and Twitter have a track record of turning back overzealous law enforcement requests for user data, both here and abroad. Those advocates give credit to Wong, a former board member of the California First Amendment Coalition.
"On the whole, the people who are breathing the atmosphere of technology as part of Silicon Valley are going to have a lot of real-world experience with these privacy issues," said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who worked with Wong when both were partners at the Perkins Coie law form.
Justin Brookman, a consumer privacy expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology in San Francisco, praised Obama for being the first president to call for broader privacy laws.
Another issue Brookman highlighted is the "Safe Harbor" agreement that oversees the sharing of user data between companies in the United States and Europe. Brookman noted that European officials distrust America's privacy standards, and he said it could be reassuring for Obama to put those negotiations in the hands of Wong, who holds degrees in law and journalism from the UC Berkeley.
McLaughlin, who left Google in 2009 to become Obama's deputy technology chief and now is trying to revive pioneering social media site Digg, said he's encouraged that Wong would consider leaving a pre-IPO company like Twitter to join a lame-duck presidency.
"This is a good sign of the Obama administration's commitment to privacy," he said.
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