Tech Policy at the UW School of Law: Interdisciplinary, Immersive and Innovative

New technologies are being created and introduced into the marketplace so rapidly that their societal influence is often felt long before policymakers can draft regulations or researchers can investigate impact. These emerging technologies raise increasingly complex and critical questions about privacy, consumer rights, free speech, intellectual property and more.

For students drawn to this intersection of technology and law, UW School of Law offers a rich and unique set of experiences. Among other opportunities: Students work with policymakers directly as part of our Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic. They participate in interdisciplinary research teams as part of our Tech Policy Lab. And they pursue in depth coursework and independent research as part of our Intellectual Property Law and Policy LL.M. 

The school’s location at the center of one of the world’s most dynamic research and innovation hubs facilitates numerous multidisciplinary collaborations across the technology and industry spectrum. World-class legal scholars and subject-matter experts reach beyond the classroom and into practice, creating an exciting and enriched space for student learning and research.

While many law schools teach students how to practice under existing IP laws or how to mediate disputes, few allow students to conduct research, draft legislation, advise entrepreneurs and companies, and write research reports on which federal, state and municipal governments rely. Yet students at the UW School of Law do just that, in the process gaining real-world legal experience and serving clients and communities.

Tech Policy Lab — Interdisciplinary Collaboration

At the Tech Policy Lab, the operative word is interdisciplinary. Students work on teams that tackle some of the most challenging and up-to-the-minute issues affecting the tech world today, influencing policy and procedures on the local, state and national levels.

Jesse Woo, a 2013 UW Law graduate, said that the lab’s interdisciplinary nature was a huge draw.

“Many law schools have centers staffed and managed by lawyers,” Woo said, “but the Tech Policy Lab is truly interdisciplinary, run equally by three directors. Their diverse backgrounds infuse and inform the work. You’d be hard-pressed to identify another law school that so thoroughly integrates subject areas.”

Working as a privacy consultant, Woo is headed to Japan in October on a Fulbright fellowship to study international data and privacy issues.

“There are two types of projects we work on,” said Calo, who is also an associate professor and holds the Lane Powell & D. Wayne Gittinger Professorship. “We tackle individual technology issues, such as augmented reality or artificial intelligence, and we analyze problems within a specific context, such as helping cities plan and implement best practices around open data. We don’t represent a client, and we don’t advocate for a certain point of view. Our focus is the research.”  

Last year, a faculty-student research team that included experts in law, computer science, information science, and urban planning worked with the City of Seattle to study issues surrounding the responsible release of information.

After the team submitted their report with recommendations — all but one of the recommendations were later implemented by city managers — Seattle’s approach to open city data was recognized by a prominent D.C. think tank as representing best practice and is being replicated in several cities around the country.

“Our process is to focus on a problem, put together a customized team, work collaboratively to analyze the issues, create a rigorous multidisciplinary report with recommendations, and follow up by evaluating results,” Calo said. “We place an enormous emphasis on quality control and impact.”

The Lab’s research capabilities have grabbed the attention of policymakers on both coasts. In 2016, research on augmented reality — a mobile or embedded technology that senses and processes data in real time — brought Calo to Washington, D.C., to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on some of the legal and policy issues posed by this novel technology.

To insure that future tech policy considers diverse perspectives, the Lab has developed a Diverse Voices method that enhances the inclusivity of draft tech policy documents. Diverse Voices solicits feedback from experiential experts from non-mainstream communities — whether that be formerly incarcerated, people, women, youth, or people with disabilities — and asks how proposed changes to law or policy might affect their communities.

Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic — Immersive Opportunities

Established in 2003, the Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic immerses students in policy work conducted for state and local governments, nonprofit public-interest organizations and consumer groups. Students work in small teams under the supervision of a faculty coach who provides subject-matter expertise.

Although the topics change from year to year, one thing remains constant: The research is focused on up-to-the-minute, real-world issues.

This year, the topic areas have included:

  • working with the Washington State Transportation Commission to formulate autonomous vehicle policy for the state of Washington;
  • composing a white paper exploring how blockchain technology can be used by state and local governments;
  • conducting privacy work around regulation of data blocks and data brokers; and
  • creating a drone policy at the request of the City of Bellevue.

“Our Public Policy Clinic is heavily legislative-oriented,” said William Covington, clinic director and a senior law lecturer. “Students find themselves right in the middle of things, working with legislators and their staffs, drafting legislation or writing white papers. We want to provide maximum hands-on experience.”

The skills the students learn, such as how to interview, collaborate or communicate, are transferable to other settings.

“Students learn how to defend their ideas, weigh competing interests, resolve conflict,” Covington said. “These are life skills, not just legal skills.” 

Alex Alben, Washington State’s first chief privacy officer, has worked with Public Policy Clinic students for the past three years.

“They’re a valuable resource,” he said. “They’re enthusiastic and have great ideas.”

Recently, at Alben’s request, a student team studied genomic databases, such as the DNA kits marketed by Ancestry and 23andMe, to see how privacy issues are handled.

“We found each company has a different approach to privacy so consumers should really read the fine print,” Alben said. “Although we’re not ready to take it further at this time, the students’ well-documented study is a good first step.”

Spyware — software that can be installed without the owner’s knowledge or consent — was another project conducted for the state. Students examined the topic from different perspectives, including the companies who sell the software, their customer base and the individuals who may fall victim to its use.

“The students’ research was systematic, thoughtful and well-directed,” Alben said. “Given the fact I don’t have a staff of lawyers at my disposal, this was important work that might not have been done otherwise.”

Intellectual Property Law and Policy LL.M. Program — Innovative Curriculum

The IP Law and Policy LL.M. program draws on the dynamic innovation mindset and entrepreneurial spirit for which Seattle is so famous, adding subject-matter experts and cutting-edge internship opportunities to the mix.  

“We are sitting in one of the great innovation centers of the world,” said Robert Gomulkiewicz, IP LL.M. faculty director. “Seattle is known for its amazing advances in medicine, science, business and technology, all operating in a global context. It’s within this multidisciplinary environment that we offer our intellectual property curriculum.”

Today’s most exciting tech innovations — digital streaming, new media, cloud computing, to name a few — routinely cut across copyright, patent, trademark and trade secret laws. Students begin their studies with foundational courses, and then choose from among more than 30 industry-specific and interdisciplinary classes and seminars.

For Kristin Whinfrey, who will graduate in December, the opportunity to study with world-renowned legal scholars and expert practitioners attracted her to the School’s IP program.

“The professors make sure the curriculum is dynamic and constantly changing,” she said. “We’ve even studied cases that are not yet part of the casebook. It’s that cutting-edge.”

A robust network of adjunct faculty adds a depth of real-world experience that is second-to-none, and students take full advantage of their expertise.

“Because we’re in Seattle, we can explore IP policy and law from many perspectives,” Whinfrey said. “At Microsoft, for example, which both creates and distributes content, we can explore both sides of the issue. At Amazon, we studied audio streaming. Visiting scholars have spoken to us about many topics, including how the U.S Copyright Office is changing to make way for technology and what repercussions Brexit may have on trademarking intellectual properties.”

Innovation is a worldwide phenomenon and the law will continue to play a critical role.

“Lawyers from all over the world come to the UW to learn how to deal with innovation,” said Gomulkiewicz, who is also the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law. “The courses, seminars and internships we provide help them learn in different ways.”

Just months away from graduating, Whinfrey feels prepared and confident in her ability to advise her future clients about IP issues.

“The IP LL.M. program is innovative and thoughtfully structured,” she said. “I know my degree will benefit my career regardless of where I decide to practice. I’m confident I can go into a company and add value to their team.”