Checking in with Former Berkterns

February 5, 2016

Berkman research assistant Muira McCammon, who spent the summer of 2015 interning with Berkman's Freedom of Expression team, interviews four former Berkterns about their summer experiences and post-Berkman paths. Cross-posted from the Internet Monitor blog.

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The first time I heard about Berkman, I was in eastern Turkey, teaching English to civil aviation university students and trying my best to immerse myself in Turkish culture and language. When the Turkish Prime Minister blocked YouTube, I didn't know what to think or where to turn. I began to read Ars Technica, Global Voices, Slate's Future Tense, Hacker News as well as the Twitter feed run by Professor Zeynep Tufekci, who I later learned was a faculty associate at the Berkman Center. Until my trek to Turkey, I had always perceived of freedom of expression as a concept that was rooted in the offline world; I'd focused specifically on translators and the legal, ethical, and political problems they encounter in the Middle East and in conflict zones. Reading the Turkish Penal Code was my pastime.

But when Erdo?an made part of the Internet inaccessible, I realized that there was a world of Internet law, policy, and jurisprudence that lived far outside the confines of languages I understood. And thus, I gradually became interested in how netizens traverse language barriers and how individuals engaged in tech policy research keep track of what's happening each day online and in the courts of over eighty countries. How do Pashto cultural norms permeate the Twittersphere in Afghanistan? What impact will the digitization of public and university libraries have upon my generation? What are memes, really and what do they say about the cultures and communities that produce them? In what ways can researchers engage with Twitter ethically, if they are collecting the words and thoughts of individuals who might not have a clue that their Tweets are being collated and analyzed? These are some of the questions I had when I applied to the Berkman Center's summer internship program to work on their Freedom of Expression team.

The beauty of Berkman wasn't that I got all of my questions answered (I didn't!) but rather that I was permitted to spend an entire summer working alongside tremendously curious people who were also trying to make sense of the Internet and law. The atmosphere is bibliophilic, quirky, and interdisciplinary, and you can't escape the energy bouncing off everyone in the Berkman community. Each Berktern brought questions to the table (many of which I didn't even know needed to be asked), and the dialogue, the questions don't stop at the end of the summer. Even months after the internship, I'm developing projects that, to a great extent, grew out of conversations had with other Berkterns over lunch, over late-night walks around Cambridge, and in the halls of Harvard Law School.

When I interned at the Center last summer, I began to see that almost every Berktern had taken a different path to get to the little yellow house on Everett Street. So, this month I decided to track down a few of them and ask about their experiences. What follows are brief Q&As with four former Freedom of Expression Berkterns: Kendra Albert (2011), Priya Kumar (2013), Mayukh Sen (2014), and Simon Columbus (2011).

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Kendra Albert, a Harvard Law School JD candidate, spoke to me about the beauty of the Berktern community and the ways in which Berkman altered their trajectory.

Muira McCammon: What led you to apply for the FOE internship?

Kendra Albert: I went to Carnegie Mellon for undergrad. Many of my friends were computer science majors, and I got steeped in all of this technological stuff. Even though I didn't have a formal background in technology specifically, I'd done a lot of science and technology studies. The way I wrote my application was like "look, I have done a wide range of things that have nothing to do with each other, and I'm very good at them. So if you hire me, I will do things that I've never done for you and it will go well." Shockingly, this was a good application strategy (or at least they liked me)! I think it's the weirdest cover letter I've ever written in my entire life.

MM: What was the best part of your summer at Berkman?

KA: I think the real highlight was how awesome the people were, and how people I knew from the Berkman internship pop up in the most amazing places in my life now. I'll look at the staff of an organization doing tech policy, and I'll see that there's someone I interned with! It's really cool. I think it speaks to the variety of folks who are brought into the community and how awesome the people who congregate at Berkman over the summer are. The people are the best part.

MM: I think part of the beauty of being a FOE Berktern is that each summer, there are different projects on the proverbial table. What made you tick that summer, and what did you work on?

KA: I was hired as a Freedom of Expression intern. I was doing a bunch of Freedom of Expression work. I was super interested in the Sony hacks, which were a big thing that summer. There was another intern named Christian, who was working on a torts textbook for Professor Zittrain, and I'd written my thesis on torts. I'd even been trying to get into a torts class at the University of Pittsburgh Law School and had not succeeded. So when I heard he was writing a torts textbook, I was like, "Ah, that's so exciting! I want to help. That's so cool." Everyone kind of looked at me like I was crazy, because what I didn't understand at the time is that no one really cares that much about torts. It's like the really nerdy hobby that you didn't know was nerdy until you told everyone how much you love it. You're like, "Oh, I love going around and hitting people with foam swords" and then, everyone looks at you kind of strangely.

MM: What are some of the websites you really love? I ask this question for two reasons. First, because FOE Berkterns help contribute to the Internet Monitor's Twitter feed (@thenetmonitor), and scanning blog posts and newspaper articles about Internet policy updates is an important part of that experience. Also, this was admittedly one of the questions Berkman Community Manager Becca Tabasky asked our Berktern cohort last summer, and I was struck by the breadth of responses!

KA: In terms of various specific tech news, I'm a big fan of Ars Technica and Tech Dirt. I really like Eric Goldman's blog as well as Rebecca Tushnet's blog. They're law professors and they both write about very specific areas of the law, such as intermediary liability and trademark. They do a very good job of saying why certain cases are important. They make those areas of the law much more accessible and easier to keep up with. Personally, I really love The Toast and Captain Awkward (she's an advice columnist and she's awesome). I think Slate's Future Tense is also pretty good.

MM: Can you talk a bit about how the FOE internship impacted your trajectory post Berkman?

KA: I've heard the term Berkmafia. You'll meet someone and you'll say, "Oh, your name sounds familiar." And they'll say, "Oh. You're on the Berkman listserv." And I'm like, "Oh yes! I am!" and suddenly we have this connection. You run into people in the most surprising places, and that is a testimony to the community that Berkman has built.

My time at Berkman upended my life completely. I was supposed to go to the University of Cambridge to get my MPhil. I got a full time job at Berkman instead. Deferred Cambridge. Never went. Applied to law school instead. So saying that Berkman changed my life is an understatement, not an overstatement. I ended up working at Berkman for two years. I went to law school because I ended up working at Berkman for two years. And although law school might've always been in the cards, I think it changed my path pretty distinctly and gave me a real focus. I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to take the internship!

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After talking to Kendra, I corresponded with another former Berktern, Priya Kumar. Today, Priya works as a research analyst with the Ranking Digital Rights project, where she examines online freedom of expression and privacy as well as helps with project-related communication and data. Her FOE internship started just a few days before the Snowden disclosures. She talked to me about her journey from the University of Michigan School of Information to the New America Foundation.

MM: What led you to apply to the FOE Berkternship in particular?

Priya Kumar: My background is in journalism and research, and when I did the Berkman internship, I was a master's student at the University of Michigan School of Information. At Michigan, I was developing my own curriculum in "data storytelling." I was fascinated by the dramatic increase in data that surrounded us, and I wondered how journalists could analyze that data and make it meaningful for the public. During my first semester at Michigan, I wrote a paper about the various ways the Iranian government facilitated online censorship, and I recognized that even as digital technology offered opportunities to advance freedom of expression, it also gave powerful entities, like governments, tools to restrict that freedom. I drew on research from the Berkman FOE team to write that paper, and I thought, wouldn't it be cool to be part of a team that does this type of research? I applied for the internship and the rest, as they say, is history!

MM: What was the best part of your summer at Berkman?

PK: Far and away, the best part of the summer was the chance to have fascinating conversations with people interested in the myriad ways that technology and society intersect. In part, these conversations came out of planned events, like the intern hours, or discussions with the FOE team about the work we were doing. But they also came up when a group of us were sitting in the office and we'd start discussing a thought-provoking article someone read, or when we would eat lunch in the courtyard outside the law school and just chat. It felt like everyone in the Berkman community was open to such conversations; I'll always appreciate that [Berkman Faculty Director] Jonathan Zittrain took a half-hour out of his day to talk over my nascent ideas for master's thesis research.

MM: What were some of the ideas you grappled with as a FOE Berktern?

PK: I began my internship on June 3, 2013, two days before the first Snowden disclosures hit the news. The scale and scope of mass surveillance by the United States and other governments shaped many of the conversations we had that summer. Those discussions were richer thanks to the contributions and perspectives of Berkman interns, fellows, and staff from around the world. Personally, I started thinking critically about what it means to live in a networked society. I have a Mac computer, I write on Microsoft Word, I use Gmail and Facebook and Twitter. But increasingly, the companies that create those products and services have greater power to shape the discourse and interactions we have with each other. And as we learned from Snowden, governments are interested in harnessing that power. That summer, I read Rebecca MacKinnon's book, Consent of the Networked, which clearly lays out the implications of these shifts. I still grapple with these ideas, and it was my time at Berkman that really spurred me to think about them.

MM: What were some of the projects you worked on during the summer?

PK: As an FOE Berktern, I primarily wrote for the Internet Monitor and Herdict blogs, curated the Twitter feeds for both projects, and drafted country profiles for the Internet Monitor site. I analyzed Herdict data related to that year's Iranian election, and that data supported a piece that Ryan Budish wrote for Internet Monitor's 2014 annual report. I loved the freedom I had to write about topics that piqued my interest, and I appreciate that I got to spend the summer learning so much. Before writing those company profiles, I hadn't realized how many different ways existed to censor the Internet.

MM: How did the summer impact your post-Berkman trajectory?

PK: The Berkman internship was in some ways a turning point for me. It helped me understand how broad the discipline of "Internet and society" studies can be, and it helped me hone in on what facet of that discipline most fascinates me. After I graduated from Michigan, I attended a conference where I happened to get in line behind Rebecca MacKinnon, herself a member of the Berkman community. I introduced myself and told her about my interests. It turned out that her project, Ranking Digital Rights (RDR), was hiring. The project evaluates technology companies on their respect for freedom of expression and privacy, and I got a research position with the project. I've been with RDR since summer 2014, and in some ways, it's an extension of the work I did at Berkman. I've continued to learn a tremendous amount about how technology puts freedom of expression and privacy at risk, but also how civil society, policymakers, and companies are working to address these concerns. I also helped launch RDR's Corporate Accountability Index in 2015, an extremely rewarding experience.

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I also talked to Mayukh Sen. I'd stumbled across Mayukh's Twitter page while putting my own FOE application together in 2015. So, it was fun to hear about what one of my predecessors had done at Berkman, the summer before I arrived. Today Mayukh is the Editorial Director of This., a project born out of The Atlantic. He also writes for a number of publications, including VICE, BuzzFeed India, Racked,and The Caravan.

MM: What led you to apply to the FoE Berkternship in particular?

Mayukh Sen: The summer after my junior year in college, I interned at a journalism nonprofit in DC, Internews. While I was there, I, among other tasks, managed and edited a weekly newsletter of stories related to online freedom of expression. I kept doing that into my senior year of college, on a remote contract basis. It was my first foray into the world of Internet freedom. I found it fascinating! I figured I wanted to explore it more. I'd heard rumblings about Berkman – the name was always thrown around by people in the Internews office as a prestigious one, so I imagined an internship there would be a logical next step. I applied during my senior year on a whim, just hours before the deadline, and was quite surprised to learn I got it! Didn't think I had a fighting chance. So it goes.

MM: Today, do you have a favorite website? Do you mind sharing it with us?

MS: I guess this counts as some form of self-promotion: my favorite website is This., a social network (and media company) where I'm currently the Editorial Director. We started over at The Atlantic, who remains a minority owner of the company. The site is premised around the limitation of just sharing one link a day. No frills! That's it. That tends to mean that the quality of stuff that populates the site is pretty stellar. It's a nifty place to go to find smart people and publications sharing the best media that lives on the web. Other social networks can make you feel cynical about how much garbage content exists online – and, by consequence, how much our algorithms and feeds reward the proliferation of that garbage. But This. has reminded me that there's a lot of quality stuff, too.

MM: How did the summer impact your post-Berkman trajectory?

A ton – Berkman is a name that opens many doors in many circles, which is something people say ad nauseam because it's true. Berkman definitely stiffened my resolve not to ever do advocacy or nonprofit work, which I tried my hand at post-Berkman for a hot second, and to devote myself to writing and journalism. The most rewarding part of my experience with Berkman was writing. I think the FoE internship at Berkman is unlike a lot of others at Berkman in that it tends to attract writerly types and budding reporters. I enjoyed writing about issues of freedom of expression a ton, and I was able to parlay this into a lot of my writing after Berkman. I also think it's also good to step into digital media with a solid, informed principles surrounding online freedom of expression.

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Lastly I spoke with Simon Columbus. Today Simon is a student of psychological methods and organizational psychology at the Graduate School of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. He reminded me of the importance of froyo and what a hub BerryLine (a frequent haunt of my '15 cohort as well) was during his stint as a Berktern.

MM: What led you to apply to the Berkternship in particular?

Simon Columbus: The short answer: I found it on Twitter (I'd been following Berkman for awhile there). The long answer: I'd been involved with both blogging and anti-surveillance activism in Germany since I was 16, and had been writing semi-professionally since 17. Around that time I also joined an activist group, DigiActive (founded by Mary Joyce). After high school, I moved from my small hometown to Berlin and spent a year writing for netzpolitik.org and another blog (Spreeblick) full-time. I left journalism and activism to move to the Netherlands for college, but Berkman was a very reasonable continuation of what I'd done until then.

MM: What was the best part of your summer at Berkman?

SC: That's really hard to pin down. I probably remember less of the specific academics, and much more of the social environment. I'm sure all Berktern cohorts are great, but mine was really amazing. I probably learned as much from hanging out with people as from the actual work, being a young guy in the US for the first time and all. So there are a lot of memories of Super Smash Bros battles and squabbles over the preferable froyo place when I think back to that summer. Can I nominate getting froyo as "something you did each day"?

MM: Of course! So, what ideas were you grappling with in your froyo-eating days as a Berktern?

SC: At the time, I was coming straight out of my freshman year at college, and I'm sure I must've been quite cocky about my ideas - so I'm not sure grappling is the right word. Access to the Internet (or, more generally, ICTs) in developing countries and the potential for transformative social and political change were big topics for me back then.

MM: What were some of the projects you worked on during the summer?

SC: The biggest project was a serious of country profiles I wrote, which detailed the state of Internet access and censorship in some African countries.

MM: Can you talk a bit about the ways in which the summer impacted your post-Berkman trajectory?

SC: While we were at Berkman, there was a conference called Hyper-Public. One of the speakers, somewhat the odd one out, was a computational biologist, Martin A. Nowak. In hindsight, that seems almost like an omen. I did spend another year or so doing research on citizen journalism (among other things co-authoring a paper heavily drawing on Yochai Benkler's work on the 'networked public sphere'); but just before the internship, I had also taking my first class in psychology. I was really taken by the promise of studying cooperation - what had always fascinated me about the Internet and its promises - in a thorough, quantitative manner (mind you, I'd heard a lot of Internet utopianism at that point). I'd already left journalism in Berlin because I felt I wanted to understand first, then tell other people - and psychology, at the time, seemed to promise a great way of understanding things deeply.

I ended up focusing on evolutionary psychology in particular (with forays in behavioral economics), and have been studying cooperation and the evolution of cooperation for the last five years - first during my BA (in social sciences, at Amsterdam University College), then during my MSc (in psychological methodology, at the University of Amsterdam). Now I'm a core tutor at an interdisciplinary undergraduate program at the University of Amsterdam and applying for PhD positions. My last blog post is from more than a year ago, but one of my new year's resolutions is to start writing more regularly again - but this time, it'll be about psychology, statistics, and science in general.

MM: Any other reflections you'd like to share with me and potential FOE Berktern applicants?

SC: My internship was a great time. I recently sent around this year's call for applications to my students and called it 'the summer of my life', and I didn't embellish much with that. I've moved on a lot since, but I'll always have fond memories of that small yellow house.

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NB: This year's summer internship applications are due Friday, February 12, 2016 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

 

Last updated

February 8, 2016