Susan Crawford makes the case for the Responsive Communities Initiative

As part of Boston’s HUBweek, Harvard Law School Clinical Professor Susan Crawford addressed a gathering of more than 100 people at Harvard Law School in September and made the case for her new Responsive Communities Initiative, a three-pronged program aimed at addressing issues of social justice, civil liberties, and economic development involving high-speed Internet access and government use of data. The initiative is based at HLS and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

Clincial Professor Susan Crawford.

Credit: Rod Goodman Clincial Professor Susan Crawford.

In her talk, Crawford traced the arc of her career and how her experiences and passions have led her to this moment, and this initiative. She described discovering the Internet in the early 90s when she was a junior lawyer at a firm: “I fell in love with the idea of the Internet. I became quite interested in the idea of connecting people at a distance and helping them achieve their best selves, that the Internet was truly an empowering medium, unlike anything we’d ever seen before.”

She described later serving in the first Obama administration and encountering a lack of understanding of technology, and a culture at the federal level that was slow to implement change. One of the things she took from that experience was a growing concern about concentration in the high speed Internet access marketplace. That led her to write her book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, which, she said, “catapulted me into a deep awareness of the state of high speed Internet access in America.”

Crawford began wondering about the role of government amidst enormous technical change, a time when, she said, polls show a loss of confidence in government. This, despite the polls also showing that people rely on government to keep them safe from terror, ensure healthcare, and respond to disasters.

“How can this be that we rely on these institutions for these things without trusting them? And what’s the role of technology?” she asked.

Because of the slow pace of change at the federal level, she became “extremely interested” how cities might improve high-speed internet access, in part because 80% of Americans live in cities, and because cities seemed like a level where positive change can be possible.

“It’s a big moment for US cities,” she said, relating the current day to past periods of technological revolution spurred by the steam engine, the electrical grid, and cars. According to Crawford, we’re in a fourth phase, a time when cities can be transformed by the potential of fiber.

“Combining fiber optic infrastructure in the ground with advanced wireless communications infrastructure that connects to that fiber, makes possible a whole new set of human relationships and city functions that could be made visible,” she said.

Most Americans have little choice when it comes to their Internet connections. It’s usually cable, controlled by a handful of companies, said Crawford, or DSL. Just 14% have access to a high capacity, high-speed fiber connection. According to Crawford, fiber is so important in part because it’s going to be the way the rest of the world is providing data. Right now the US is “in the middle of the pack” globally with respect to fiber, she said, lagging behind countries such as Korea, Turkey, and Spain.

“We’re stuck in this plateau of cable wires that are controlled by very few players and are quite expensive and far lower capacity than what we’re going to need,” said Crawford.

This ties deeply to the future of cities, she said, especially because there is currently no national path to upgrade the US to fiber connections. “Cities need to use their public assets to make this upgrade,” she said, adding that approximately 450 cities across the country are working on installing fiber networks right now.

The Responsive Communities Initiative aims to pull together the various strands of policy needs of cities and the need for fiber, as well as the need for data governance and stewardship, with a commitment to social justice. The project’s approach involves more than just wiring cities, or “putting sensors all over everything” says Crawford. It’s based on three basic principles: 1) It’s our job to create conditions that let humans live flourishing lives; 2) Government must exist and be effective; 3) Our deepest satisfaction comes from acting in ways that are compatible with ethical concern for others.

The project is comprised of three main tracks: Infrastructure, which includes research aimed at the development of: a playbook for financing municipal high-speed Internet networks; Leadership, designed to train and empower students to tackle tricky issues of communications infrastructure and data ethics at all levels of government; and Big Data, which includes work on a set of policy recommendations about cities’ short-term use of data and predictive analytics to drive long-term goals of social equity. Related to the project are two HLS courses offered this fall: the Responsive Communities Lab and City Use of Technology. Learn more about the initiative at