Tackling issues at the intersection of technology, democracy, and human rights

A conversation with Sue Hendrickson ’93, new executive director of the Berkman Klein Center

Susan Hendrickson ’93, the new executive director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School as well as Harvard College, where she majored in sociology. She is also a leading technology and intellectual property strategist, who comes to the position from Arnold & Porter where she was a partner and co-led the technology and life sciences transactions practices. Her extensive experience with complex legal, commercial, and public policy issues spans nearly three decades of technology expansion, from the early days of AOL to today’s advanced AI/machine learning, autonomous, and connected technologies. Hendrickson, whose appointment was announced in December, spoke to Harvard Law Today about her career path, her advice for law students, what keeps her up at night and why, nevertheless, she continues to be optimistic about tech.


Sue Hendrickson

Harvard Law Today: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Sue Hendrickson: Sure. I grew up outside Philadelphia and then moved to Princeton, New Jersey in high school. I attended Princeton High School, where I played field hockey and was engaged in student government and peer counseling, and then I came to Harvard for college, where I studied mostly sociology, government, and economics. My parents, a corporate executive and a social entrepreneur, deeply valued education and life-long learning and inspired me and my two siblings to always strive to be compassionate and make a positive impact on the world. After college, I knew I wanted to work in public policy so I moved to D.C where I worked for several years at the Urban Institute.

HLT: What did you do there?

Hendrickson: I worked with a project run by Isabel Sawhill and a team of economists looking at the policy changes from the Reagan years from a social and economic perspective.

HLT: You then went on to get a joint degree in law and public policy from Harvard?

Hendrickson: Yes. Cambridge seems to have a way of calling me back. I really enjoyed combining the public policy and legal programs at Harvard. The two schools approached issues from different but complimentary perspectives and many of my classmates became lifelong friends and change-makers. Thinking back to the summer between my time at the Kennedy School and at Harvard Law, my return to Cambridge is timely in a sad way. It was 1990, the Berlin Wall had just come down, a wave of democratic revolutions was sweeping across Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union was dissolving. I was excited by the tremendous democratic promise and went to work in Eastern Europe.  Now, it’s extremely distressing to me to see what’s happening in the Ukraine and the democratic backsliding globally. We need to think deeply about how to address the current challenges to democracy and human rights and the role of the tech sector in that mix.

HLT: And what did you focus on that summer in Eastern Europe?

Hendrickson: I worked as an assistant to Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs. Solidarity [a trade union in Poland, which in 1980 became the first to be recognized in a Warsaw Pact country] had just been legalized and so he took a team of students to work at the Ministry of Finance and help document and analyze what was going on as the new Solidarity-led government was coming into power. It was a fascinating time of transformation to be there.

HLT: What interests brought you to Harvard Law School as a student?

Hendrickson: I’ve always been committed to working on social and policy causes in furtherance of the public interest whether in the social justice, human rights, education, or other realms. I knew at the time that the Kennedy School was a very impactful program for policy leadership. But living in D.C. and working there, I also saw how intertwined policy and law are and what a powerful and important tool legal skills are for driving policy dialogues and effecting change in both government and the private sector.

HLT: Did you become focused on law and technology while you were still in graduate school at Harvard?

Hendrickson: The law and technology related curriculums were pretty limited when I was in graduate school and I didn’t think of myself as technology-focused at the time, but the global connections from those years definitely and serendipitously contributed to my getting into the tech sector. It was in the early ’90s, my friends from graduate school had spread all around the world, and we were using the early internet technologies to communicate. And so, when a startup company, which would become AOL, first came to Arnold & Porter looking for legal services, I was the young associate who was incredibly excited about the promise of these technologies and knew how they worked. I ended up working with AOL for the next two decades on many deals and intellectual property issues that shaped the platform’s rollout and laid the foundation for the technologies we enjoy today. Being deeply involved in the early internet days inspired a passion for emerging tech and I went on to grow a broad tech practice working on each new iteration of emerging and disruptive tech.

HLT: Did you just learn as you went along?

Hendrickson: No one ever knows all the answers in advance to complex issues. One of the things that’s most exciting and challenging about working in emerging tech is that the legal and business frameworks aren’t yet established, so creative, novel thinking is essential. To excel, you need to be a constant learner. Technology-related legal and policy roles also need people with all different kinds of skill sets. I was not a technologist by training. I am a social scientist with a policy and legal background.  I learned a ton from the engineers, technologists, and business teams I worked with along the way, and my skillsets provided a powerful combination to theirs.

HLT: If you were to give advice to students who want to work in this field, considering some of this was happenstance for you, what would you say?

Hendrickson: It may sound a bit cliché, but I always advise students to follow their interests even when they feel like they don’t have the requisite background. Too often, students and young lawyers talk themselves out of exploring paths or projects they are excited about but don’t feel they have the expertise for. Or they worry about taking an opportunity that might not work out. Be willing to seek out opportunities that interest you, dig in substantively and learn, take risks, and even fail. There’s always serendipity associated with career paths, but it’s important to put yourself on the path of things that interest you, pursue them with curiosity and passion, and be open to letting your career evolve in directions that are unplanned.

HLT: I have read you described as having had a wealth of “thorny experiences” at the intersection of technology, law, and policy. Can you speak specifically about that?

Hendrickson: With emerging tech, there are always lots of thorny issues. Every time a new technology is rolling out, how it fits onto the existing legal frameworks needs to be established. I worked on innovations across the tech spectrum, from social media platforms, to AI, IoT, autonomous vehicles and genomics. Each raises complex societal, regulatory, and business issues. Sometimes the rules that worked in the physical world mapped well onto the new digital world, but often there are additional complexities and new societal issues that should be considered. A lot of the most complex issues to negotiate revolved around liability allocations, such as the ongoing debates over Section 230, and issues of intellectual property, data rights, safety, and privacy. Forging new approaches both in business deals and in regulatory policy is always tricky.

HLT: What made you want to lead the Berkman Klein Center at this moment?

Hendrickson: I’ve long been a fan of the Berkman Klein Center’s work and I think its focus on addressing challenges in the relationship between technology and society in a manner that serves the public interest couldn’t be more timely or necessary. When I was working on internet technologies back in the ’90s, we thought we were launching technologies that were changing the world largely for good and that was exciting. It was new; it was transformative. But with the way technology has evolved recently, I was waking up in the middle of the night worrying about all the adverse side effects and risks: misinformation, disinformation, surveillance, manipulation, extremism, threats to democracy, the fracturing of the internet, algorithmic bias, health issues for our youth. The list goes on and on. I’m truly an optimist about tech and its amazing potential to lead to tremendous societal advances, but I knew I wanted to work more directly on making sure we are attentive to the societal implications of tech and realized I needed a platform like this to be able to convene the interdisciplinary, global, multi-stakeholder thought and research needed to tackle these issues and figure out a better path forward. The solutions aren’t easy; the issues are very complicated. Being at Berkman Klein at this time is just incredibly exciting, to be able to work with the Harvard community and our global network of collaborators and other stakeholders to try to tackle these challenges and redefine pathways to realize the promise of tech and social media in a way that better serves society.

HLT: Are there ways that your law firm background has helped position you to address these challenges?

Hendrickson: I think my law firm background provides a tremendously helpful backdrop for my new role tackling the next decade of technology challenges. Leading a law firm tech practice for many years gave me a unique window into both the trends and issues in tech and the perspectives of stakeholders in the technology ecosystem. I had the opportunity to advise and negotiate complex deals for global organizations, start-ups, civil society organizations, philanthropists, governmental entities, academic institutions and tech companies. Today’s internet and tech challenges are complex, global, and multi-disciplinary and solving them is going to require collaboration across all these constituencies. Being able to really have that kind of interdisciplinary, intersectoral global window on what’s happening across the technology sector, I think is something that was a unique aspect of my time in private practice. Academia provides a really important part of the solution and I’m happy to be in that role now, but we also need industry, government, and civil society to work together with academia to bridge these issues. I feel like I have a unique skillset for pulling all those entities in dialogue and facilitating complex problem-solving.

HLT: You said you’re optimistic about tech. Can you say more about that?

Hendrickson: As much as I worry about the downsides of tech, there are so many incredible things that are accomplished through technology. We saw it in the pandemic with the new mRNA vaccines and the advances in the ability to communicate with each other and work and learn remotely. There are also exciting new applications of AI and new connected devices we are enjoying — like the Peloton for me. I am a bit of a technology junkie. I love new and emerging technology and seeing how it changes the way we interact, and what we can accomplish with it. I want to see tech innovation flourish while figuring out how we can address the unintended consequences, wrestle with design biases and risks, and make sure it’s working in the public interest. I see that trajectory of exciting innovation, and I just want to make sure the advances are designed and implemented in a way that is equitable, transparent, and beneficial.

HLT: I wonder if you’d want to say something about the new Institute for Rebooting Social Media.

Hendrickson: Absolutely. I’m really excited about this three year “pop-up” institute at Berkman Klein. Social media needs a reboot and the time-limited nature of the inquiry helps us focus attention and urgency on tackling pressing challenges more quickly but with sufficient scholarly intensity. As part of this initiative, we’re convening world-class practitioners, policymakers, scholars, and students to help improve the future of social media and online communication. We just announced a wonderful group of visiting scholars. I’m excited both for what we will accomplish through this initiative and to establish other similar ephemeral pop-up programs to focus on other pressing technology issues.

HLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?

Hendrickson: One of the things that’s so exciting about being at the Berkman Klein Center right now is the number of important issues in the sector to address in the next decade. In this role, I’m hoping to help support and drive research and global dialogue and collaboration on technology issues that matter to society. Given the state of the world and the role of digital technologies in it, this is not a small job. In addition to the social media issues, I look forward to continuing our work in AI, ethics and digital governance; tackling issues at the intersection of technology, democracy, human rights and conflict; focusing on social justice issues associated with tech; looking at new models of data governance, distributed governance and digital education, and the list of topics goes on from there. I’m confident collectively we can pave a digital future that harnesses the power of the internet and technology in a way that is more beneficial for all society. We are clearly going to be very busy.