This is the first article in a six-part series on in-house counsel lobbying for policy change.
In December of 2001, a few weeks before I became the first lawyer at a tiny Internet start-up called GoDaddy.com, I got a call from the CEO and founder, Bob Parsons. I had only met Bob once, but I already knew I was going to like working for him. He was unlike anyone I had ever met. Not only was he smart and funny, but he was eccentric, entertaining and showed signs of pure brilliance when it came to marketing intuition, all good characteristics for a serial entrepreneur.
Bob called me because he had just talked to a distraught woman on the phone. Seems she had come across a nude photo of herself on the Internet, and wanted Go Daddy to take down the website. Bob asked me what he should do. Leave it up or take it down? After reminding him I was a securities litigator and had no earthly idea what he should do, I realized he was waiting for an answer, so I told him I’d get back to him. Then, I did what any capable lawyer would do—I went to look up the answer. But, oddly, there was no law on this issue in December of 2001. No statutory, regulatory, common, Napoleonic, precedential, black-letter, red, green, blue or any other color of law governing what one should do when faced with such a dilemma.( Just in case you’re tempted to go down the free speech/first amendment/privacy path, let me just refer you to your basic constitutional law textbook, wherein you can read about a little thing called “state action.”)
Great. I hadn’t even started the job yet and I was already in an impossible situation. So, I said, to no one in particular, “I see, so this is how it’s going to be. Well, if there is no law for me to follow, I suppose I’ll have to go find some smart, enthusiastic, well-meaning industry leaders to make some law for me to follow.” Then I made a list of all the horrible things I could conjure up, in my wildest imagination,that one might find on the Internet. (In retrospect, my list didn’t even scratch the surface of what I actually came across in the more than ten years I spent at Go Daddy.) On a separate piece of paper, I rewrote the list starting at the top with what I considered to be most the egregious and going down to the bottom of the page with the least egregious.
That felt good. Now all I had to do was find someone to address the list. However, much like the laws governing what an Internet provider should do to address the things on my list, the person or group of people who would take a leadership position to advocate for said laws didn’t exist either.
It was clear at that moment why I had been plucked out of my perfectly cushy traditional law firm and tapped to be the first lawyer at what would later become the world’s largest domain name registrar, hosting provider, SSL provider and overall controller of a very significant amount of what happens on the Internet every day: I was just feisty and outspoken enough to go try to establish policy on the things on that list myself. And, so, I did.
I didn’t start an office in Washington, DC until a few years later. But, I did immediately start talking to other lawyers, reading as much as I could about trends online and plotting a way to begin to shape policy for the entire Internet, one issue at a time.
What I learned, starting with that call from Bob Parsons, was I was going to be operating in an environment where I had to make huge numbers of decisions, very quickly, without a perfectly developed body of law to guide me. That was my big picture.
So, if you made the same observations, what would your big picture look like? To jump into shaping policy, you have to define that, in your own context, before you do anything else.