Stanford's Center for Internet and Society Receives National Science Foundation Funding for Online Privacy Research

Cross-posted from Stanford Law School

STANFORD, Calif., August 20, 2013—Stanford Law School today announced that researchers at its Center for Internet and Society (CIS) have received a Frontier award as part of the National Science Foundation’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace project. The award amount is $3.75 million to support research on online privacy that will be conducted at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and Fordham over the next four years (2013-2017).

The project tackles the tough problem of online privacy notices. Many companies publish privacy policies that explain how they collect, use, and retain online data. But in practice, privacy policies are not very useful to people online. Privacy policies are hard to understand and take too long to read.

“We need a better way for people to get the information that matters most to them about online privacy,” said CIS Director of Privacy Aleecia M. McDonald, who will be overseeing the research conducted at Stanford Law School. “We know people don’t read privacy policies, even with serious and growing concerns about massive online data collection. You would need to be a lawyer and a technologist to understand what policies do say, as well as a privacy professional to notice what policies don’t say. That’s why we are taking an interdisciplinary approach with experts from three leading universities in all three fields.”

“We are excited to be part of this project,” said CIS Faculty Director Barbara van Schewick. “Our work will make it easier for Internet users to understand what happens to their data and will help them make more informed privacy decisions online.”

“Stanford Law School is committed to interdisciplinary learning and research and we are honored to receive this National Science Foundation award to further advance an emerging and exciting field of study,” said Stanford Law School Dean Elizabeth Magill.

The project will use machine learning to automate transforming privacy policies into readable formats, then use crowd sourcing for areas where machine learning runs into ambiguities. Ultimately, the researchers envision a browser plugin that can alert users to online practices that do not match their expectations and preferences. In addition to improving transparency online, researchers will have a database to query to understand how companies approach privacy, as well as what changes over time, which opens new avenues for public policy research.

About Aleecia M. McDonald
Dr. Aleecia M. McDonald is the Director of Privacy at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. McDonald’s research includes behavioral economics and mental models of privacy and the efficacy of industry self-regulation. McDonald co-chaired, and remains active in, the WC3’s Tracking Protection Working Group, an ongoing effort to establish international standards for a Do Not Track mechanism that users can enable to request enhanced privacy online. This effort brings together more than 100 international stakeholders from industry, academia, civil society, privacy advocates, and regulators. The group is chartered to reach an open, consensus-based multi-party agreement that will establish a baseline for what sites must do when they comply with an incoming request for user privacy. McDonald’s decade of experience working in software startups adds a practical focus to her academic work, and she was a Senior Privacy Researcher for Mozilla (part-time, 2011-12.) She holds a PhD in Engineering & Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon.

About the Center for Internet and Society
Led by Faculty Director Professor Barbara van Schewick, the Center for Internet and Society (CIS) is a public interest technology law and policy program at Stanford Law School and a part of the Law, Science and Technology Program. CIS brings together scholars, academics, legislators, students, programmers, security researchers, and scientists to study the interaction of new technologies and the law and to examine how the synergy between the two can either promote or harm public goods like free speech, innovation, privacy, public commons, diversity, and scientific inquiry. CIS strives to improve both technology and law, encouraging decision makers to design both as a means to further democratic values. CIS provides law students and the general public with educational resources and analyses of policy issues arising at the intersection of law, technology and the public interest.

About Barbara van Schewick
Barbara van Schewick is an Associate Professor of Law and Helen L. Crocker Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School, an Associate Professor (by courtesy) of Electrical Engineering in Stanford University’s Department of Electrical Engineering, and Faculty Director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

Van Schewick’s research on the economic, regulatory, and strategic implications of communication networks bridges law, networking and economics. This work has made her a leading expert on network neutrality, perhaps the Internet’s most debated policy issue, which concerns Internet users’ ability to access the content and software of their choice without interference from network providers.

Her book Internet Architecture and Innovation (MIT Press 2010, Paperback 2012) is considered to be the seminal work on the science, economics and policy of network neutrality. Her papers on network neutrality have influenced regulatory debates in the United States, Canada and Europe. She has testified before the FCC in en banc hearings and official workshops. The Federal Communication Commission’s Open Internet Order, which was published in December 2010 and went into effect in November 2011, relied heavily on her work. In 2010, van Schewick received the Research Prize Technical Communication 2010 from the Alcatel-Lucent Stiftung for Communications Research for her pioneering work in the area of Internet architecture, innovation and regulation.

Van Schewick holds a PhD in Computer Science, an MSc in Computer Science, and a BSc in Computer Science, all summa cum laude from Technical University Berlin, the Second State Exam in Law (equivalent of Bar Exam), summa cum laude, from the Higher Regional Court Berlin and the First State Exam in Law (equivalent of J.D.), summa cum laude, from Free University Berlin.

About M. Elizabeth Magill
Mary Elizabeth Magill was appointed the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School on September 1, 2012. She is the law school’s 13th dean. Before coming to Stanford she was on the faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law for 15 years, serving most recently as vice dean, the Joseph Weintraub–Bank of America Distinguished Professor of Law, and the Elizabeth D. and Richard A. Merrill Professor.

An expert in administrative law and constitutional structure, Dean Magill teaches administrative law, constitutional law, and food and drug law. Her scholarly articles have been published in leading law reviews, and she has won several awards for her scholarly contributions. She is a member of the American Law Institute and served as a fellow in the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, and the Thomas Jefferson Visiting Fellow at Downing College, Cambridge University.

After completing her BA in history at Yale University in 1988, Dean Magill served as a senior legislative assistant for energy and natural resources for U.S. Senator Kent Conrad, a position she held for four years. She left the Hill to attend the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was articles development editor of the Virginia Law Review and received several awards for academic and scholarly achievement. After graduating in 1995, Dean Magill clerked for Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and then for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

About Stanford Law School
Stanford Law School ( is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a new model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.