DC-to-Silicon Valley translator

Greg Nash

Policymakers love to talk about app developers working in garages and college dorm rooms who either don’t know or don’t care about the privacy risks they create for users.

Tim Sparapani, vice president of government affairs at the Application Developers Alliance, wants to “smash that myth.”

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“I feel like my job is really a translator,” he said. “I help Silicon Valley talk to Washington, and I help Washington talk to Silicon Valley.”

Having spent time as a privacy-focused lawyer at the ACLU before becoming public policy director at Facebook, Sparapani is used to translating around tech issues.

In his current role, he represents app developers in D.C. on tech issues including privacy and patent reform. The Application Developers Alliance works with more than 30,000 app developers and tech companies including Google, Intel and Samsung.

Sparapani wants to spread his “tech optimism” to policy lawmakers who worry about the potential risks of new technologies.

 “It’s easiest for everyone to anticipate the potential downsides of technology,” he said.

He wants, instead, to convince policymakers that the college student building an app in her dorm room is not just aware of, but constantly considering, the risks.

Convincing policymakers that innovators are “hyper focused on the potential risks of data” is the first obstacle he faces, he said.

At the same time, Sparapani works to convince the tech industry that policymakers are “tremendously thoughtful about the burdens they place on companies,” he said.

“We have to get better as an industry at explaining and translating the optimism, the consumer benefit.”

Fueled by a “utopian excitement,” innovators in the tech industry need to “preach the gospel of tech optimism while being realistic about potential risks,” he said.

Sparapani preached this “tech optimism” last year, when he was a critical part of a Commerce Department effort to increase transparency around how mobile apps collect, use and share data from their users.

At the direction of the White House, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration convened privacy advocates and representatives from the tech industry to craft a code of conduct regarding how app developers inform users about an app’s data collection and use practices.

Along with a group of privacy advocates, Sparapani wrote and edited the code, as well as solicited and incorporated feedback from a varied group of stakeholders, ranging from those who claimed the code went too far to those who said it didn’t go far enough.

In a city where deals are rarely struck, “I’m happy to have been a part of one,” Sparapani said of the Commerce Department process. “I’m proud of that.”

Sparapani said he first recognized this tech optimism as a legal assistant at a D.C. law firm that was working with a voice recognition software company.

While it would have many applications, the software was aimed at helping those individuals who had disabilities that prevented them from typing.

Sparapani wanted to “use public policy to help a company that’s going to help a lot of people.”

That was when he began thinking about how technologies that help society can be bolstered by thoughtful public policy considerations about the potential risks and benefits.

“Technologies are neither good nor bad,” he said. “They are inherently neutral, and it’s up to us as a society to decide how they should work for and against us.”

After a few more years in the legal world, Sparapani moved to the ACLU, where he worked on privacy and government surveillance issues, before taking over policy operations at Facebook.

That move epitomizes his mindset that technology can be used thoughtfully to better society, he said.

“I had been at the ACLU advocating for the privacy rights of 300 million-plus Americans, and I had the chance to advocate for the privacy rights of a billion or more people around the world by going to Facebook.”

During Sparapani’s time at Facebook, the social network — which he called “one of the world’s greatest free speech technologies” — grew from roughly 100 million users to more than 1 billion. “Being part of that growth period was an exciting opportunity,” he said.

At the Application Developers Alliance, Sparapani is continuing to preach his tech optimism as policymakers consider pressing issues around online privacy.

The recent hacking of the customer databases of giant retailers like Target and Neiman Marcus has sent an alarm to all players — the public, policymakers, companies and the tech community. Sparapani noted that he does not deal directly with data breach issues, but he echoed the general concern.

“High-level data security is an absolute must for the app industry,” he said. “We build customer trust, and any data breach can cause us to lose it. So, the app industry is completely focused on data security.”

One of the next policy questions he plans to focus on is the privacy implication of “third party” data collection, such as ad networks that run behind websites and apps. Because users don’t interact directly with these third parties, they can be unaware of how their data is being collected and used.

This kind of data collection by third parties is “one of the great questions” in the offing in the tech policy world, he said.

Sparapani was quick to separate the national debate over government surveillance and the debate that’s taking place over what data companies are collecting and how they’re using that data.

Attempts to conflate government collection of citizens’ data and private-sector collection of users’ data are unconstructive, he said.

“That conflation is not helpful” and “distracts from a real discussion about what data the government should collect,” he said.

Another big tech issue on his radar is wearable technologies, which he said can provide “a phenomenal opportunity for societal advancement.”

He imagines a world where pills are embedded with microchips to alert a medical professional if “Grandma” forgets her pill.

“That’s the next incredible power of technology,” he said, acknowledging that “these things will naturally raise questions or push boundaries.”

Sparapani plans to be there when the questions and boundaries are discussed, translating between Washington and Silicon Valley.