In this episode of In-House Legal, Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell joins host Randy Milch for a conversation about national security vs. online privacy. For companies that provide access to online content worldwide there can be a fine line between freedom of expression and unlawful content. Just because something is legal in the U.S. does not mean that it’s allowed in other countries. And furthermore, if something is lawful does that mean a company has to provide access to it?
In addition to providing access to content, Randy asks Ron about his path to Yahoo, which had some interesting stops along the way. Originally starting as an associate at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in Illinois, Ron set his sites on Silicon Valley fairly early in his career. Without being licensed in California or even an available position to apply for, Ron asked for a meeting at Apple Computer, Inc. As it turned out, a position opened during his visit and he was hired shortly after. Tune in to hear more about his story and what it takes to ascend to the top.
Ron Bell is the general counsel, secretary, and vice president at Yahoo. Prior to that, he served as deputy general counsel for several regions of the company as well as other legal positions as he advanced through the ranks. Before beginning his career at Yahoo, Ron served as senior corporate counsel at Apple Computer, Inc. and as an associate at the law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.
In-House Legal: Yahoo GC Ron Bell on Privacy vs. Security – 2/28/2016
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Randy Milch: Hello. My name is Randy Milch and I’m the host of In-House Legal on the Legal Talk Network. I am honored and happy to have as a guest today, Ron Bell, the general counsel and secretary of Yahoo. Ron is a leader in the tech industry and he comes by it honestly with stints at a major law firm at Apple and in a number of in-house jobs at Yahoo.Ron, welcome to In-House Legal.
Ron Bell: Thank you Randy, it’s great to be here.
Randy Milch: So let’s start off at the very beginning, which is always a good place to start. What was it that led you to law school?
Ron Bell: It’s interesting, I actually originally wasn’t interested in law school, per say. My brother and I had a really early interest in computers and programming. And we started our own company making electronic bulletin board dial up software back in the day in the 80’s. I had a fascination from an early period with how technology enables communication and also with the social implications of new technology such as transcontinental railroads and communication and the social impact that those things had on society. And I saw the law as a vehicle to frankly pursue those interests and help develop it, because I really saw services like what then existed as pre commercial internet, services like CompuServe and AOL being really game changing overtime and I wanted to be a part of that.
Randy Milch: So did you follow a scientific path when you were in your undergraduate years?
Ron Bell: Originally I was interested potentially in two vehicles, one was potentially being a programmer so from that angle. The other side was I had a fascination with journalism, which again doesn’t directly link with what I’m doing today, but the fascination with communication and social impact. So originally when I went to law school, I thought that I might actually use that to pursue a journalism career and use the legal background to facilitate that. But when I was there I realized that my fascination with the technical aspects of the law and how that could be used to preserve and protect communications and facilitate people connecting with each other was really what my strongest bet was. So I ended up going that route. When I left law school I almost immediately joined a law firm and started pursuing first amendment and IP and commercial litigation law.
Randy Milch: So you go to Sonnenschein where you started out and you have a very directive notion of what you want to do with your legal training. What was your rationale for going through a law firm first as opposed to seeking in-house employment and what was your thinking of that at that point?
Ron Bell: I really thought that going to a law firm would give me the training and the exposure I needed to be a better lawyer later. The advantage of being at a law firm of course, especially a really good one, is you get exposure to so many different clients in so many different areas and so many styles of problem solving in legal issues. And I felt that at least at that point that being at a law firm would be great training for anything that would follow afterwards. Also quite frankly, I think most companies didn’t at that time and probably still don’t hire directly out of law school. So it was really the path that was opened to me to get the training, but it was absolutely very helpful in getting exposure and learning how to work with clients, what to prioritize, what issues could have an impact on them and how I could contribute to that.
Randy Milch: Do you still think that a stint of the law firm is a good training ground? Particularly one that puts some good effort in the training?
Ron Bell: I think there are many different paths you can take in the law. I do think it’s good training because it really emphasizes the rigorous analytics and the appreciation of how to provide quality legal services. I do think that an in-house stint teaches you a lot of other things such as the consequences of your legal decisions and how to see them within the framework rather of a larger business and business objectives. One of the things about being at a law firm is you tend to be on matters and get called in late in the game, at least if you’re a litigator, when there’s an actual problem. You deal with it until the problem is solved and then you move on. If you’re in-house, you really get exposure from the start to the finish as the consequences of your actions and the decisions and you get a chance also to see the issues that people wrestle with when they’re making those decisions and I think it makes you a more well rounded advocate.
Randy Milch: I think that those of us who have been on the inside tend to be pretty possessive of the experience and most of us count it as a highlight although we all know folks who have stayed in law firms and love it. So I think you’re right, there are many paths in the law and taking time to figure out what you want to do is important. But let’s take a step back for a second. I’m sure that younger folks come to you and ask you should they go to law school. What do you tell them now?
Ron Bell: I tell them that law can be a vehicle for many different types of professions. As I said, I had started off thinking I might actually go to the journalism route and legal training can be used for many things. But what I usually find is that they’re very anxious about where they’re going to go to law school and how that’s going to position them for the next step and so on and so forth. And what I tell them is that it’s important to look at law school as a waypoint, not a destination. Law is a process and not a thing. It’s a vehicle for learning how the law works and you have to appreciate that it’s not going to teach you how the world works. It’ll teach you how to understand legal doctrine. But then when you get out, you’re going to learn how the legal doctrines apply to real problems in the real world and how they evolve. The law is a constantly moving, constantly changing thing. It’s not a static process. So I tell them if you’re really interested in solving business problems or in solving or being a part of solving social problems, law’s a great vehicle for great training for that. If you just want to do something else and what the legal training, that also can be valuable. But what I tell them is enjoy the experience while you’re there and really think about how you can apply that to your life and outside when you get out how you can use that training to make a real difference in the world.
Randy Milch: Those are great suggestions. I think that the one remaining aspect of course is that there are folks who are lucky enough to go to elite law schools like you did and then there are many, many folks who are going to law school and spending a lot of money and then the real question comes up about how they’re going to pay that back given the legal market now. So there are lots of considerations to trying to figure out the career in the law and whether law school itself is the right approach. Do you get involved in these questions as the general counsel? There are a lot of polls on general counsel’s time to be involved in this stuff. Is this one of the areas that you have put any interest in?
Ron Bell: Not so much from the perspective of are there too many lawyers and is the profession glutted in one area or another. But I have to use my experiences as a general counsel and also having been in-house as well as at a law firm to help my law school – the University of Chicago, which has been putting together a technology law training program and trying to educate the next generation of lawyers who are coming up as to what some of the issues are that they’re going to face and how to think of them. And I try to provide practical perspective in that regard. I think it’s incumbent on us those of us who have had this experience. As you said, it’s a unique experience, in-house, and as part of emerging industries such as the internet to really share with the next generation what we’ve learned. So I try to give back in that way.
Randy Milch: I’m sure that they found it very, very helpful. So let’s turn to your career for a second. You were at Sonnenschein, you were a dutiful, hardworking and high billing associate I’m sure and then you get an opportunity to go to Apple. How did that come about and what was your thinking upon taking that job?
Ron Bell: I loved Sonnenschein, it was a great experience, but I was resident in our Chicago office. And I saw that so much was happening in California in Silicon Valley. I was a California native but not from the Silicon Valley area. I really wanted to get into more of the technology law practice and had been writing about it. I wound up writing a consumer litigation column for the ABA for a while, but I wasn’t a part of it. And I saw this industry growing and having an impact and I wanted to be a part of it. So I reached out. Originally, I was looking at some startups out here. That was with the .com boom, I thought that would probably be the route that I would end up taking. But I found myself with an interesting problem: I was a litigator, and most startups were not hiring litigators first off. I was an Illinois-licensed lawyer and most of them wanted a California-licensed lawyer. And I found myself kind of shut out of Silicon Valley to be perfectly honest. It was very, very hard to find a way to break in. At the time, I was literally sitting at my Macintosh computer thinking about how I might find a vehicle for participating in the tech industry and all of a sudden, all of those things I had been doing – the work I had down on the bulletin boards – came to me in this flash of insight. I had been programming it on the Apple platform. So I reached back to Apple to see if they would be interested in hiring me and needles to say, they would not. At that time, Apple was in a very different position than what it is today. The company was really teetering on the brink of collapse. This was pre Steve Jobs. When I finally did join through the release of the iMac and the first iBook. But Apple was really, really struggling. They weren’t hiring, they were shrinking. I reached out and said, “I’d really love to work for you guys,” and they said, “Well, we don’t really have a position here.” And I said, “Well, I’d be happy to come out and just talk with you. Would you be open to me having a conference with you?” And they said, “That’s fine, but we don’t have a position here.” So I came out and literally while I was there, Apple was going through a tough time so there was a fair amount of volatility. Someone gave notice and they said, “Look, this is a little unconventional but would you be willing to start in a week and a half? We’d move you out here, would you be willing to work with us?” And I said, “I would love to work for this company. I have so much belief in its product focus and its sense of mission. I would love to join.” And in a way, I ended up joining a company that wasn’t doing that well because in a way, no one else was interested in doing it at that time. But for me it was an opportunity to really help to contribute to an amazing company, help to be a part of its return and growth story and also make an entree into Silicon Valley and make a contribution there. So it worked out well for everybody.
Randy Milch: Well that just goes to show you, you can’t just make this stuff up. You happen to be in the office and someone gives notice and they offer you a job. It’s a great story. It’s also a real testament to taking the risk of flying out there on your own nickel just to have the conversation. So it’s a great lesson for folks who sometimes stick back in their offices and just wait for things to come to them to realize that taking the chance and taking the risk can pay off and it did so in states for you in that move. So you spend time at Apple. The first iBook, the first iMac, and then Yahoo. So you were at a company that was largely – at least in facing the external world – about selling products, selling pieces of hardware. And Yahoo was in a very different place. What was your thinking about making that switch to a fledgling internet company at the time?
Ron Bell: I loved my experience at Apple, it was an amazing place. I was working on hardware products and I was the lawyer behind what were then called the powerbooks and then doing a lot of hardware work. I saw hardware obviously was going to continue and it was going to continue to be a business and Apple was going to continue to invest in it. But the internet was growing and expanding so fast and it touched on so many things that I had been interested in. Communications, media, the intersection of technology and media, the social issues that come from that; and I wanted to be a part of that. After several years at Apple I decided I have experience now, I switched from commercial litigation over to licensing which was the opportunity at Apple. I learned a great deal and I feel I paid back their trust and their investment in me and have contributed a lot. And now it’s time for me to think about this other avenue. I had this real sense that this could be the beginning of something big and that I really wanted to participate in it. So I looked around at a number of companies. When I interviewed at Yahoo, this was a company at that time of about 1,100 employees. It was a very hot startup at the time, but one of many, many, what were then called – I guess are still called – portals. Excite, Yahoos, AOL, MSN. So it wasn’t clear if it was going to be the one that succeeded or not, but it was tremendously exciting coming here. Because when I came in and interviewed, there was so much excitement and so much passion about changing the world and trying new things and exploring new technologies and just this sense of this limitless possibility. And it was absolutely exciting. I was lucky enough that they were kind enough to make me an offer and I accepted pretty much on the spot.
Randy Milch: So give us a flavor, I understand the passion and the business excitement that was going on at Yahoo at the time given the burgeoning internet. But I want to give people a sense. Many people don’t remember clearly, this was about 2000, correct?
Ron Bell: 1999.
Randy Milch: 1999. The commercial internet was barely a glimmer. What were the legal issues that were surrounding the internet as it was back in the beginning of the decade?
Ron Bell: It was interesting to say that, Randy, about the commercial internet. It’s funny because it ties back to what you were saying about your career. When I graduated from law school, the company that I now work for and the industry in which I now work pretty much did not exist. Those things came about and grew quickly as part of that expansion that I was talking about. Sometimes you have those defining moments where technology is transformative, whether it’s electricity or it’s the transcontinental railroad or what have you. Yahoo found itself in 1999 in exactly that situation. The first glimmers of what now seems very natural to us are communications on mobile devices, for example. Or the ability to text someone wherever they might be or to find out news by just typing in a URL or just tapping a button. All of this was new, and with it came a whole set of issues as this network existed more or less since the 1970’s, the internet, suddenly found itself swarmed by users with companies getting on it, and suddenly found itself on a different scale. So basic concepts like do you have to get an agreement with someone before you can link to their website were completely unestablished. What liabilities might an internet company have for what someone posts on a message board were not yet settled. Napset was one of the new hot startups. The notion of music online, what that might mean was very nascent. But of course there were huge IP issues and huge licensing issues to work out. But what’s interesting looking back at it is many of the themes that persist even today, rights and intellectual property, the rights of individuals versus those of states, rights to privacy; those themes were nascent but they were there and they emerged as the technology emerged and the society got comfortable with it and developed both laws in a sense of how those services should be used and what was acceptable social practice. I was a very interesting time because many of the rules were unsettled but there was this sense that those rules and how the services conducted themselves and how users conducted themselves was going to be important to the future and in ways maybe that we wouldn’t even anticipate. So there was this sense of incredible possibility, but also a sense of real responsibility in wanting to think really hard about how do we offer these services in a responsible manner with appropriate privacy safeguards and so on and so forth.
Randy Milch: It must have been an exhilarating time. You were explaining what the legal issues were like and the nascent and very important legal issues back when you first joined Yahoo. Now you’re the general counsel of Yahoo. You’ve moved up and had a number of interesting positions and since 1012 you’ve been the general counsel. So now you’re one of the chief people who are helping to continue formulate responses to those items of privacy and security and behavior on the internet. Which to my mind, consume us more and more as legal issues and many of them are pure legal issues, if not entirely insignificant respect. I think a year ago, if we’ve been together we wouldn’t talked about net neutrality more than anything else, and of course it’s my favorite subject. But I think now censorship and privacy and cybersecurity probably eclipse net neutrality – at least in the public mind – as security incidents and privacy incidents and the rise of ISIS and all of those items seem to consume more and more of our public space. Do you think that those are important issues that deserve a lot more discussion?
Ron Bell: I don’t know if they could get more discussion because I think they are really some of the foremost issues of our time and I absolutely agree that they are important issues. There’s a real sense of responsibility that those of us who work in this industry feel for the fact that a lot of communication and now commerce and personal information is exchanged through our networks. We feel a very strong sense of responsibility to offer services that are as safe and secure as we can make them and that are operated thoughtfully and with as much respect for human rights and privacy as we could possibly build them.
Randy Milch: Let’s talk about this a little bit more deeply. I think that there are a couple of aspects about his censorship/privacy aspect. Let’s talk about nations first. You deal in multiple nations around the world and I think what comes from that – based on my experience at Verizon where we were in 159 countries – not every place is the United States. In fact, few places are relatively the United States when it comes to the government and the internet and the populace. How do you at Yahoo approach the differences and do you have a fundamental philosophy that you try to implement in every place you try to do business or does that get pushed around more than you’d like by the exigencies of dealing with governments?
Ron Bell: As you said, every government in every society more or less has a different view on many of the same issues. The view of privacy in Europe, for example, has very different assumptions built into it from the view here in the United States and certainly views from freedom of expression very widely in the world along with the legal frameworks. We give thought when we’re releasing products to where we’re going to put our people, where we’re going to put our servers, how can we put them in places and in jurisdictions where we feel like we have a reasonable control and reasonable security over the information so that hopefully with some preplanning, we can avoid having them be subjected to experiences that we don’t want such as governments coming in and seizing data. Our overall philosophy is that we want our services to be used as vehicles for communication and the free expression of ideas. And therefore, when we get requests from government, we certainly recognize national security is an incredibly important topic. And we do respond, obviously, the laws that we’re required to respond to. But we construe everything that comes in very narrowly and carefully because it’s also important for us as the last mile for us between our users and their data to exercise that privilege, frankly, that they’ve entrusted with us responsibly. So my view, Randy, is we have a responsibility for making sure that governments don’t abuse their authority in a manner that sacrifices user privacy or compromises the integrity of what we do. So we start with the philosophy that we try to educate governments about what we do, try to make them conscious of the issues between state privacy and national security. We do our best to make sure that those issues within our company are widely understood by the people who build our products and by the people who operate them so we can achieve a degree of consistency in how we respond to requests. And part of that also is being very transparent about the requests that we get. Obviously there are legal limitations sometimes on those things, but we and many internet companies publish transparency reports that really try to cast a light at least on the volume and the types of requests that we’re receiving because we think that acts as a catalyst for governments in some ways to self-regulate. Obviously, they’re going to ask for information and make requests in places where they really think there’s a national security interest, but we don’t want to encourage fishing expeditions. We want to make sure that that power is exercised responsibly in a limited fashion.
Randy Milch: And I recall we put out Verizon’s transparency report for the first time several years ago and I know you put one out and many others too now. Do you feel as though it’s had a positive effect on governments by actually just listing the number of requests you’ve gotten across – consistent with their laws of course, and some are a little more draconian than others – but it’s had a positive effect?
Ron Bell: I think it’s had several positive effects. The first is I think that I’ve definitely seen in real cases governments thinking carefully about the types of requests that they make knowing that those will be reporting out. Not necessarily in intimate details about the requests, but the fact that they are accountable in some way for the types of requests that they’re making. The second thing that’s done has really raised the consciousness of internet users about who is making the requests and at least to some basic level the justifications for why those requests are being made which has in a post mortem world has really led to a dialogue I think is very healthy about what should this relationship be and what sorts of requests and legal framework should we have around those requests to protect civil liberty. And the third thing I would say is it’s been very beneficial for employees, because one of the ways you protect human rights I believe is that you educate your workforces to the importance and the significance of the issues, what’s being done and what you’re doing about it and what your philosophy is. And so having an employee basis that understands that these issues are important to the company, that there are people who work on them pretty much day and night and that our overall philosophy in taking user’s first approach is really beneficial, I think, in encouraging products that are privacy protective and processes and practices frankly that are the same way. We try really, really hard within our company to make sure that people understand that business in human rights are a fundamental part of what we do. I even report out to our board quarterly on our human rights efforts. And it’s so much a part of what we do now that it just sort of naturally infuses the conduct of the company. I think that when you do that and you raise it to that level of consciousness, it becomes part of the culture. And then it, in a way, lawyers can’t be everywhere and certainly can’t know everything. But if people internalize the values, then you have much better and a more consistent rate of success.
Randy Milch: Let’s turn the question just a little bit to what I regard as somewhat of a new phenomenon and that is there are some internet companies that are expanding their view about what is impermissible use of their service and I think the most recent one of these was Twitter’s recent announcement of expanding their view on this. And directly linked to the use of social media by folks like ISIS which obviously is a very serious issue. But I think it’s a little bit of a watershed an I wonder if you agree to have more companies actively making judgements here about what they’re going to take off their platforms.
Ron Bell: It’s interesting. I won’t comment on Twitter specifically obviously, but I think every company has terms of service and have had those for years and we’ve long policed our networks for things like spam and threats and child pornography and so on and so forth. As entities such as ISIS has gained a foothold and have been using networks to recruit and promulgate the government’s certainly become very concerned about that. And I think to some extent companies have been concerned about how their networks are being used. That said, I really think you need to operate your network in as content neutral a manner as possible. It’s one thing that they’re actually making threats or clearly attempting to organize or engage in unlawful activity. It’s quite another thing to create filters for particular types of viewpoints for perspective. Companies have their terms of service, but their terms of service are not the law. They’re just a code of conduct and a contract with their users. I think that while we do need to be thoughtful about what’s happening on our networks and make sure that we’re being consistent in how we apply the rules and not turn a blind eye or put our head in the sand to what might be happening. I also think that we need to be cognitive in the fact that there is enormous risk if multiple companies are removing content without a degree of transparency as to what they do or why they do it. We shouldn’t be taking liberties with people’s freedom of expression. Obviously we’re not government, so in the United States we’re not necessarily regulated by the 1st amendment. But we exist as vehicles for people to communicate. So the bias, if you will, should be towards transparency about what we do and why we do it and towards also more speech and more communication to the extent that speech is objectionable. So I feel very strongly that if anything, we should be very careful about how we apply our terms of service to make sure that we’re not squelching those things. At the same time, obviously no one wants someone organizing an attack on their network. So there’s a balance always to be struck between being appropriately protective of the public and security and at the same time recognizing that what’s one person’s opposition is another person’s political perspective. And at least in the United States, we very much try to recognize as many political perspectives as possible.
Randy Milch: I think it’s a difficult problem. I believe that you’re absolutely right in the way you view your terms of service. And I think the examples you pointed out that have been folks who have been operating the internet for years have been worrying about spam and child porn. They’re pretty safe definitions of those to take action on. Obviously, gradations of support – to the extent there is – for something as reprehensible as ISIS is a much more subjective set of criteria to judge the continued existence on your platform. So I agree with you that it’s a delicate balance and it’s going to be interesting to watch over the next few years which direction this goes. Because I think there’s going to continue to be governmental pressure, which in many countries unlike ours, has a much more direct effect to deal with things like ISIS and deal with it probably overly broadly on a social media basis.
Ron Bell: Governments certainly have an incentive. Governments are placed in a really difficult position because so much communication’s going on now on the internet between individuals. It happens very quickly, it’s very difficult in some cases for them to track it and see it and it has a responsibility to protect the public and so national security is certainly an important issue. I don’t want to diminish that in any way. At the same time, the intensity upon government might be in the natural course to be too broad, to be better safe than sorry. And I think there needs to be a countervailing measure that says absolutely, let’s be safe, but let’s not be sorry. Let’s not squelch civil liberties in the course of attempting to find the very small percentage of people who are carrying out these actions. Let’s make sure that we’re being thoughtful and responsible for about vast majority of people who are going about their business using these services for commerce, for communication, for things no one finds objectionable.
Randy Milch: Well it’s a fascinating set of problems, Ron, and I’m happy that you’re at the helm there at Yahoo to help guide the resolution of these issues. I want to thank you for spending time with me today on In-House Legal; it’s been a really enjoyable half hour.
Ron Bell: Thanks so much for having me, Randy, it’s been a pleasure.
Randy Milch: And I want to thank all of you who’ve listened today to our podcast. For any of you who would like more information on what you’ve heard today, please visit www.LegalTalkNetwork.com, or you can also follow us on iTunes, RSS, Twitter, and Facebook. That brings us to the end of our show. I’m Randy Milch and thank you for listening. Join us again for another great episode of In-House Legal.
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