Travis LeBlanc '99 has advised President Obama’s administration as a Department of Justice attorney, and currently serves as Chief of the Bureau of Enforcement at the Federal Communications Commission. He sat down with The Daily Princetonian before his Wednesday lecture to discuss his education, prevention of crimes, and regulation in the Digital Age.
The Daily Princetonian: You crafted an independent concentration of philosophy, politics, and economics at the University. How have your studies here influenced your career?
Travis LeBlanc '99: I wanted to create an independent concentration in philosophy, politics, and economics because I thought those three disciplines were the basis for how to analyze a public policy issue. The three questions that you almost have to ask for any public policy are "What should we do?", which is the philosophical question; "Do we have the authority to do it – what's our power?", that's the politics question; and "How much does it cost?", that's the economics question. For me, the independent concentration was very much intertwined with a career… I knew I wanted to be both a lawyer and someone working on public policy issues… It wasn't necessarily a desire to prepare for a career exclusively in government, but it was definitely a desire to have a role in public policy and in public discourse.
DP: What inspired that desire to affect public policy and public discourse?
TL: I would probably say that there is a part of me that is inherently empathetic, and wants to help. I feel blessed, truly, to have had the education, the familial support, and the ability to get where I am today — even then, to get where I was then. There was a part of me that wanted to give back, and wanted to leave my community a better place than I found it.
DP: How has your extensive academic background, with an A.B. from Princeton, an M.P.A. from Harvard, a J.D. from Yale, and an LL.M. from Cambridge, affected your decision-making in your current position?
TL: Everything that I've done really does play a role in my job today. I'm in government service, running the largest bureau at the FCC. In addition to headquarters, we have 24 field offices around the country. As the manager of a public organization, I'm able to take advantage of my graduate studies in public policy. …As a lawyer, I'm inherently involved in legal proceedings, when doing enforcement, and so my legal education helps. Because we are a federal government agency, we have counterparts that are around the world. My training in international law helps me there as I'm working with colleagues across the world, particularly on the kinds of technology issues we work on, which are very largely borderless. Email doesn't really know borders. You just put in the address you want to send it to and it goes. So having that background in international law has helped there. And then a foundational background in philosophy, politics and economics — and really what I learned at Princeton not only in the classroom, but outside the classroom. I was very active in various organizations around campus, including on the service side as well, and I think that has set a framework for me to continue that I took with me throughout my education all the way to where I am. But I don't want to say that my education solely prepared me for this. You can't really prepare. You can't expect these kinds of jobs, and you can't prepare for these kinds of jobs. There's definitely a lot of on-the-job learning, and there's also a lot of learning that you do in working in other organizations. You learn how to work with people. You learn how your agency or organization operates. Those are skills that you can't necessarily learn in a classroom, but that you learn by doing. While it's certainly great to have a strong academic background, it's also equally important to have a strong experiential background as well.
DP: You have said that you differ from your predecessors in emphasizing not only enforcement, but also prevention. How has this focus emerged in the programs you have overseen?
DP: How should society approach regulation in an age when technology is evolving so fast?
TL: The technology that we all have available to us today is iterating so quickly that it is difficult for regulators to keep up with the pace. … The first iPhone came out in 2007, so nine years ago now … In the state of California … there was not one law in 2013 or so that referred to the Cloud in a non-atmospheric sense. It didn't exist. Yet imagine how many of us rely upon the Cloud for everything. … The way our regulatory system was designed was to some degree … to ensure that creating a law was a fairly cumbersome process, and that once you got to the end of it, that law would have a shelf life of years … After the president signs it, many times, particularly if it's around technology, there's some time period before it goes into effect – six months, a year. Maybe there's not much of a time period and it goes over to a regulatory agency, which then has to promulgate regulations. It starts a process of putting out a proposal, and then it gets comments back, then it has to finalize a proposal, then it has to publish it, then it has some time period to go into effect. And not only until it goes into effect can anyone really do enforcement. If you go on day two once it's gone into effect, you're really not being fair, so you have to give some amount of time for the world to get together. Then you finally investigate a case and then you bring the enforcement action, and then there are appeals. … That process from the idea of a legislature until finally getting conclusion in the Supreme Court is probably four, five years. Imagine how quickly the technology world has changed in those four, five years. … I analogize it to … the government taking enforcement actions against MySpace.… We have to avoid the temptation of being overly prescriptive. It's probably better to focus on principles and standards so that we don't have a regulatory regime that is designed about regulating a particular technology. What we've seen now is that with convergence in industries, with the disruption that we've seen in the tech sector, a phone company may also be a cable company … an Internet service provider … a provide-your-home-security system … a data analytics company … a search engine … It has so many different facets to it that it's hard to just regulate one industry because many of them are now getting connected together.