By Jaime Petenko, Research Fellow, Institute for Technology Law & Policy at Georgetown Law
This weekend, Drew Simshaw, who until this month served as a clinical teaching fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation, will receive Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. (TDI)'s biannual H. Latham Breunig Humanitarian Award for his work on behalf of people who are deaf and hard of hearing. TDI is a national advocacy organization that promotes equal access in telecommunications and media for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, late deafened, and deafblind.
We spoke with Drew about his work in Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation Tech and Communications Clinic. Responses below have been edited for clarity and length.
You have been a fellow for the past two years at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation. What types of cases does the Institute handle and how are students involved at the Institute?
IPR has sections specializing in civil rights, environmental law, and communications and technology law. In the communications and technology section, we are involved mostly at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), participating in rulemakings and adjudications. We are also involved in litigation of agency actions, either supporting the FCC for rules that it adopts or suing the FCC if its action is harmful to consumers.
We take six to eight students per semester who work full-time at the clinic. We really operate as a small law firm. The students operate as the junior associates, the fellows are more like the senior associates and the directors are like the partners. The students get a lot of great hands-on experience and get to take actual cases. For example, we have had students assist with briefs supporting efforts to cap prison phone rates and advocating for media ownership rules that promote opportunities for women and people of color.
You’ve received this award for your work with TDI—Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Can you describe your work with them?
TDI is a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved access to telecommunications, media, and information technology for Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing. TDI works with a coalition of consumer groups concerned with disability access to ensure that all individuals can be part of the telecommunications revolution and can have access to new technologies and communications. Our clinic represents TDI at the FCC on issues such as TV captioning, IP-captioning, advanced communications services, user interfaces that are covered under the Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, and the adoption and deployment of Real-Time Text Technology.
Often times, TDI is the only group to provide comments for waiver of the FCC's accessibility rules that have been put out for public comment by the FCC. We will draft the comments on behalf of TDI and circulate the comments to a larger contingent of consumer groups concerned with disability access, many of whom will sign onto the comments. Our work reviewing and commenting on these petitions is one example of the broad coalition at work.
You mentioned a number of issues that you focus on for TDI. Is there one issue in particular to which you devoted a considerable amount of time?
The biggest issue I worked on over my two years was the FCC’s transition from TTY to Real-Time Text Technology. TTY machines are basically old, very bulky machines that allow people to communicate over landlines by typing. People who are deaf and hard of hearing could communicate with loved ones or businesses that also had a TTY machine in a way that resembled, but was not nearly as effective as, text messaging today. Industry petitioned the FCC to replace the requirements that their networks accommodate TTY with requirements for Real-Time Text Technology. Real-Time Text Technology is basically a feature on your phone where you can type and read messages in real time, so the text shows up on the recipient’s device as it is being typed.
Our role helping to facilitate communication between consumer advocacy groups, industry, the FCC, and academics was critical during this time. The transition was also occurring right around the change in Presidential administrations. The Order that officially initiated the transition from TTY to Real-Time Text Technology was the only item to be unanimously approved by the full Commission at the FCC at a meeting during the transition, when it was really hard to push any measures through. It was really great this Order passed; it is going to do a lot of good. It could have been bogged down for years.
Why is this transition from TTY to Real-Time Text Technology so important?
Real-Time Text Technology has a lot of benefits. It is more conversation-like: people can interrupt each other and the back and forth has a flow, as opposed to traditional text messaging where you are sending everything as a block of text. It is also really important in emergency communications, when every second counts, and since the person on the other end won’t need to have purchased a TTY machine. The technology will be on the phone and hopefully automatically be enabled. Also, this feature won’t just be for consumers who are deaf and hard of hearing. This feature will be available on all phones.
Has working on disability access issues influenced how you think about technology?
For a lot of people, technology is a convenience or a form of entertainment. And certainly a lot of our work in Georgetown’s clinic is to ensure that people who are deaf and hard of hearing have the same access to that convenience and those forms of entertainment. But in a lot of cases, technology represents so much more. It represents a lifeline in emergency communications. It represents the ability to conduct everyday communications that a lot of people take for granted. Looking at these issues through the lens of disability access, does change the way you look at technology, the way you look at regulation and the way you look at how we govern. So it is great to help bring to light the needs of all consumers, who might not otherwise have such an active voice at the FCC.
Tell us about your background and how you became interested in technology and the law.
One of the things that took me to law school was seeing how technology could empower people if used effectively and with proper policy. I had done two terms of AmeriCorps service, working with at-risk youth at the local government level. Working with youth, I could see how they were using technology to connect with each other and to connect with resources and opportunities. Seeing the local government and city being able to reach out and offer services and to connect to people was very empowering. Much of this, of course, depends on all people having access to technology. After AmeriCorps, I wanted to go to law school in order to have a role in this process and to be able to shape policy that could enable empowerment.
In law school at Indiana University, I was on the Federal Communications Law Journal where I developed an interest in emerging technologies and communications law. After law school I was involved in interdisciplinary cybersecurity and privacy work at Indiana University, looking at emerging technologies -- both the good that could come from them with effective policy, but also harms that could result if technology was used in a harmful way. From there, I came to Georgetown Law and got to be in Washington D.C., at the heart of where the policy is developed, and had the opportunity to work with the law school's tremendous faculty and talented students.
What are your thoughts on receiving TDI’s H. Latham Breunig Humanitarian Award?
The TDI Board selects the recipients for these awards every two years. It was incredibly humbling to go back and look at the past recipients of their awards; they are people who have done just amazing things throughout their career. It’s really a great honor. I am also very happy because the award is a testament to the work of our students and the commitment of the clinic and of Georgetown to public interest work. I had some great fellows before me who laid the groundwork and established this great relationship with TDI and its partners. Most of all, I think it is a great recognition of how the consumer groups and academics have worked together to a degree that I have not seen elsewhere through my career. It is great to recognize all that we have achieved and all that we still have to do.