Phoenix Center: Objective Policy Research for the Digital Age

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Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Lawrence (Larry) Spiwak, president of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies (PC) and Neil Chilson, head of AI policy at the Abundance Institute and formerly a senior research fellow at Stand Together, a large philanthropic community, where he identified and vetted potential grantees in the technology and innovation space.

We spoke with both to discuss the impact of PC’s policy research throughout the world. By focusing on rigorous, timely and effective legal and economic research, Spiwak and Chilson discuss PC’s principled advocacy in shaping public policy for the digital age and the critical role donor privacy plays in their mission.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Larry, let’s start with some background info on the Phoenix Center. What do you do and where does the motivation come from?

Spiwak: The Phoenix Center is a nonprofit research organization that studies the law and economics of the digital age. We started the organization over 25 years ago when our Chief Economist Dr. George S. Ford and I were both young staffers at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). We saw the need for a think tank that could take a deep dive into the complex issues at stake and produce rigorous, timely and dispassionate legal and economic academic work that was relevant to the debate. No one had really done this before, and we are among the very few who are doing it now.

The Phoenix Center produces three types of papers of different lengths: Policy Papers, Policy Bulletins and Policy Perspectives. The Phoenix Center is unique in the policy space in that our research is often published in refereed academic journals. We also write op-eds and essays for major news and academic outlets such as The Hill, the Yale Journal on Regulation and the Federalist Society Blog.

Moreover, we have been privileged to be invited to testify in front of Congress and state legislatures, and we also frequently provide background briefings to members of the press or lawmakers about particular policy questions. Finally, the Phoenix Center often files amicus briefs before assorted courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions) when we believe our research would be helpful to the resolution of the case at bar.

All our academic work is available free on our website and the Social Science Research Network where both George and I are among the top one percent of authors downloaded each year. 

Q: What types of policies does the PC primarily focus on with its work and what type of impact have you witnessed your work have?

Spiwak: While our roots are in the tech and telecom sector, we have become very involved in both the antitrust reform debate and free speech debate because these topics are now intertwined. For the last 10 years or so, we have also developed a research agenda to protect intellectual property around the globe. We have also conducted legal and economic research on topics such as calculating the “cost per regulator,” the economic costs of raising the minimum wage, root causes of inflation, energy price surges and even railroad regulation. We are frequently cited by, among others, the FCC, the courts, members of Congress and in academic literature, and we very much appreciate that folks find our research helpful. The U.S. government, along with the governments of Brazil and Portugal, have also retained us for discrete research projects.

Q: What differentiates the Phoenix Center from other organizations like it and how do people get involved?

Spiwak: We’re academics at heart, so our research agenda is our own simply because we focus on the issue areas that interest us. For the very generous folks who financially support us, we are very clear about what we do and the issues we focus on. To that point, we are strong proponents of having an open and continuous dialogue with our patrons so that they know exactly what research their donations support.

But there is more to this dialogue: we view our patrons as our intellectual partners and not just people we try to connect with once a year to renew our grant. We do not have all the answers and very often our patrons have experience and ideas that present a fresh perspective. 

Finally, in these tight financial times, we like to think that we provide our patrons with a lot of value for their donations.  It is very gratifying when our patrons tell us that they are amazed by our output and that they are unaware of any other organization who produces the amount and sophistication of work that we publish every year.

Q: Recently we have seen increasing attacks on the right of charitable donors to give anonymously, even after two Supreme Court cases supported anonymity. Would potential attacks on donor privacy hurt your organization? Do you see this potentially hindering your donors from continuing to support your work if their personal information is disclosed to the public?

Spiwak: It most certainly concerns us. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, forcing organizations to disclose their donors is both pernicious and unconstitutional. I suggest that everybody read the Court’s original 1958 NAACP v. Alabama opinion as well as the relatively recent Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta opinion in 2021. In both cases, the Court explains—just from a public policy standpoint alone—why it is important to give charitable donors the option to remain anonymous, not to mention the fact explicitly holding that donor privacy is protected under the First Amendment of our Constitution.

Any efforts to disclose donor information is a direct attack and threat to our personal liberties. If any mandatory donor disclosure legislation gets passed into law, then it will absolutely hinder charitable donations across the country. I would argue it would hinder donations not just from those who are less insulated, but any donor for that matter. We’ve heard stories of donors getting doxed and having fake reviews posted online to kill their businesses. 

More disturbing, we have heard stories about donor harassment and outright threats of physical violence. Such behavior has no place in our society, and forcing donor disclosure will simply exacerbate the problem. It’s remarkable the number of people on both sides of the aisle who simply do not understand the likely repercussions of enacting this kind of bad legislation, and it falls on us to educate them.

Finally, issues of donor privacy present a unique wrinkle for the Phoenix Center. As I noted a moment ago, the Phoenix Center is in the business of producing detailed legal and economic analysis to answer very complicated public policy questions. This is not a simple task: it requires a significant amount of time, effort and expertise. But in public policy debates passions run high, particularly when billions of dollars are at stake. Thus, when the battle is pitched, we often find that people who disagree with us don’t attack the merits of our work but instead immediately go for the ad hominem argument and try to impugn our independent work, which, as mentioned, very often gets published in peer-reviewed journals, by attacking our donors.

In other words, rather than determining whether our work is right or wrong, people who disagree with us find it easier to cast aspersions by claiming that “so and so funded” our research. Quite frankly, these ad hominem attacks represent the height of intellectual laziness. While this type of attack is nothing new in our field and we are used to it by now, efforts to mandate donor disclosure requirements are just another disturbing trend in the “Death of Expertise” that harms our political discourse. We are—and will continue to be—vocal critics of such unlawful demands.

Q: Neil, as an advisor to an institutional donor to the Phoenix Center, can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you support this organization?

Chilson: My core job for the past 15 years has been technology policy. I am a lawyer, computer scientist and an author. I was also an attorney advisor to acting Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen and worked on every major technology-related case, report, workshop or other FTC proceeding. I also served as the FTC’s chief technologist during Chairman Olhausen’s tenure. I work in technology policy because I believe that market-tested innovation is the primary source of widespread human prosperity—but it doesn’t just happen.

It requires a culture that embraces rather than fears innovation and a regulatory environment that enables it. I became familiar with the Phoenix Center’s principled, thoughtful and targeted advocacy while in private legal practice more than a decade ago. All of this to say, when we were looking for partners working on technology policy, it was clear to us that the Phoenix Center has a track record of delivering timely, principled and pointed advocacy effective in shaping public policy. And we appreciated that, along with their support of donor privacy.

Q: What role has donor privacy played in your ability to support the Phoenix Center’s great work?

Chilson: My former organization and its donor partners care a great deal about donor intent, including any desire for privacy. The Phoenix Center is much more protective of donor privacy than many other organizations with similar topical focuses. And while that was not a deciding factor (for) our organizational relationship, other donors can trust that the Phoenix Center cares deeply about preserving donor privacy.

Q: Why do you believe protecting the freedom to give, the freedom of all Americans to support the charities and nonprofits they choose, and the right to do so anonymously, is vital to the American charitable sector?

Chilson: The freedom to give is important for at least two reasons. First, the right to support causes and advocate anonymously is a fundamental part of our First Amendment rights. Secondly, anonymous speech is increasingly important in a world of increasingly abundant data. In a world of many voices, lazy critics and motivated reasoners too often reach for ad hominem critiques. But ideas are best advanced and combated on their merits, not through attacks on those who support those ideas. 

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