Talking Technology Policy with Sarah Oh '00

My career has been less than straightforward as a lawyer and economist. I do practice law in the sense that I file comments at the FCC and have filed an amicus brief at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. But my work is primarily in economic research and communicating economic ideas. My output varies according to what is needed. I’m actually doing a lot more software development and computer programming in the last few years as an economist in my current job. We use many tools such as BigQuery, Python, R, JavaScript, React, machine learning, and lambdas to collect and analyze data relevant to our research questions.

Is there anything from your high school experience that you are still using today?

Yes, I’m still in group projects and research assignments, all the time. In the Magnet program, we had many opportunities to formulate our own research questions or answer research questions with novel engineering designs. It’s very much the same process of figuring out along the way how much you know, who you need to talk to, what is feasible in a particular project, and working together with team members.

What are your best memories of Blair? Are there particular classes or activities that had a big influence on you?

The Magnet program is a special environment with other students who are motivated and intellectually curious. I remember the robotics project, the Mars lander project, the physics projects, the patent invention project, the earth weather monitoring project, the pipetting and DNA gels. I remember when the Google search engine was first online, our computer science teacher shared the news with us about this new thing called ‘google.’ I also remember one project where we did a decision analysis exercise, which later influenced my decision to study Management Science in college. I thought our education was very comprehensive, especially AP Literature. I’m very thankful to have attended the Magnet program as my high school experience.

Do you use more of your legal training or your economics experience in your job today?

I finished law school in 2009 after the financial crisis and due to a hiring freeze by the federal government, I ended up staying at the law school to do research with a professor who happened to be a Ph.D. economist. My writing and research started to be more focused on empirical analysis and I decided to enter the Ph.D. program in economics to gain more quantitative tools and learn the economic literature. I’m interested in economic growth and innovation, and how policy can promote higher rates of economic expansion. My dissertation chair was Tyler Cowen who has a popular blog (Marginal Revolution). One of his main ideas is that economic growth ought to be one of our top policy priorities. With higher growth rates, other policy goals are much easier to attain. There are big puzzles on why productivity growth has stalled or stagnated, and my research agenda is generally motivated by that core question.

My work involves a mix of many forms of communication and advocacy. Each year, I work on 2 or 3 empirical economics research papers, a few opinion pieces, a few blog posts, and administrative filings at the Federal Communications Commission or amicus briefs at the federal appellate courts. My colleagues and I visit Congressional offices to discuss policy issues with committee staffers. We organize a large conference each year in Aspen, Colorado and I am involved in organizing panels and inviting speakers. We also have two podcasts where we invite experts to discuss policy issues.

My work has changed over time. As a junior economist, I focused on my research, writing, and publications. I’ve been working on growing in my career by deepening my experience in recruiting new economists from the Ph.D. job market, managing projects, and developing relationships with more policymakers in D.C. and other institutions.

You recently reviewed a trove of documents that were submitted to Congress for a hearing on antitrust and big tech companies. Why did you review these documents? What did you find?

The Congressional hearings on antitrust and big tech attracted a lot of attention in summer of 2020 due to the high profile nature of the issues and the witnesses. The House Subcommittee had spent months collecting documents and investigating facts about anticompetitive behavior by several big tech companies. At TPI, we were already following the news and asked ourselves how we could contribute meaningfully to the conversation. The House Subcommittee posted some, but not all, of the internal corporate documents they had collected. I started reading the documents and we had one of our college interns also read them. After reviewing what the subcommittee had released, I started a paper that analyzed possible theories of antitrust harm by Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon as evidenced in the documents (Is There Evidence of Antitrust Harm in the House Judiciary Committee’s Hot Docs?). These matters will be in litigation for many years through antitrust lawsuits filed by the FTC, DOJ, and state attorneys general. My paper was only an overview of what could be coming, but there will be hundreds of lawyers involved in really digging into the facts and document review in the months to come. I did not find evidence of antitrust harm by the big tech companies in the “hot docs” which colloquially describe business language such as emails and internal communications. Just because an executive uses language that appears to reveal anticompetitive motives, does not prove the many elements required in proving antitrust harm. Market definition, modeling of price elasticities, cost models, and industry analysis are just some of the pieces of evidence that will still need to be established to find antitrust injury in digital markets.

Tell me about the podcasts you're involved with. When did you start doing podcasts? Had you ever done something like that before? What have you enjoyed about doing these podcasts?

Podcasts are great! At TPI, we produce one podcast where we invite experts to discuss policy matters, and another podcast for more general discussion of tech news. Please “like and subscribe!” to Two Think Minimum on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Soundcloud, and other podcast platforms. A few years ago, I suggested the idea to my boss, (who happens to have a daughter currently in the Magnet program!), and he let me buy a nice microphone and other equipment to record conversations. In the pandemic environment, we have been recording our podcasts over Zoom, and have had the opportunity to speak with many interesting experts around the world through virtual video chats.

You have both a law degree and a Ph.D. in economics. How did you end up pursuing a Ph.D. after graduating from law school?

What issues have you worked on? Has that changed over time? What are you focused on now?

I am a Senior Fellow at TPI, where I work on research on broadband policy, antitrust policy, spectrum policy, and other regulatory matters such as intellectual property, content moderation, and blockchain policy. I’m a Ph.D. economist and lawyer and I work with my colleagues within TPI and in academic institutions who are also Ph.D. economists and lawyers. My role is unique because I also engage in software development and cloud computing. We are building a full stack web application and have research projects that involve terabytes of data that require econometric and machine learning tools in the cloud.

The Technology Policy Institute is a research and educational institution based in Washington, D.C. Our research focuses on the economics of innovation, technological change, and related regulation in the United States and around the world. We seek to advance knowledge and inform policymakers by producing independent, rigorous research and by sponsoring educational programs and conferences on major issues affecting information technology and communications policy.

Dr. Sarah Oh, Class of 2000, received a J.D. and Ph.D. (economics) from George Mason University. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. Ted Jou '99 recently asked her a few questions about her career and her work.

Tell me about where you are working. What is the Technology Policy Institute? What is your role?