Policy briefs are succinct documents meant to articulate problems and convey policy options and recommendations for decision-makers. Your task in this assignment is to identify and articulate some problem with digital technology that Black Mirror raises, offer several policy alternatives, and make a recommendation. Your policy brief should be structured as follows:
- Section 1: Executive Summary. ~150-200 words. A one paragraph summary of the document. You should write this last. High points only. Paragraphs in the document should turn into a sentence in the Executive Summary.
- Section 2: Scope of the Problem. ~300-500 words. What is the current situation, and why is it a problem? First, in defining the current situation, you may want to survey the legal/policy field for current law regarding your issue as well as public attitudes about the issue. If this issue is really a problem, why has nothing been done about it? Second, you need to explain the consequences if nothing is done. What harm will occur if the current situation is allowed to continue? You should identify harms primarily in our own timeline, but you can (and should) also draw on Black Mirror’s timeline to show the extremes of a given technology.
- Section 3: Policy Alternatives. ~400-600 words. Identify 3 policy options that could be taken to address the problem you have identified. Typically, these escalate in scope: the first policy option is a modest reform, the third policy option is a radical overhaul, and the second policy option is somewhere in the middle. The range of options will likely be dictated by your topic—your policy options might be similar, with only small differences, or they may be very different. You need to be pretty detailed in your explanation of these policies—“We should make a law banning trolling” is too vague and unenforceable. You don’t want to write the legislation, but you want to be clear in terms of the key elements of different policies.
- Section 4: Policy Recommendation. ~500-700 words. Given the scope of the problem, and the options available, what is your policy recommendation? This section needs to be a pretty intense discussion of costs and benefits. What are the costs of inaction? What are the costs (not just financial) of enacting one of these policy alternatives? What will be the benefits? Be realistic in this assessment, recognizing that no policy is going to solve 100% of a problem. You need to clearly endorse one policy option over the others.
Suggestions for Success
- Try to put yourself in the shoes of a Congressional staffer, tasked with surveying the policy field on a specific issue. You are writing this brief so that your Congressperson can read it on their phone on their commute home in advance of a hearing on the issue.
- In choosing a topic, consider the issues that Black Mirror raises about our own society: what should media companies be allowed to show? (The National Anthem); should social media companies be broken up or regulated somehow? (Smithereens); what kind of laws should govern drone use? (Hated in the Nation); how might trolling be addressed? (Shut Up and Dance); what limits should be put on augmented reality technology? (Men Against Fire, Entire History of You) and so on.
- Research is the key to success here! You need to have a good understanding of the problem and possible solutions to it before making a policy recommendation. Hint: Law review articles, accessible through UMD Library databases, are often great places to find a survey of current laws and proposals of new laws.
- You can use Black Mirror as an “extreme” example of a technology run amuck, but be sure to underline how similar technologies exist right now and are causing problems. Look to (and reference) news accounts of controversies around particular technologies.
- Don’t limit your imaginations when it comes to proposing policy alternatives. Don’t be afraid of “feasibility” questions—about whether or not a certain policy could ever win popular support or pass Congress. But also don’t just propose “install a socialist utopia in which these problems could never happen”! So, be realistically imaginative!