Lawyer Limelight: Shawn Gunnarson

Internet governance is back in the news these days, as the U.S. Commerce Department takes steps to relinquish its largely symbolic role in managing the infrastructure of the World Wide Web. Wait. You hadn't heard? We're not surprised. Unless you're a longterm, hardcore geek, you're probably unaware of the past 20 years of raucous debate over just how the Internet is supposed to work and how it should work in the future. There are not many attorneys who have been around for the whole ride. R. Shawn Gunnarson of Kirton McConkie in Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of those people.

Lawdragon: You majored in philosophy and political science as an undergrad at Brigham Young and went on to BYU Law School, graduating in 1994 – really just before the Internet took off commercially. How and when did you come to focus on the Internet and technology in your practice of law?

Shawn Gunnarson: Internet governance and policy became a focus of my career during my years on Capitol Hill, thanks to my work for former Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah). He assigned me to cover the Commerce Committee. Before long, issues before the committee introduced me to ICANN and Internet governance — which have engaged me ever since. [ICANN is the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which coordinates the Internet's domain name system, or DNS.]

LD: You’ve done a significant amount of work advising private sector clients and government on trademark and domain issues, and are an expert on the workings of ICANN, an organization that could be fairly termed as perpetually under siege. How do you think ICANN is doing and what do you think is in the future for Internet governance?

SG: ICANN is in another historic transition. The U.S. government’s announcement that it intends to transition management of the domain name system to an international multi-stakeholder organization is a genuine watershed in the history of the Internet. It will be fascinating to see whether ICANN can attract a broad international consensus behind its effort to obtain unsupervised management control of the DNS.

LD: What involvement have you had with privacy issues? Are there ways in which privacy rights need to be redefined in the Internet era?

SG: Privacy is a great question; it is certainly a widely-shared concern, for people and organizations alike. In my view, trade-offs are unavoidable. Better information helps organizations meet their institutional needs more effectively, but people want to preserve security and anonymity while using the Internet. Any serious effort to redefine privacy for the Internet age has to take into account such difficult and complex trade-offs.

LD: What areas of Internet law are clients most interested in, and where do they need the most education and help?

SG: Clients differ widely, of course, but I have found that working with ICANN presents unique challenges for which clients particularly value experienced counsel. The advent of more than 1000 new gTLDs is presenting difficult issues for a wide range of organizations — issues that are just starting to get worked through. [gTLDs are generic top-level domains with three or more characters, such as .com or .info, among many others.]

LD: Salt Lake City, Utah, is perhaps not where most people would expect to find a lawyer with your level of experience with Internet and technology issues. Does your location matter in any way, as a positive or negative?

SG: One of its chief advantages is that the Internet frees people to work effectively where it suits them best. Salt Lake City is a genuinely lovely city I am proud to call home.  I have not found that clients — here in the U.S. or overseas — have the slightest concern about my location. If anything, I get some interesting questions about skiing and hiking in Red Rock Country, the Shakespeare Festival, and other points of interest that make Utah a world-class location.

LD: Do you spend a lot of time online? What do you like about the Internet from a non-professional standpoint?

SG: Like most professionals, I spend a great deal of time online, which improves my productivity.  From a non-professional standpoint, the Internet is a global bazaar the likes of which no one would have dreamed of a generation ago. News and information, shopping, keeping in touch with old friends — all of it is available to an extent that would be unbelievable to a Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 1985 and woke up today. The Internet has changed our personal lives quite as dramatically as it has changed our jobs.