Law \ Legal

In-House Q&A: Chris Handman Of TerraTrue

Chris Handman HeadshotChris Handman is co-founder and COO of TerraTrue, a company focused on developing a seamless privacy program that works with the software development life cycle rather than against it. 

Chris was the first General Counsel at Snap, where he built the company’s legal, compliance, public policy, compliance, and law-enforcement teams. 

He is also a Homeland Security Project fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

What led you into the law? Where did your career start?

What really piqued my interest in the law was as an undergrad I was doing political science and international relations. Sophomore year I stumbled upon a class called “constitutional law.” I found it really interesting. 

The first lesson was just read Marbury vs. Madison. It was actually an excerpt of the case, and I was like, “Oh, this is gonna be easy,” and I read it like I would read anything else. Turns out it was basically taught like a kind of minor league version of a law school class, classic Socratic method, like straight out of “The Paper Chase.” 

Essentially a very stern professor, and I was put on the hot seat early on. I think I failed miserably. 

But I fell in love with that, the ambiguity, and the questions, and I was like, this is incredible to be able to study the constitution and understand how these principles can be refracted through all these different prisms as you thought through it. That was just an intoxicating intellectual exercise. So, I think it was that class that sort of launched me on a trajectory toward going into law.

I had kind of a similar experience. Where do you go after law school?

After law school I did several clerkships in D.C., D.C. District Court and on the D.C. Circuit for Judge Wald. I knew I wanted to do litigation, but to me appellate litigation looked like a great way to marry my passions of both the law as well as just kind of having maybe a little bit more space to think and write and research. 

I was very fortunate to land at what was then called Hogan & Hartson and is now Hogan Lovells. John Roberts was actually leading the Appellate Group at that time and I worked under him in that group for several years while he was still leading that. 

By the time I left, I’d argued around 50 cases throughout almost every Federal Circuit Court of Appeal along with a number of state Supreme Courts.

That’s pretty impressive. Actually, I met Roberts and one of the partners who was with him at that time this spring. His former colleague made a pretty good joke that was funnier when he said it than it would be if I tried to repeat it. At any rate, it seemed like Roberts was pretty approachable. Okay, so what led you to Snap?

It’s the classic example of sort of putting yourself in the position to be in the right place at the right time. 

You know, a lot of it comes down to luck, but maybe it wasn’t all accident and kind of creating those conditions where luck can come about has been a big part of my career. 

One of the things I loved about appellate work was that it required an aggressively generalist practice. It wasn’t a substantive specialty in one area of the law. It was a specialty in how to break down complex questions, reason from first principles, and then apply them to create new theories that will be sound. 

I was dealing with a lot of issues of application of old law to emerging technology. And I think that put me on the map when Snapchat — still then called Snapchat, this was early 2014 — was looking for a general counsel relatively early in its lifecycle. They’d gotten into a few missteps with the law and were looking to build out that legal function. 

My kind of aggressively generalist background as well as, I think, just a seasoned pragmatism around how law functions and how companies have to be comfortable with ambiguity and indeterminacy appealed to them. 

I’ve always been comfortable dealing with those shades of gray and helping to counsel companies in ways that are taking into account their objectives, as well as minimizing risks. I lacked that in-house experience, I was told by all the headhunters that, you know, I was the dark horse candidate. But the dark horses do sometimes work out.

Sounds like you had the right attitude and background for somebody at a new technology company. Well, I understand from our previous email communications you’ve got a “no comment” on the Elon Musk saga going on right now, which I can understand why that would be. But I do want to ask about what your role was in Snap’s content moderation policies dating back to you know, your work there at the outset and ongoing. Personally, I’m kind of sitting here thinking, “Well, why wasn’t Trump banned from different social media platforms long before he was?” So, I guess I’d just like you to share any insight you have into that from your work there.

Yes, so at Snap, of course, the legal team rolled up to me but also public policy, law enforcement, and compliance were all functions that rolled out to the legal team that I was managing. 

A big function of that, and then working collaboratively with our trust and safety teams, was thinking through questions around content moderation, balancing the interests of sort of wide open and free speech with the sort of respect that the forum needs to have. 

And I think one of the interesting questions that anyone in-house at a tech platform confronts is that the commitment to free speech means a lot more and is tested in really profoundly interesting ways that you don’t appreciate when you’re maybe back in the law school studying First Amendment principles and free speech. 

There’s the classic kind of Milton, you know, marketplace of ideas and more speech is the solution to bad speech. In the era of platforms, sometimes unfettered speech can be pernicious and undermine the ability for people to speak. And so, it’s a really fraught calculus. 

I’d say at Snap we did a good job of trying to harmonize these competing interests between promoting openness and individual expression, recognizing that there are types of behaviors and activities that can chill speech. You can end up, in the guise of promoting more speech, actually getting less speech and you’re getting a more monochromatic version of speech. 

So, I think that was a really interesting area and time. Everyone’s still trying to navigate that, but I think we did a good job.

I suppose Milton didn’t have the power of algorithms to compete with, or not as we know them now. I can tell you’ve at least put a lot of thought into that, so thank you. I understand, obviously, that you’re no longer at Snap. What led to you parting ways?

I joined as employee 55. I went through the IPO. The company went to over 3,000 employees. It was a remarkable four-year journey, a once-in-a-lifetime chance. 

A few quarters after going public, though, it felt like this was the right time to step away. It was the busiest I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was pretty much a non-stop 24/7 job that was intoxicating and thrilling. You know, peppered with its fair degree of maddening challenges. 

But it was something that at that point, I think I’d accomplished everything that I’d set out to do. And it felt like the right time just to take a step back and take a breather. 

When I started at Snap, my youngest was maybe 15 months and my wife was pregnant with the second and so it was a chance to kind of take a little time to go back. We ended up going to live in Italy short-term and enjoying some downtime to figure out what was going to be next.

So where are you now? What’s your current role?

I’m the co-founder and COO of TerraTrue, which is a privacy platform that really is built largely on the experiences that myself and my co-founder, Jad Boutros, who was the first CSO at Snapchat, had in really building Snap’s privacy program from the ground up. 

And from those lessons, we have now translated them into a real first-of-its-kind platform that is helping to unify the worlds of product development and privacy.

Is there anything particularly exciting that you’re working on at the moment?

Yes. As new laws keep coming down, and as companies continue to collect more and more data, it is incredibly important for companies to gain a better handle on what exactly is the data they plan to collect before these products ever go out the door. What are the risks? What are the types of mitigations that should be considered proactively as opposed to what often has happened in the past, which is you ship a product quickly, cross your fingers, hope for the best, and deal reactively? 

This is a philosophy called shift left. If you think about the continuum of a product from sort of the germ of great ideas on the left side of a continuum on to the right side where you end up shipping those products out the door, we’re building a platform and a whole movement that is really pushing privacy away from a compliance silo into the fabric of product development so that products are vested with good privacy ideas and thoughts and care from the earliest stages. This is without slowing down innovation or the pace of execution.

Yeah, that’s interesting. It kind of sounds to me almost like building in the regulation. That’s ultimately good for the consumers rather than waiting for Congress to do something that may never happen.

Right? That’s absolutely one manifestation but also when Congress does act or when a state acts, the platform ensures the ability to seamlessly ingest those new changes and not disrupt the way you’ve been working. It can happen instantaneously. 

We can hardcode all of those new rules and regulations into the system, map it to what you’ve been doing and what you plan to do. That way your company is no longer kind of lurching from one regime to the next regime and the new change. It’s all fairly seamless. 

Those privacy rules become just a natural extension of the way they are actually building those products as opposed to this artificial bolt-on compliance check.

Where do you see things going in the future, you know, five years from now?

I think on the privacy side — you mentioned it — I think federal legislation, with any luck. 

We’ve seen a number of concrete steps in that direction just this summer. Whether it happens in this Congress or not remains to be seen. But it does feel like federal legislation on the privacy side is finally at last coming to be a reality. 

Look, there are really two trends that we think aren’t going to change anytime soon: Companies are going to continue to collect more and more data and are going to use it in more and more innovative ways. And legal rules, both here in the U.S. and abroad, are going to be increasingly prescriptive in limiting and regulating how companies can use that data, how they can show that data, what’s the type of data they can collect and under what conditions. 

Merging those two trends together, we want to remove it from those silos and bring it into the way you build from day one. It’s going to help balance the way companies in the future continue to build their products.

Well, excellent. I think it sounds like you’re really getting ahead of the curve. You’re in an area that is increasingly becoming of importance to everyone’s life, you know, not just lawyers, but kind of everyone who is a user of the internet, which is everyone. That’s great. 

And I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what more you can do here with your new organization. So, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, I think this is going to be a really good piece for the readers. Thank you very much.

Jon, it’s been my pleasure. Really appreciate the fun interview.

Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at [email protected].

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