Skip to main content

University of Michigan School of Information


Media Center

UMSI welcomes media inquiries

Christian Sandvig earns U-M 2023 presidential award for public engagement

2023 U-M Presidential Award for Public Engagement. Christian Sandvig. Professor.

Wednesday, 04/10/2024

University of Michigan School of Information professor Christian Sandvig has earned the 2023 Presidential Award for Public Impact. The award, one of two presidential awards for public engagement, recognizes work that has had a far reaching impact on the national and global community. Aaron Dworkin, former dean and a professor of music at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is receiving the President’s Award for National and State Leadership.

Sandvig, who also is a professor of communication and media at the Digital Studies Institute in the School of Literature, Science and the Arts, and a professor of art and design at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, pushed for a change in federal law about computers, freeing researchers and journalists to investigate the dangers of social media and artificial intelligence without criminal penalty.

“I am impressed that the University of Michigan is willing to define success in this way, and they are willing to say that public service is an important criterion of performance,” Sandvig said. “We’re a public university, and service is our business, and so let’s reward people for doing public service.”

The awards given by President Santa J. Ono recognize the recipients’ demonstrated commitment to public service, contributions to significantly impact society through national and state leadership, and efforts to address the challenges that communities face every day.

Sandvig’s nominators included Mark Ackerman, the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Human-Computer Interaction and professor of information in the School of Information, professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering, and professor of learning health sciences in the Medical School; and Susan Douglas, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication, and professor of communication and media in LSA.

They noted that in 2012, Sandvig had concerns that the computer algorithms at companies like Google and Facebook might be secretly favoring some content over others, and that this might be impossible to detect. As a response, Sandvig and collaborators developed a research strategy called “algorithm auditing,” sending false information to online platforms in order to detect algorithmic misbehavior by analyzing their response.

He was warned that investigating corporate algorithms would run afoul of the U.S. federal anti-hacking law. Dubbed “the worst law in technology” by legal scholars, it featured draconian penalties, arbitrarily applied.

“A bunch of researchers realized that this is out of hand and we have to stop it. It’s definitely not just me. But I was lucky in that the University of Michigan was willing to support me in potentially admitting to a felony,” Sandvig said. “I wrote a paper that said that this law was stupid, and the ACLU called and asked if we could challenge the law together.”

Sandvig became the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, based in part on his research. Due to the technological questions involved, Sandvig, who is not a lawyer, was given an unusual opportunity to help write the legal briefs for the case. A key argument posited that under the First Amendment, everyone has a legal right to provide false information to computers and online platforms, especially as a part of research to investigate civil rights violations.

“Over the next eight years, Sandvig used personal funds to travel to court in Washington, D.C., and to travel around the country promoting the case. He was cautioned that this legal challenge was essentially admitting to a felony and could have serious consequences if he lost,” his nominators wrote.

He prevailed in 2020 when a federal judge ruled that creating false user accounts for research could not be criminalized. Although Sandvig’s own research focused on civil rights, the ruling protects vital academic work, public interest nonprofits, investigative journalists and ordinary internet users. The U.S. Supreme Court supported Sandvig’s position in 2021, and the Justice Department announced in 2022 that it would revise its charging guidelines for hacking, referencing Sandvig’s work.

“Sandvig deserves this award for his courageous and spirited defense of civil rights that changed the law of the United States,” his nominators wrote.

The ruling helps computer security experts and investigative journalists, but it also helps anyone who has ever played a game of solitaire on their work computer without permission. All of these people can now avoid being charged with a federal crime for “hacking,” Sandvig said.

“One way to justify public higher education in this country is to show that it solves problems, and it produces things that help people. That includes education, but it also includes other forms of impact, in this case, law and policy,” he said.

Sandvig also co-founded and directs the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing. ESC is a research center and a collective of scholars committed to feminist, justice-focused, inclusive and interdisciplinary approaches to computing.

“There is a hunger among our students and faculty for tangible public engagement. That’s what they want. They don’t want knowledge for its own sake,” Sandvig said. “They want to understand how the knowledge they’re gaining is going to do something in the world.”

This story originally appeared in The University Record. Read the full story here. 


Learn more about H. Marshall McLuhan Collegiate Professor of Digital Media and Professor of Information Christian Sandvig’s research and work by visiting his UMSI faculty profile