American Culture

Obama seizes the day with technology proposals

By Martin Bosworth

I’ve been critical of Obama’s wide stance recently, as I believe his attempts to be all things to all people have made it difficult to decipher what his governing philosophy will be. Obama’s done a lot to turn off the LGBT sector with his embrace of the homophobic pastor McClurkin, and his support for corporate welfare like the NAFTA Peru expansion has won him no friends in the populist set.

But yesterday Obama sharpened his attempt to secure support in the geek tech crowd with an ambitious proposal outlining his presidential technology policy.

The proposal begins by reaffirming Obama’s support for net neutrality, using some particularly strong language that condemns the telecom duopoly and our overall sad state of American broadband development:

Because most Americans only have a choice of only one or two broadband carriers, carriers are tempted to impose a toll charge on content and services, discriminating against websites that are unwilling to pay for equal treatment. This could create a two-tier Internet in which websites with the best relationships with network providers can get the fastest access to consumers, while all competing websites remain in a slower lane. Such a result would threaten innovation, the open tradition and architecture of the Internet, and competition among content and backbone providers. It would also threaten the equality of speech through which the Internet has begun to transform American political and cultural discourse.

Nice stuff–the kind of thing you’d expect myself or Matt Stoller to say. Of particular interest to me as well was the section discussing how technology can endanger privacy and what Obama plans to do to address that:

• To ensure that powerful databases containing information on Americans that are necessary tools in the fight against terrorism are not misused for other purposes, Barack Obama supports restrictions on how information may be used and technology safeguards to verify how the information has actually been used.

• Obama supports updating surveillance laws and ensuring that law enforcement investigations andintelligence-gathering relating to U.S. citizens are done only under the rule of law.
• Obama will also work to provide robust protection against misuses of particularly sensitive kinds of information, such as e-health records and location data that do not fit comfortably within sector-specific privacy laws.
• Obama will increase the Federal Trade Commission’s enforcement budget and will step up international cooperation to track down cyber-criminals so that U.S. law enforcement can better prevent and punish spam, spyware, telemarketing and phishing intrusions into the privacy of American homes and computers.

I’d like to see the Obama campaign directly address the fact that government agencies are turning to corporate partners to act as proxies in developing “data shadows” that contain comprehensive profiles on people. While safeguards and restrictions are nice, Obama should be confronting the question of why these vast treasure troves exist in the first place–and why big business is so keen to turn it over to big government at the first opportunity. Still, it’s a good start.

Probably the most ambitious part of the proposal is Obama’s push for a much more transparent government, where the public would not only have the opportunity to view rulemaking and legislation, but actively participate in the process through usage of the Internet to foster communication and “knowledge transfer.” Obama also puts forth the idea to appoint a nationwide Chief Technology Officer, which makes sense to me–too much of our technological development, particularly in the area of Internet and broadband creation, is spread out among too many agencies, with too many conflicting rules and jurisdictional struggles.

There’s a lot more in the proposal, and I urge you to give it a read. Ars Technica’s Jon Stokes’ review notes that much of the open government policy may not make it past the realities of backroom-deal politicking, and that anti-government libertarians may have a collective shit fit at the amount of government interest-and involvement-this sort of policy plan will require, as well as many areas in which Obama’s lofty rhetoric may not be supported by serious substance. On the other hand, Matt Stoller, who has been harshly critical of Obama in the past, is now much closer to becoming a believer thanks to this document.

As a tech geek myself, detailed policy positions on things like broadband development and the Internet future are to me what spinach is to Popeye, and it delights me to see one of the Big 3 Democrats addressing these issues so openly. At a time when the political discourse sinks ever lower and is dominated by hot-button issues like immigration, the need to discuss technology issues and advance new ideas has never been more important.

Not only that, advancing America’s technology can open up new cultural, social, and economic vistas for everyone–but only if they have the access. As I said in my broadband for America manifesto, the digital divide needs to be bridged if everyone is to take advantage of the potential the Internet offers. Obama has come through on challenging FCC chair Kevin Martin on his plans to relax rules against media consolidation, and has supported legislation demanding better data on broadband adoption, so he’s got some cred to back up the hype.

Obama isn’t breaking tremendous new ground here–as was noted during his press-the-flesh session at Google, much of what he proposes is already being done on the state level, and has been advanced by others before. But he’s actually developing a coherent framework for tech issues, building many good ideas into a cohesive whole–something he has NOT done until now. If he can meld the coherency of this idea with his overall manifesto of change–and back it up with strong answers to the tough questions, not to mention applying that coherency to other areas–he might make a believer out of me too.

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