On ObamaCTO.org: Wish Lists are for Santa Claus

by on November 19, 2008 · 10 comments

The idea of an Obama Administration CTO has captured the hearts of many. I am generally skeptical of the idea, which is likely to be more symbolism than substance. But I’m really skeptical of the priorities being suggested for a government CTO on ObamaCTO.org.

Top of the list? “Ensure the Internet is Widely Accessible & Network Neutral.”

The Internet is one of the most valuable technical resources in America. In order to continue the amazing growth and utility of the Internet, the CTO’s policies should:

Improve accessibility in remote and depressed areas.

Maintain a carrier and content neutral network.

Foster a competitive and entrepreneurial business environment.

I’ve got some news or you: These are policy proposals that would be beyond the purview of any CTO. Policy proposals go through Congress and the President, advised by his policy staff. They do not go through a CTO.

If the Baltimore Ravens asked the team physician to kick field goals, the results would be about what you’d get from asking a federal CTO to carry out these policies.

And, let’s take a look at the internal consistency of the the “themes” in this action item.

“Improve accessibility in remote and depressed areas.” This can mean lots of things, but most people are probably thinking of government subsidies like the Universal Service slush fund in the traditional telecom area – a bottomless well of waste and corruption. Maybe some folks supporting this mean for the government to clear out the regulatory underbrush and subsidies that hold back progress, but most probably do not.

“Maintain a carrier and content neutral network.” Network neutrality regulation – putting the Federal Communications Commission in the business of deciding how the Internet can be run.

“Foster a competitive and entrepreneurial business environment.”

Now, here’s some more news: You cannot have all three.

If you want to subsidize telecom, you are going to have to tax away the money from someone (or borrow, taxing everyone for an indefinite future). This degrades that sought-after entrepreneurial business environment. When you go to hand out your subsidies, the money will be sought out by the established players in Washington, not by the innovators and entrepreneurs. Those subsidies will undercut markets for new and improved products and services, further depressing the prospects for competition and entrepreneurship.

Public utility regulation of the Internet is what most people are talking about when they say “network neutrality” or “network neutrality regulation.” Here’s some more news: Public utilities are not competitive and entrepreneurial. Tim Lee has discussed the parallels between public utility regulation of transportation and proposed regulation of the Internet in his paper, The Durable Internet: Maintaining Network Neutrality Without Regulation. Takeaway: not entrepreneurial. The “Widely Accessible & Network Neutral” Internet item is not doable by a CTO. Nor is it advisable in many respects.

The second item on people wish list for a CTO: “Ensure our Privacy and Repeal the Patriot Act.”

Once again, a federal CTO could not repeal the Patriot Act. It is a law that was passed by Congress. And the project of ensuring everyone’s privacy? You might as well ask the CTO to ensure everyone’s happiness. Privacy has as many dimensions. (Yes, government intrusions into privacy must be stopped, but the greatest threat to your privacy is yourself. Please exercise some personal responsibility.)

“Repeal the Digital Millennium Copyright Act” – That’s for Congress and the President, too – not a CTO.

“Open Government Data (APIs, XML, RSS)” – At last, we’ve come across something a CTO can do! The authority undoubtedly already exists with the executive branch to publish raw data about most dimensions of federal government activity. Mind you, the CTO of a presidential administration does not have authority over Congress or the courts, so don’t expect the CTO to open up the legislative process, for example. There are challenges to be dealt with in terms of privacy and cutting through administrative red tape, but, again, this is something for a CTO to do.

Don’t expect too much from a government Chief Technology Officer. A federal CTO would run the government’s technology portfolio just a little bit better than a cork runs the ocean. Anyone who thinks a CTO would bring dramatic change is fooling him- or herself.

A Chief Transparency Officer? At least this idea has some scope. But don’t expect transparency to magically break out all over either. Opening up the government would steal power from bureaucrats who covet it very much. Their prime directive is to maintain power and budget, not to do us favors just because we’re the citizenry.

So please. Doff your rose-colored glasses, people! Understand what a CTO could and couldn’t do, and consider more carefully what you really want from a CTO and your government. Wish-lists are for Santa Claus.

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