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Obama's Tech Agenda Put On Hold

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

When times are hard, people adjust their priorities - even the president. When an unexpected economic disaster imploded as Barack Obama was entering office, some of his technology agenda was put on hold.

Almost one hundred days into his presidency, Mr. Obama has yet to advance most of the strong technology policies he promised during the campaign.

Thanks in large part to the economic crisis, Mr. Obama has yet to put forward his new cybersecurity strategy, or even fill some important technology-related vacancies. At the same time, the downward-spiraling economy has let him to push forward in other ways that were unexpected as recently as last fall.

In orchestrating the development of a $787 billion stimulus package, the president won congressional approval for significant spending on broadband infrastructure, electric smart grid technology and electronic health care records. Still unclear, though, are the ultimate results of that spending, or whether it will translate into more investment by the private sector.

"I think it's a positive sign (the administration is) including technology as a cross-cutting issue in all of their priorities," said Ben Scott, the policy director for the media advocacy group Free Press. "So far, with every opportunity to push technology policy into the mix, they've done so. Some of the standalone tech policy agenda has not been an immediate priority, but it would be unfair to demand that, given the other crises the administration is dealing with."

(AP/Times-Dispatch; Wash. Post)
Some of the most important pieces of the president's technology policy are only beginning to unfold. Less than two weeks ago, Mr. Obama appointed Virginia's secretary of technology Aneesh Chopra (at left in the picture), to be his chief technology officer. Chopra is responsible for formulating an open government directive within the next 20 days and will work closely with Mr. Obama's Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra (at right in the picture).

Mr. Obama's pick to chair the Federal Communications Commission Julius Genachowski has yet to be confirmed, but he is expected to push for more Net neutrality regulation.

All three appointments, Scott said, "reflect a strong commitment to a new kind of technology policy, (and) a commitment to making technology work for the government."

Mr. Obama has also made some high-level appointments within the Justice Department that may hint at the administration's approach to technology--specifically, toward the protection of intellectual property. The president has filled out the department with lawyers favored by the copyright industry, including attorneys who have represented the Recording Industry Association of America and the Business Software Alliance.

The president has yet to appoint anyone to fill the role of intellectual property enforcement coordinator, a new, congressionally-mandated cabinet position responsible for coordinating the White House's IP enforcement efforts. Vice President Joe Biden emphasized the need to find the "right person" for the job, given the significant impact intellectual property has on the economy.

The jury is still out on whether the IP enforcement coordinator will play a meaningful role in copyright and IP policy in the White House, said David Sohn, senior policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

"What the person in that position is able to achieve and how much prominence they will have is hard to tell," he said.

While the administration has yet to take any significant actions on the IP front, the Justice Department did intervene last month in a file-sharing case in which it sided with the record label plaintiff.

Mr. Obama's endorsement of strong but reasonable intellectual property enforcement generally aligns with the Bush administration's position. President Bush's White House endorsed the legislation that created the IP enforcement coordinator position, after it was stripped of its more extreme provisions.

The Obama White House has yet to greatly diverge from the Bush administration on another tech policy item critical to the nation's economy--cybersecurity--but that could change dramatically in the coming weeks.

Mr. Bush in 2008 gave the Homeland Security Department jurisdiction over the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Intitiative, a new program to coordinate cybersecurity efforts. The program has come under harsh scrutiny, however, and President Obama in February called for a comprehensive, two-month review of all federal cybersecurity efforts. He selected Melissa Hathaway, who worked for the director of national intelligence in the Bush administration, to conduct the review.

The final review was sent to the president for his approval but has yet to be publicly released. Hathaway last week indicated that it may recommend shifting cybersecurity responsibility away from DHS to the White House.

"Signs so far say there will be at least one major difference (from Bush cybersecurity policy) in terms of transparency," said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel for CDT. "The review team's process has so far been transparent, and they've involved stakeholders from industry, Congress, and privacy and advocacy groups. If that carries forth into the execution of the policy, it would be a very good sign and a significant departure from President Bush's approach."

While Mr. Obama may be able to learn from Bush's mistakes in the realm of cybersecurity, he also has the fortuitous advantage of having a green light from Congress to invest in new, major initiatives that his predecessor did not.

Doctors and hospitals will have to digitize their patients' medical records under Mr. Obama's watch or face eventual penalties under the electronic health record provisions of the stimulus package. The stimulus bill dedicated $19 billion for the digitization of medical records, which Mr. Obama has called the "low-hanging fruit" of health care reform.

It may be easy in comparison to comprehensive health care reform, but experts say there are dizzying challenges to information technology adoption in the health sector. It is so challenging that it took the current economic crisis to jumpstart the process, even though the Bush administration and Congress called for health IT adoption years ago.

"I think it was a game changer for (Obama's) entire economic agenda," said Scott, of Free Press.

In the five years Scott has spent advocating for broadband deployment, he said, it has been difficult to envision investments of even around $200 million--much less the $7.2 billion for broadband included in the stimulus.

Back in September 2008, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell said at an FCC forum that it would be unrealistic to entertain "the idea that there's money to get people to dig up streets and put in fiber."

Now, Scott says, it's possible the $7 billion in broadband stimulus funds could be the first of regular annual investments, if the Universal Service Fund is revised to subsidize broadband infrastructure rather than just telephone service.

"The stimulus bill gave the administration an instant opportunity to implement a new theory of broadband policy, which is to begin treating Internet access as a public good, not as a private good," Scott said. "When you put $7 billion in broadband infrastructure, that is a policy which is really unprecedented and positive."

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, agreed that the stimulus reflects Mr. Obama's commitment to advancing the use of technology, whether through the modernization of the health care system or the expansion of broadband. A commitment to technology is likely to be manifest in the president's procurement policies, regulatory changes, and in other areas.

He said it is doubtful, though, the president will be able to promote spending on technology at a significant level ever again.

"While I think the administration has a deep commitment to public investment in these areas, there are going to be so many priorities in other areas that risk crowding them out," Atkinson said. "The stimulus was a one-time opportunity that doesn't come around very often."