When Barack Obama becomes president in January with a strongly Democratic Congress, he'll have the chance to push a technology policy that relies more on government subsidy and regulation than that of his immediate predecessor.
In Washington and Silicon Valley circles, betting has already begun on who will be the nation's first "chief technology officer." Could it be Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who conveniently endorsed Obama? Or Vint Cerf? If there's an opening for a Beltway type, perhaps ex-regulator Reed Hundt, who's been a proxy for the president-elect?
Obama wants the CTO to "ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century," plus protecting the security of .gov computer networks. That's a pretty tall task for one person, although there's some precedent; President Clinton handed much authority for Internet regulation to Ira Magaziner after his administration's health care debacle.
Any administration will find health care to be a massive project, especially one that likely will be distracted by the Iraq occupation and a recession. Enacting new government regulations aimed at health care records and their electronic storage is an obvious first step that's already been kicking around Congress for a while.
On copyright, the conventional thinking is that Democrats are more likely to align themselves with the recording and movie industries' wishes. That may not be the case here: it was John McCain who talked up more aggressive enforcement of copyright law domestically, while Obama said "we need to update and reform our copyright and patent systems to promote civic discourse, innovation, and investment while ensuring that intellectual property owners are fairly treated."
That is, of course, intentionally vague. Obama was also vague when we asked him whether he wants to amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to let Americans make a single backup copy of a DVD or computer game they legally purchase. He said only that he'd support it "in concept."
Internationally, though, Obama would not take an obviously different approach than the policies that the Bush administration has followed and that a McCain administration would have. His Web site says that "China fails to enforce U.S. copyrights and trademarks" and that additional international enforcement and standards are needed.
Congress and free trade
For technology firms, a substantial downside--and one that's difficult to overstate--is how hostile a solidly Democratic Congress and White House could be toward free trade.
Obama doesn't have the ideological bias toward free trade that Clinton had and is certain to face strong protectionist pressure from within his own party. After a handful of Democrats joined Republicans to approve the Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005, the 15 dissidents were hounded by their own party and by labor activists. Only a rare politician would take that risk again.
Democrats' populist streak could hurt technology companies in other ways as well. Obama has promoted more aggressive antitrust actions, which could hurt Silicon Valley companies like Yahoo and Google that are already reeling from the scrutiny of a supposedly free-market Republican administration. Additionally, Obama has only promised to expand the H1-B visa program temporarily.
More tax dollars diverted to universal broadband is a goal often promoted by the Democratic party, and Obama's CTO would at the very least influence how such a goal is met. The Obama campaign has enthusiastically called broadband access the way to a more perfect democracy, and Democratic members of Congress like Rep. Anna Eshoo of California have promoted the idea.
Eshoo's resolution, however, does little beyond call for more work to be done. Finding the funds to create wider broadband access could be a challenge; it would have to be paid for by higher taxes, reduced spending elsewhere, or running up the federal deficit.
Michael Powell, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said at a forum in September that it is unrealistic to entertain the "idea that there's money to get people to dig up streets and put in fiber. National broadband policy is probably going to have to be a lot more subtle."
Net neutrality is another open question. It was a striking difference between the two major party presidential candidates: Obama wanted new government regulation of the Internet, and McCain was skeptical. Some prominent technologists including Cisco Systems' Robert Pepper, Carnegie Mellon University's Dave Farber, and Internet founding father Bob Kahn are skeptical too.
Because politicians tend not to like to seek out trouble, a resolution will probably wait until a federal appeals court deals with Comcast's appeal of a related order by the FCC. Comcast claims the FCC does not have the authority to impose Net neutrality regulations and didn't even follow its own rules when levying them in the first place.
If the court sides with the FCC, it will sap energy from a push for extensive new Net neutrality laws; if the decision goes the other way, look for Congress to get involved. Net neutrality is, after all, the very first issue addressed in Obama's technology policy platform. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has talked up the idea, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) introduced related legislation last year.
CNET's Stephanie Condon co-authored this article.