Permabits and Petabytes

January 12, 2009

Thoughts for a National CTO

Filed under: Jered Floyd — jeredfloyd @ 12:41 pm

As has been covered extensively over the past two months, President-Elect Obama has announced plans to appoint a National CTO. As a CTO, I was asked recently what my comments and suggestions would be to Obama and this new, federal CTO.

I thought about this for a while, and I think there are a number of things that are critical to the success of a National CTO initiative.  First and foremost, I think it’s absolutely necessary that the National CTO candidate have a strong technology background.  This sounds like an obvious standard but, as anyone who has held the position knows, the role of a CTO frequently trends more towards marketing than technology.  While in business this is important, for the federal government the CTO must be much more than just a persuasive technology evangelist; he or she must have a deep understanding of the technologies being considered and be willing to recommend tools that are best for the problems being solved, not just the ones that sound the best.

A prime example of where a National CTO could have brought a lot of value has been in the electronic voting machine debacle of the past decade.  In 2002, the US Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to try to address the voting accuracy problems in the 2000 presidential election.  This law strongly encourages use of electronic voting systems, but failed to put in place appropriate technical guidelines.  From the very beginning noted security experts like Bruce Schneier and Ed Felten emphasized the importance of features like “voter-verifiable paper trails” and explained the challenges of building effective electronic voting systems.   All these recommendations were ignored, and companies like Diebold Election Systems and Sequoia strong-armed many cities and states into purchasing profoundly flawed systems that have made our elections less reliable, not more.  These purchase decisions were based on political connections, not technical merit.   A strong National CTO office with oversight on technology considerations in active legislation could have helped prevent this disaster.

Many US lawmakers have very limited understanding of technology, as Senator Ted Stevens showed with his now immortal “the Internet is not a big truck, it’s a series of tubes” rant.  Yet these same people are charged with making laws that directly affect how that technology is allowed to develop, how it is regulated, and how it is used by both government and the public.  A National CTO must understand the underlying technology issues and be able to vigorously, and apolitically, advocate for the right choices.  He or she must be technocratic, not bureaucratic.

To this end, the national CTO ought to moderate the new administration’s likely inclination towards more regulation and expanded technology public services.  President-elect Obama has already set as a priority universal broadband access.  This is a noble goal, but it must be approached carefully.  It would be best for the government to facilitate, rather than directly implement, such a solution and place as few strings on it as possible.  Already proposals have been floated that recommend a government-implemented broadband infrastructure with arbitrary content filtering — such solutions reduce our freedom, not increase it.  It would be better to offer incentives to existing broadband providers to increase their coverage, or provide subsidy vouchers to consumers without current access in order to encourage multiple broadband options for them, and thus lower prices and better technologies.  The national CTO must strongly defend principles of network neutrality and the use of open standards to prevent national technology policy and infrastructure from being hijacked by one political interest or another.

Finally, and most challengingly, the national CTO must participate in the effort to improve public education in the United States.  There are many education policy issues that I won’t go into here, but there are technology-specific areas where the national CTO can offer advice.  For example, as with infrastructure, education must also choose technologies and tools that are most appropriate for learning, not the ones that sound the best or the ones that the vendors are willing to provide most cheaply.  Look, for example, at the troubles that the One Laptop Per Child project has had in Central and South America.  The OLPC platform is Linux-based, and designed with tools to teach children how to program, not just use, their computers — a great thing for technology education.  The problem with this is that it is a direct assault on Microsoft’s business model; having young children become familiar with Linux instead of Windows means that they are less likely to use Windows in business when the grow up.  To counter this, Microsoft and Intel cooperated to undermine the OLPC laptop through FUD and government incentives, and have convinced many candidate countries to go with Windows-based solutions instead.  These systems do not come with the tools or infrastructure to allow the children to learn about the underlying technology, and so instead of educating kids these systems instead turn them into consumers who can use a program like Microsoft Word, but not write it.  This is a tragedy.

Less computer-centric: another problem in US policy that a National CTO might help address has been our focus on fear and danger stifling science education.  When I was a child, not that terribly long ago, I had a chemistry set with a large array of potentially dangerous chemicals — ones that were necessary to teach and understand basic chemistry concepts.  Today, such kits no longer exist.  Modern chemistry sets have nothing more dangerous than baking soda or vinegar.  How are we to interest kids in science if we start by telling them it’s too dangerous?  There are many reasons we have ended up here, but things like this are bound to turn us into a nation only of consumers, with no technology innovation.  Public policy must change to emphasize the value of open-ended exploration and discovery, and make appropriate tools and technologies required available to children of all ages.

From the general to the more specific, I hope this gives a good overview of my feelings on the topic.   A National CTO must have the background and intelligence to advocate appropriate technology and policy choices, informed by top technical experts, while having the charisma and skills to evangelize these choices within the twisty passages of our government.   He or she must strongly support principles of net neutrality, open standards, and minimal regulation in order to prevent initially good technology choices from being co-opted by special interests.  Finally, the CTO must help influence public policy in a way that helps our education system continue to produce a nation of innovators, not just consumers.

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