Jump-starting our tech policy.

Repairing some of the worst Bush administration screw-ups.
April 1 2008 8:09 AM

Tech Policy

Jump-starting our tech policy.

With President Bush's approval rating hovering in the 30s, just about everyone has an opinion on what George W. has done wrong in the past seven years. But not everyone can explain what the next president must do to fix it. So we've called in some experts to tell us. Fixing It is a 10-part series to be published over the course of this week with contributions from some of our favorite writers, offering detailed policy prescriptions for the next president, whomever that may be, on how to quickly undo some of the damage. One of our contributors wryly describes the series as "News You Can Use. If You Happen To Be President." Read the other entries here.

Perhaps the only thing that's actually improved over the last eight years under President Bush is technology (if not tech policy). In the sense that Nixon presided over an age of great films like The Godfather, the Bush era was also the age of Wikipedia, search engines, YouTube, and Facebook. But the Bush system of benign neglect can only go so far, leaving plenty to fix as soon as the next president takes office.

Here are a few suggestions for things we can fix right away:

Fix-it List: Tech Policy

Appoint a broadband czar. Most people in technology will tell you that the leading problem today—the one thing sinking all boats, so to speak—is the broadband last mile, the final connection between people and the Internet. Since 2000, computers have become faster, hard drives cheaper, and free e-mail better, but for the vast majority of Americans, Internet access remains clunky. Same goes for wireless broadband (cell phones with good Internet access), which is arriving, but slowly and expensively. These facts limit what everyone in the tech and media industries can imagine as effective new products. They are also beginning to put the United States at a disadvantage as compared with nations in Asia and Europe that have invested more.

It's a daunting problem with a long history of both public and private failure. Unlike, say, building a better dating service, broadband is an infrastructure problem that requires solutions akin to improving roads or plumbing. National infrastructure policy is tough, and, at its worst, Bush's approach has borrowed largely from Emperor Nero.

To start fixing things, the next president should immediately announce a national broadband policy with this simple goal: to put the United States back into undisputed leadership in wireless and wire-line broadband. But the question is how, and that's where things get complicated. Proposed fixes abound: pay Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast to build it? Treat the Internet's pipes like the interstate highways, and have the government build them? Use tax credits to encourage consumers to buy their own fiber connections? Sell property rights in spectrum or create a "mesh" wireless commons?

No one really knows what the best answer is. That's why the next president should appoint a specialized broadband czar to get after the problem. Right now, broadband is no one's responsibility, and the buck keeps getting passed between industry, Congress, the White House, and the FCC. The point of a czar would be to make it someone's job to figure out what it will take to fix broadband.

• Create the FCC dream team. The next president will have the opportunity to appoint an entirely new Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is the principal American regulator of communications, setting many of the most important rules for information economy. The appointment opportunity shouldn't be wasted—the next president could and should dramatically transform what the FCC can be.

Once upon a time, actual experts were appointed to the commission. The first commission, in 1927, was, as historian Philip Rosen writes, "a remarkable group." It included a former admiral who was a naval radio expert, an inspector from the Commerce Department, an engineer and editor from McGraw-Hill, a practicing broadcaster with a Ph.D. in English, and a state Supreme Court judge. Today, none of these people would be considered for the job.

Instead of communications expertise, the leading qualifications are now mostly political. Preferred experience includes time logged as a Capitol Hill staffer or in state government; work as a Washington, D.C., telecom attorney and/or lobbyist; some campaign experience; and buy-in from a major industry. Yes, many talented people possess these qualifications, and the FCC has, and continues to have, great leaders. But at some level the approach is like choosing from among Nike's lawyers to find coaches for the U.S. Olympic team. At its worst, it means commissioners show up with "team loyalty"—a duty to serve the interests of one of the major industries. And lax restraints on lobbying post-FCC service exacerbates the problem—why make your future boss angry?

The next president needs to break this tradition. She or he should search far and wide (yes, even outside of Washington, D.C.) for the wisest tech experts and visionaries to try to create an FCC dream team. The yardstick is the 1927 commission. By 2010, we should ask whether the next administration has managed to at least equal President Coolidge in the quality of its appointments.

• Fix international tech policy. The president has broad powers to set U.S. international tech policy, and the next president can act to do so quickly. As with the FCC, the president has the chance to staff the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative with some of the best and brightest; he or she should also appoint a worthy successor to "Internet ambassador" David Gross in the State Department. The president can also act to reverse a few of the uglier policy practices that have crept in.

Here's a leading example: Today, the United States—at the request of the domestic drug industry—continues to sanction poorer nations for trying to make available low-cost medicines for their citizens. For much of the 1990s, the drug industry and the U.S. government insisted that the sale of affordable generic AIDS drugs in African nations would be bad for innovation and global health. Under heavy pressure, the Clinton administration in 1999 swore it wouldn't punish poorer nations that break patents to sell cheap AIDS drugs, and Bush pledged to respect that policy. But as recently as last year, the United States was pressuring Thailand to abandon its efforts to provide cheaper AIDS drugs to its citizens—even though Thailand had followed WTO rules in doing so.

U.S. backsliding in this area is indefensible and creates plenty of bad international karma. The next president should declare early on that the United States will no longer put trade pressure on developing countries using WTO-compliant means to make medicine more affordable.

The technology of transparent government. One of the great and enduring accomplishments of the Bush administration was that it undermined once and for all the argument that the best decisions are made in secret. Some of Bush's more grotesque mistakes—like the decision to spy on American citizens without warrants—might have been averted by even a tiny amount of transparency.

Bush leaves behind a transparency tradition somewhere between Brezhnev and Dracula. A new administration can and should change that—but giving people information about what the government is doing is actually an information-technology problem. To an Internet user, what the government really lacks today is a good search engine or wiki to find out what's going on. The White House, perhaps through a CTO- or CIO-like figure, can find out what the barriers to transparency are, how many are unnecessary, and what can make it easier for citizens to follow their government. Whether that means turning the next White House into a four-year episode of Real World, I leave to the next administration to decide.

Long-term solutions

• Immigration. The insanity of the current U.S. immigration policy hurts not just the conscience but the tech industries as well. Yes, Congress controls immigration levels, but the new president can certainly push for more visas for highly skilled foreign workers. Otherwise, innovation will follow the talent, whether it's in India, Ireland, or Palau.

• Patents and prizes. The United States patent system drifted into a state of generally recognized insanity in the late 1990s, turning the supposed friend of innovation into a menace. In its darkest days, the U.S. Patent Office and the Federal Circuit Court essentially threw open the patent store and let anyone take what they wanted. Hence the years of ridiculous patents on sandwiches and anti-gravity space vehicles, along with industry-endangering patents used to force settlements out of innovators like RIM and Microsoft.

To their credit, the Supreme Court and the Patent Office have in recent years fixed a few of the worst problems, but issues remain. The next president or his surrogate must lean heavily on the Patent Office to take seriously its responsibility as an effective gatekeeper of patent quality. The deeper cure has two parts: The first is pushing for a system that allows opposition to patent applications and other reforms, like the famous "gold-plated patent" proposal championed by Mark Lemley, Douglas Lichtman, and Bhaven Sampat. The second is starting to rebalance the pro-patent Federal Circuit, arguably among the more activist courts in the nation and the recent target of a Supreme Court crackdown. The president can appoint judges to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals (the patent court) who are both respected experts yet also believe that more patent isn't always better.

In addition to patent reform, over the last decade economists have urged limits to the patent as a tool of encouraging invention. More economists think there needs be a greater role for "innovation prizes"—prizes for beneficial inventions that, for one reason or another, the commercial patent system doesn't seem to do a good job of encouraging. Examples are renewable-energy technologies or treatments for diseases in developing countries. If we can afford to put a price on the head of Osama Bin Laden, why not one for inventing a malaria vaccine?

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and co-author of Who Controls the Internet?He has advised the Obama campaign on certain aspects of its technology policies. His views do not necessary represent those of the Obama campaign.