Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tech Policy Debate: Do We Want Enlightened Leadership...Or A Hands Off Policy?


from the it's-important... dept

I know that many folks think that "tech policy" is boring -- but, for those who care about the tech industry and innovation in general, it remains an important issue. During The Free Summit earlier this week we tried to inject some tech policy issues. This was a key reason for having the event in the first place. Both the Free Summit and the Tech Policy Summit were organized and run by the folks from SageScape, who are quite concerned that the tech world doesn't care enough about what's happening in the political realm and how it might impact them. While someone brought up the question, during The Free Summit, of why we should care about the entertainment industry influencing copyright laws, since they were dinosaurs in the process of dying off anyway, we pointed out that the amount of damage they could do while dying was impressive, and shouldn't be underestimated.

The overall Tech Policy Summit was quite interesting (and I've done some separate posts on some of the specific speakers), but the two key discussions that I think crystallized the debate were the discussions with Obama advisor Blair Levin and Consumer Electronics Association boss Gary Shapiro. Levin laid out a very compelling case that now that we have someone who "gets technology" in the White House, a lot of good things can be done. He was quite anxious to get nominated FCC boss Julius Genachowski approved and visibly angry and frustrated that Senate games have delayed his confirmation. Indeed, after years and years of watching technologically illiterate policy makers mucking things up left and right, the idea of having tech savvy folks in the administration is incredibly appealing. While I don't always agree with Levin, his comments did lessen some of my concerns about what's going on with tech policy in the administration.

But then... thankfully... Gary Shapiro got on stage and challenged many of Levin's points, highlighting how dangerous it is to think that the government can be an enlightened player in determining how innovation should work:

"It's not the job of government to say, "You win. You lose. You win.' That's the job of venture capitalists. The government's just going to mess it up."
While I'd argue that it's the job of the folks in the market, rather than venture capitalists, I think his point is sound. We should be worried about such massive government intervention -- even if it's coming from people who do seem to understand technology issues. Unfortunately, it had been so frustrating dealing with clueless tech policy makers for so long, the idea of more clueful tech policy makers seemed so appealing that you start to forget there's a third option: government getting out of the way.

And, realistically speaking, this should be a big concern. Even if Obama's appointments really are brilliant about technology, and put in place wonderful plans... what if the next President isn't quite so technologically clueful? Giving the federal government too much say in shaping the tech market landscape is dangerous long-term. It's why we should certainly be careful and watch what the government is doing, even if you believe the participants really are smart and knowledgeable about these subjects.

Along these lines, I should point out how strong an advocate Shapiro has been (for a long time) of consumer-first policies. Some will point out that these interests align well with the consumer electronics firms he represents, but if you just speak to the guy for a little while, you realize how strongly he believes in consumer rights because it's right, not just because it helps the companies he works with. And, unlike some of the other big names at the event, Shapiro was very involved in the entire event -- getting up to ask plenty of questions and challenge lots of speakers who said questionable things (he gets extra points for zinging David Carson, from the Copyright Office by asking him: "Do you represent the interests of copyright holders, or the public, because everything you say appears to be from the interests of the copyright holders only?"). Lots of us know about consumer advocacy organizations like the EFF and Public Knowledge, who fight for consumer rights on many of these issues, but Shapiro and the CEA deserve an awful lot of credit as well.

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