Notes from Tech Agenda 2009

I attended the first of a three part series at Google’s offices in DC yesterday. I was very impressed by the panel, especially Ben Scott of Free Press, Harry Wingo of Google and Michael Oldak of the Edison Electric Institute. I am well familiar with Gigi Sohn’s work through Public Knowledge and her comments were just as insightful as ever.

If you are curious, there should be video of the event on YouTube, soon. I highly recommend watching it as the conversation was smart and lively. I came away feeling optimistic and with some good questions to bear in mind as Obama takes office and Congress starts its next session.

During the discussion, the panelists identified some key challenges for the new administration and the new Congress. Scott, in particular, recommended pushing for some form of industrial policy. Ezell, clearly the most libertarian of the panel, was not surprisingly skeptical of Scott’s ideas on some form of market regulation but conceded that at least some strategic thinking is in order. Ezell was actually quite moderate in his comments throughout really only showing his leanings when the topic of network neutrality came up briefly. Even then he prevaricated, conceding some rhetorical ground while still expressing skepticism on regulating aspects of ISPs and carriers.

Scott later clarified that by industrial policy he did not mean any form of state run business or centrally planned economy. He latched onto Ezell’s interpretation, re-inforcing the idea of strategic thinking around key areas of industry.

The discussion of the smart grid was particularly fascinating and actually helped illuminate a core contention of the group about infrastructure more generally. What the internet and IT enable is much better collection and distribution of information on which market and policy decisions can be more firmly based. That theme echoed through out many of the panelists’ comments.

All agreed that innovation needs to be a focus for the future. Gigi brought up the trends I have seen reported and studied elsewhere, of the US flagging in research, development and innovation. Jennifer Canty, primarily an entrepreneur, neatly tied that to the question of a neutral and open network. She noted that her business would not exist and thrive if not for those qualities of the internet.

I was extremely happy to hear much time devoted to the question of access to the internet. There was some discussion of how to improve broadband penetration. There seemed to be a consensus among the panelists that a national broadband policy is in order. Gigi amplified the important of access for the public goods it enables: better healthcare, improved education and social justice.

All of the panelists seemed to think Obama’s positive experience utilizing the internet in his campaign would carry forward and inform his policies on access to broadband and the role of IT in government, in particular to support better governmental transparency. Most of the panelists seemed to think that this would be the role of Obama’s CTO, more as a CIO to ensure effective application of technology. There wasn’t any mention of that post’s role in setting technology policy.

I will post a link to the video as soon as I see it go up. I look forward to the other two parts of this series, though I will most likely not be able to attend in person.

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