My tech-related wishes for the Obama administration

The new U.S. government in January will have the opportunity to set the direction on many fronts. Here are the top 10 technology-related areas where I think a new direction is needed. The Barack Obama campaign addressed some of these in its technology position paper, but others are issues I’ve covered in this column in the past.

Regulations are generally the worst way to help technology development because they tend to trip over dependence on the technology of the moment rather than dealing with the underlying principles, but sometimes there is no choice.

1. Ensure a neutral Internet (at least in the United States). This was the top goal in Obama’s technology position paper. Here is a case where regulations are needed to codify a less conditional version of the FCC’s four principles.

2. Reconsider link and equipment-sharing requirements for monopoly carriers. Once upon a time we had real competition for services to residential users because monopoly phone carriers were required to wholesale parts of their infrastructure to competitive local access providers. The FCC killed this a few years ago and Internet service quality and value has suffered.

3. Re-evaluate the 10-year-old Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The safe harbor part of the DMCA is very good but too much of the act is an attempt to preserve an old business model for content owners and the anti-circumvention provisions cause the United States real harm. These parts should be repealed.

4. Mandate privacy protection. Move away from the current U.S. model where anyone can collect and sell information about individuals without their knowledge or consent. Pass a federal law that empowers individuals to control the obtaining, retention and distribution of information about them and mandates the protection of any such information. There should be real criminal and civil penalties, which can be invoked by individuals, for the failure to meet the requirements.

5. Mandate proper procedures for law enforcement. Require that law enforcement at all levels follow proper constitutional processes when obtaining information about individuals. There should be criminal penalties for individuals that fail to follow proper procedures and for any organization that assists them.

6. Revoke the cable must-carry rules. Because it is to the benefit of both organizations when a cable company carries a TV station, let the market decide who should pay who and how much.

7. Restore rationality to copyright duration. Get the balance between providing an incentive to authors and providing for the interests of the public back closer to what was envisioned by the writers of the U.S. Constitution. At the very least, pass a law that removes copyright restrictions from abandoned works.

8. Revisit the process of evaluating requests for federal grants. Peer review has proven to inhibit research in new directions; alternate processes should be developed (but reliance on congressional earmarks is not a good alternative)

9. Reorganize the FCC. Change its implicit mandate to one of being concerned with consumers rather than incumbent carriers. Move to transport independent regulations (where they are needed at all) – minimize regulations that treat cable companies differently from telephone companies.

10. Revoke the universal service fund. This has proved to be an expensive boondoggle that rewards a few vendors for little benefit to consumers.

There are many other areas that I think need to be worked on but this list is a start. A new administration is a new chance. Too often the chance is missed, but maybe not this time.

Disclaimer: Harvard does not get new administrations as often as the United States does and may have even more inertia than the U.S. government, but new presidents still manage to make an impact. To date, the university has not expressed an opinion on what direction the administration of this law school graduate should take, so the above is my list, not the university’s.