Obama Calls for a Federal CTO, Techies Listen


How significant is U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's pledge to appoint the nation's first chief technology officer if he is elected?


It's hard to say, particularly since few specific responsibilities for the role have been outlined. BusinessWeek quotes Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Stanford University's Center for the Internet and Society, who envisions the role this way:

... the CTO could be a critically important position, from deciding how to make government more efficient and transparent through technology, to helping advance public policy questions like those surrounding global warming.

It's not a new idea. Obama first mentioned it last November as part of a nine-page technology plan called "Connecting and Empowering All Americans Through Technology and Innovation." But it's certainly been getting lots of press and fueling lots of speculation on likely appointees. Among the candidates mentioned in the BusinessWeek article: Vint Cerf, Google's "chief internet evangelist" and a man generally credited with playing a major part in the creation of the Internet; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos; and Ed Felten, a high-profile professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University.


Recently added to the list, thanks to his stumping for Obama, is Google CEO Eric Schmidt. While Schmidt has said his support of Obama is personal, it would obviously benefit Google to have a friend in the White House, due to its efforts to convince the Department of Justice to allow it to forge an advertising partnership with Yahoo.


As The Wall Street Journal reports, Schmidt appeared at an economic summit with Obama in Florida, along with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, a small-business owner and the governors of Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico and Ohio. One of the main themes of the summit was the need for federal government to invest in the nation's infrastructure, leading a spokesman for Republican candidate John McCain to call it "a spending summit."


And therein lies the fundamental difference in the candidates' approaches.


Obama calls for more federal funds devoted to basic research and efforts to boost math, science and engineering education. He isn't the only one calling for such an approach. Earlier this year, the Brookings Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation began promoting the idea of a National Innovation Foundation modeled on the National Science Foundation or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. To help the U.S. remain competitive, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation wants to see digital information become a "fourth leg" of economic policy, along with fiscal, monetary and investment policy.


McCain, in contrast, says that lessening regulatory and tax burdens will encourage the private sector to increase its R&D spending. But will that happen without a broader U.S. economic turnaround? Because of their interest in gaining market share in emerging markets, a growing number of companies are migrating more R&D to countries like India and China. As IT Business Edge blogger Rob Enderle wrote, Dell just moved its design center to Shanghai. And Cisco intends to base a fifth of its executives in Bangalore by 2012.


Free-market incentives havelargely not been effective in encouraging expansion of broadband access, one of the issues mentioned prominently in Obama's tech plan, as IT Business Edge blogger Carl Weinschenk wrote in July.


Schmidt's endorsement notwithstanding, McCain's lean-government approach has won fans among prominent tech executives, including Cisco CEO John Chambers, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, whose campaign appearances have been conspicuously scaled back following her remarks critical of Sarah Palin's leadership capabilities.


As I wrote in May, Obama's apparent tech savvy made him a more popular candidate than McCain in California's Silicon Valley. But it's unclear whether it is helping him win over "regular" American voters. Obama has certainly employed technology in a number of new ways in his campaign, including appearing in advertisements in popular video games, creating an iPhone application to disseminate campaign information and using text messaging to make key announcements -- and not coincidentally, harvest lots of phone numbers.


That's not to say that Obama has cornered all of the tech tricks. Earlier this year, McCain's campaign purchased key Internet search terms such as "U.S. economy" and "housing crisis" so that voters would be taken to sites outlining McCain's positions on these issues. Embarrassingly, McCain's camp also purchased the terms "Biden" and "Joe Biden" so searches would prominently display an ad that led folks to a video on McCain's site that shows Biden criticizing Obama during the Democratic primaries.