Tim Wu’s technology policy wish-list: how does Obama measure up?

April 2, 2008

It always hurts a little when an idea for a blog post or an article gets scooped. But at least it hurts a little less when someone as insightful and engaging as Tim Wu does it…

Wu’s latest piece at Slate draws up a short list of priorities that an American president-elect ought to think about. They are:

  1. appoint a broadband czar
  2. create an FCC dream team
  3. fix international tech policy
  4. implement the technology of transparent government
  5. find long term solutions for (a) immigration and (b) the patent system

He goes on to provide detail in each of these areas, mixing his analysis with an assortment of humorous analogies linking George W. Bush and Nero, Dracula and Brezhnev, respectively.

While I enjoyed the article, it left me thinking about where Barack Obama falls on these issues. It’s worth noting that Wu has a horse in this race (as he discloses clearly in this related interview with Open Left’s Matt Stoller from about two months ago) and that his wish list reads like a reiteration of his rationale for supporting for Obama (like I said, read the interview).

An old blog post by Larry Lessig (in fact, the post from November, 2007 in which Lessig announced his support for Obama) has a pretty detailed discussion of the candidate’s tech policies at the time as well as a link to a useful policy statement of Obama’s Innovation and Technology Plan (PDF).

Lessig heralds Obama’s commitment “to important and importantly balanced positions” demonstrated by the plan. For the most part, I agree with this assessment, but I think it’s worth pointing out some of the places where Obama’s plan might not quite live up to the Tim Wu gold-standard. The key lies in the plan’s ambiguity in certain areas.

The plan states that Obama will support key reforms in the areas of standards, net neutrality, transparency, broadband provision, and privacy. It also states that “Obama will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer” (5), a position that would likely hold even greater power than Wu arrogates for his “broadband czar.” Obama also promises to deploy technology to facilitate universal health care, job creation, climate-friendly development. He even has a section devoted exclusively to immigration (8). Last, but not least, Obama comes out with a strikingly similar statement in favor of patent reform (9).

Taken together, these ideas pretty much cover items 1 (broadband), 4 (transparency), 5a (immigration) and 5b (patents) on Wu’s list. They also suggest that Obama won’t be shy about dealing with item 2 (the FCC) even if he doesn’t say so explicitly.

And yet, things get kind of murky on the international governance front. For example, the following paragraph on page 9 could have come straight from the mouth of Jack Valenti:

Protect American Intellectual Property Abroad: The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that in 2005, more than nine of every 10 DVDs sold in China were illegal copies. The U.S. Trade Representative said 80 percent of all counterfeit products seized at U.S. borders still come from China. Barack Obama will work to ensure intellectual property is protected in foreign markets, and promote greater cooperation on international standards that allow our technologies to compete everywhere.

Not to rain on Larry and Tim’s parade, but given the current climate of strict enforcement against whatever the MPAA decides is piracy, this is not a balanced statement. Obviously, it’s not useful to act as though Obama will hold these positions consistently if he wins office, but the language here sounds an awful lot like the current USTR’s industry-sponsored spiel on counterfeiting and piracy. Is this merely pre-election grandstanding? Lip service to the special interests of patent and trademark owner? Or a sign that we need to think harder about the rest of Obama’s positions? There’s that ambiguity.

A little earlier on the same page, the following paragraph appears:

Promote American Businesses Abroad: Trade can create wealth and drive innovation through competition. Barack Obama supports a trade policy that ensures our goods and services are treated fairly in foreign markets. At the same time, trade policy must stay consistent with our commitment to demand improved labor and environmental practices worldwide. In its first six years, the Bush Administration has filed only 16 cases to enforce its rights under WTO agreements. This compares to 68 cases filed during the first six years of the Clinton Administration. President Bush has failed to address the fact that China has engaged in ongoing currency manipulation that undercuts US exports; that China fails to enforce U.S. copyrights and trademarks and that some of our competitors create regulatory and tax barriers to the delivery and sale of technology goods
and services abroad. Barack Obama will fight for fair treatment of our companies abroad.

I’m especially excited by this one because it suggests that Obama intends to return global trade poliy to multilateral governance forums. This would represent a momentous and crucial shift away from the current administration’s practice of using bi-lateral and “plurilateral” pressure to silence critical trading partners. At the same time, I need to take my Bush-goggles off: there’s nothing benign about returning to the Clintonite days of using the WTO tribunal and the rhetoric of free trade as a cudgel to enforce American advantage abroad. Once again, ambiguity.

The bottom line from both of these cherry-picked excepts is easy to see. I have a hard time figuring out if Obama’s policy advisors (and Larry Lessig may well be one of them) are merely hedging in order to comfort anxious industry lobbyists or quietly signaling that they will only go so far in pushing the tech policy agenda in a progressive direction. In this regard, the campaign may merely be responding to the subtle effects of pressure and influence wielded by stakeholders such as the pharmaceutical industry.

To be fair, four out of the five items on Tim Wu’s list ain’t bad – indeed, it’s a far cry from Hillary’s proposals (link is to an old diary of Matt Stoller’s at Open Left) – but I can’t help wondering how these conversations will sound a few years hence.

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