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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

No Captiousness Here!
January 26, 2011 - 8:30am

Could those who find fault with the general positions that President Obama posited last night please share them on this discussion board?

Not immune from captiousness, I nonetheless couldn't find a thing to disagree with in this speech!

I was particularly heartened by his positions on education, higher education in particular, and his call to reorganize federal agencies, especially given his underlying themes of innovation and global competitiveness.

I agree with his position that these challenging times offer the opportunities to rebuild infrastructure and recreate technical, legal, administrative and market efficiencies.

Education, education, education.

That it takes government to do so is a reality of twenty-first century global political society. That statement should not be read to mean "socialism," i.e. government ownership of corporations. That statement does not endorse thoughtless and inefficient regulation. In fact, I practically jumped out of my chair when President Obama issued a review of regulation with an eye to eliminating its unproductive, anti-competitive aspects. But throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water to suggest that inefficiencies and excesses are cause to eliminate all regulation -- in my view -- is either or both a willful, ignorant understanding of governance. It is willful if it is motivated singularly by the profit motive at the expense of social welfare; it is ignorant if born out of the belief that the profit motive automatically provides necessary protections of the common weal or can even maintain competitive conditions.

In a number of talks and publications, including this blog, I have advocated for a review of Internet governance. (See: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/law_policy_and_it/catching_up) Currently at least five or six administrative agencies have their hand in governing the Internet -- not just the technology, or physical layers, but as a economic, social, political and cultural catalyst. The F.C.C. does communications, or at least attempts to do so in an environment where its very authority is challenged constantly by the private sector and its supporters in both the courts and congress. The F.T.C. is about to launch a number of new privacy initiatives; let's see how successful those efforts will be. Donuts to dollars, the same forces that oppose the F.C.C. will combat the F.T.C. as well. The Patent Office, which desperately needs to rethink its legal processes, resides in Commerce; the Copyright Office, where the need is obvious to every file sharing teen-ager, is in the Library of Congress. Hello! There are intellectual property connections worthy of comprehensive notice! Network security can mostly be found in Homeland Security, but has tentacles National Science Foundation, the Defense Department and the White House (home of the "cyberczar"). Anyone read Richard Clark lately? How about anti-trust? Anyone wondering whether Google might not be ripe for action? This short list does not even begin to contemplate how the United States plays well and to its competitive advantage in the Internet's global sandbox.

President Obama used salmon as his example for rethinking federal administration, and he got a good laugh out of it. But if no one else is raising the Internet as an example of inefficiencies in the administrative arena, then let me be the first. I have observed grown men sweat and shake at the suggestion that we rethink Internet administrative governance. Steeped in memories I respect of having been midwives to the early Internet (born out of government support, which assumes regulation, but never mind the details), they exercise knee-jerk reactions based on assumptions about what regulation does, or does not do. In my opinion, those reactions obscure a sophisticated, mature appreciation for where the United States and global society is overall, those aspects of our life influenced by Internet communications in particular. From a developmental perspective, the United States would do well to recognize that the Internet phenomenon is a world-historical transformation and deserves holistic, not piecemeal, administrative attention largely from agencies created over a century ago under very different technological, sociological and political conditions. Talking about salmon is, well, catchy :-) It is, of course, a metaphor for the environment. But the Internet is no less important to economic and cultural revival of our country. It is time to take its needs for infrastructure support, consumer protection, technical security, intellectual property reform, anti-trust actions and global governance seriously.

 

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