Date: 10 December 2008 To: President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama From: Ben Turner Subject: Three Actionable Government
Technology Policy Areas for the Digital, Online Future America
President-Elect Barack Obama can implement a three-point digital plan for technology policy as soon as he enters office. First, he must ensure an innovation commons to allow American entrepreneurs, businessmen, civic activists, and government agencies to be able to experiment with new ideas, as Americans do best. President Obama can do this through getting every American connected, then giving Americans spectrum and flattened internet access, and then by allowing Americans fair access to others' ideas. Once an innovation commons is built, President Obama can allow empowered American citizens to help build open source government applications to streamline government operations in health records, direct democracy, and voting, in keeping with historically inclusive democratic principles. Finally, President Obama can build an open-sourced national identity system to further streamline government and Americans' access and control of their own information. Digitized identities pave the way for a sustainable internet future of 21st century census data, reduced overhead for government operations, and less identity theft and error. The key to a less expensive, more responsive US government is through these three policy areas, giving US citizens the tools to manage themselves and empower them to generate the future's successful ideas, companies, and civic action, while being more active in government and alleviating system stress.
1) AN INNOVATION COMMONS AND INSPIRING COMPETITION
According to Lawrence Lessig, advocate for copyright and intellectual property reform, a commons is a place of free ideas, where "free" means that "1) one can use it without the permission of anyone else; of (2) the permission one needs is granted neutrally. So understood, the question for our generation will be not whether the market or the state should control a resource, but whether that resource should remain free." (Lessig, p. 12) Such a commons allows for natural exchange and inter-mingling of ideas without the effects of stifling laws, regulations, or protectionism. 1.A. Universal Broadband: The People Commons All Americans should have access to the internet at home, at school, and in public. The Office of the President-Elect has posted its technology policy which states that "deploying next-generation broadband" is a priority. (barackobama.com) The most important aspect of universal broadband is allowing as many Americans to have access to the internet and to as much information as possible, so that Americans can make the most informed decisions possible. Now that the United States is a knowledge economy that values equal rights, then enabling internet access for all those within America's borders is not only a requirement for a productive, competitive, politically active pool of American citizens, but is also consistent with the original principles of the Constitution, set forth as all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights, to include access to information. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (United Nations, Article 19)
There exists a digital divide between Americans who are web literate and who have time and access to research and those who are not. When the former can make better economic and business decisions, study political issues further, and are more aware of the nation's priorities as a whole, then they are at a large advantage in this day and age over those who cannot read, cannot use the internet, and cannot become well-informed on even issues that directly affect them. The internet allows for everyone to have a vote and a voice and a presence -- but only for those who can afford it. An executive move to increase the participation within the US citizenry will allow the President to make better decisions regarding the course of the nation as a whole. The internet should be a commons for all Americans, not just a few select Americans. 1.B. Spectrum: The Wireless Commons The government should not have to pick technological winners or grant monopolies to companies to provide access. While spectrum auctions have been successful in allocating spectrum to those companies who will utilize spectrum far more efficiently than they would under other models of spectrum allocation, experts such as Lawrence Lessig and Michael Heller have advocated that the government need not pick winners. Lessig endorses allocating spectrum for companies who win auctions to use it, but says Americans should also be given a wide swath of long-term allocated public spectrum to allow for innovation, experimentation, and unrestricted use. The government, in not parceling out each bit of spectrum, allows for both private-sector stability for certain ranges of spectrum while also allowing for American innovative companies and public groups to discover the next big idea or technology. Americans deserve a government that allows for companies to make money while at the same time allowing for new competitors to enter the market if they have a superior product or service. A spectrum model described above would allow for an innovation commons in the wireless spectrum. 1.C. Net Neutrality: The Internet Commons Americans should also have as much access to the same information as other Americans and other peoples around the world. President-Elect Obama endorses net neutrality on the Change.gov web site. The reason protecting net neutrality is so important is to ensure that the internet remains a commons for social, commercial, and political engagement and innovation. Internet providers who allow internet access, as well as serve content, have a conflict of interest between providing high-quality service and ensuring their content is preferred by their customers. The alternative to net neutrality, a tiered system, allows internet providers to discriminate for their users based on what type of traffic passes over their networks. The government should ensure that those who provide internet access are not allowed to provide content as well. European countries have seen success in such straightforward legislation, preventing conflicts of interest arising in the distribution of information to the public. This is consistent with the end-to-end principles of the internet, confirmed by the World Wide Web's creator, Tim Berners-Lee: "I had designed the Web so there should be no centralized place where someone would have to 'register' a new server, or get approval of its contents." (Berners-Lee, p. 99) Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, calls this end-to-end architecture consistent with "generativity", "a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences." (Zittrain, p. 70) 1.D. Intellectual Property: The Idea Commons The US intellectual property (IP) system is not fit for a digital world. The President should push Congress to adapt IP legislation that would scale back the length of copyright and patents for digital works so that innovators can use previous ideas as the basis for future ideas. Digital
products are non-rivalrous goods, to use an economic phrase -- their duplication does not degrade the quality of the original in the same way that it might for physical property. Said Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson in 1813:
“ If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it.  Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.  That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation.  Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.” (Jefferson, p. 433)
It is often argued that without intellectual property and copyright laws, companies will not seek to innovate since there isn't enough reward. Lawrence Lessig states,
“Innovators nonetheless innovate. And they innovate because the return to them from deploying their new idea is high, even if others get the benefit of the new idea as well. Innovators don't simply sit on their hands until a guaranteed return is offered; real capitalists invest and innovate with the understanding that competitors will be free to take their ideas and use them against the innovators.” (Lessig, p.71)
The government should not grant long-term monopolies to companies before they fully develop their ideas, but this is what today's copyrights and patents do. Ideas, expressed today through code, become legally dangerous to pursue because organizations can patent or copyright anything and take action against others' usage of it, regardless of whether the holder developed the patented idea or not. This shuts down innovation instead of promoting it, an effect called "The Tragedy of the Anticommons". As the owner of this neologism, Michael Heller, says, "Too much ownership has the opposite effect—it creates gridlock. Gridlock is a free market paradox. When too many people own pieces of one thing, cooperation breaks down, wealth disappears, and everybody loses." (Heller) 1.E. Experimental Commons and Not Picking Winners President Obama should promote a digital commons that rewards experimentation and innovation. He can do this by expanding the internet population to include all Americans. President Obama should then endorse an open, level playing field for new ideas by pushing for net neutrality and a hybrid auctioned/public spectrum. He can then advocate breaking down the intellectual property gates that are barriers to new entry for the next innovative, successful American company or organization. The government knows that it is not successful at picking the next winner and it doesn't have the resources to stay abreast of technology. Decades of state-controlled resources have shown that. But what the government can very reliably do is ensure a fair, legally-backed commons for innovation for its citizens to experiment and create in. Such a plan would also benefit from increased government funding at universities and technology clusters. But the easiest plan is to simply unshackle the latent American innovation that is lying dormant because of stringent and anti-competitive digital arenas.
2) ONLINE GOVERNMENT OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE
2.A. Open Source is Consistent with Democratic Principles
Open source software is software whose source code is accessible to all; anyone can download the source code, inspect it, and edit it to his liking. Such freedom allows for ultimate transparency and adaptability. For the US government, strained to adapt to a digital world that procedes with gaining velocity towards the future, open source software would be perfect. Government departments are swamped with paperwork. Processing citizens' cases and answering FOIA requests become added burdens. A move to a digital world for processing applications, paperwork, taxes, and voting would alleviate much of the strain on government employees. By using open source software, American citizens who know how to code can contribute fixes to their own government's software instead of the government having to contract out the work. Since the new code is transparent, it can be approved by other citizens and by project managers within the government to ensure that it's not filled with loopholes, backdoors, or bugs. American citizens have long wished to contribute to government but have not had the tools to do so. If Americans can see, edit, and change the code that helps them interact with their government, then they will be more willing to contribute. (Burton) Open source software keeps costs down and reduces problems with legacy transitions by using open formats. By allowing American citizens to help build the code, contractors aren't required as much to write code which will probably be over-priced and outdated as soon as it's released, taking ages to fix even the smallest of bugs within the system. Compare this with Wikipedia, which can heal itself instantly through curators and editors who scan over all changes for accuracy and validity. 2.B. Direct Democracy One particular application of open source software to US government operations is allowing for social collaboration tools. For example, President Obama's Change.gov web site has already shown so much individual interest in commenting on individual policies, in particular its health care post, which gathered over 3,000 comments. (change.gov) Web sites such as fixthisbarack.com allow users to vote up issues that they think are most important for the nation. President Obama clearly has identified the benefits of crowdsourcing for solutions to America's problems; Americans participate in government more directly and swamped government employees no longer have to figure out what the constituency wants on their own. 2.C. Health Records Very few Americans have digitized, unified copies of their own health records. Dental and medical records are scattered across doctors and it is very difficult for a patient to get a copy of his own records even from his own doctor, for privacy reasons. As a result, doctors and patients have a very hard time building up a record of someone's medical history, and thus, cannot properly diagnose one's medical condition. Open sourcing health records software would allow citizens to oversee a transparent, secure national health records system that collects all the assessments made on patients. Citizens would build in controls to protect their privacy from discriminatory health care providers or unauthorized doctors or whoever else they wish to lock out. Says Simson Garfinkel, "Instead of tying health insurance to employment (a policy that dates to the wage and price controls of the 1940s), health insurance could be based on residency and citizenship. The simplest, easiest way to end discrimination in health insurance would be to adopt universal, state-sponsored health insurance." (Garfinkel, p. 153) At the same time, owners of their own health records, citizens would be able to view their lifelong health assessments and make their own choices -- but currently they have no knowledge of their conditions except loosely through memory. This assists doctors and hospitals who no longer need to maintain outdated, segmented records on periodic patients. Such freed-up time could then be spent on preventative practices -- e-mailing a patient when he is up for his annual physical, for example. The Committee for Economic Development wrote, on openness in health care:
“The emergence of electronic health records (EHRs) raises new openness issues. Utilizing such records, caregivers at any location would have access to a patient’s medical history. Results of tests and treatments could be added easily as they become available, thereby improving treatment, preventing duplicative testing, and reducing medical errors. Eventually, EHRs could be constructed including family medical histories, genomic and pharmacogenomic data, environmental exposures, lifestyle and other information, easing the way toward the “personalization” of treatment. The aggregation of such records, and others, could then facilitate the achievement of a genuine “evidence-based” medical system. Such records provide far richer data than clinical trials, and could serve as the basis for predictive models similar to those used in other scientific domains. The Council recommends that federal efforts to develop standards for an interoperable, national EHR system should be given high priority.” (CED, p. 13)
2.D. Voting Elections in the US are still wrought with allegations of fraud and inaccuracy and inefficiency. Diebold voting systems were found to have easy exploits that could be used to rig election results, and the systems were not fixed even after exposure. Hanging chads in Florida and Ohio called into question the intent behind certain votes. Long polling lines inconvenience voters and allow for abuse. A publically-vetted voting system that allows for citizens to vote online either at home or in person on regulated computer systems could be a huge application of open source software. Instead of a Diebold contract, publically-trusted encryption and good design can ensure that every citizen's vote is counted fairly, quickly, and transparently. When trillions of dollars are traded online daily in international currency markets, but people can't even place one vote, there is a problem within the software architecture and IT management within the government. A successful voting system would also allow for direct democracy where politicians could field on-the-spot polls and votes on topics to gauge sentiment or even to pass legislation. If a Congressman could query all of his constituents immediately, he would be able to make better decisions in representing them.
3) NATIONAL IDENTITY SYSTEM
Online voting and unified health records and direct democracy all demand that one's citizenship can be uniquely identified. President Obama should push for a national identity system to include a card and multiple verification techniques. Such a system should be open-sourced and transparent to privacy watchdog groups, public information groups, and security professionals. Concerns about privacy should be addressed by giving citizens the privacy controls and tools within the identity system to protect themselves and the access to their information instead of relying on a stodgy current Privacy Act that everyone signs but no one understands. Said Robert Kuttner in the Washington Post in 1993,
“The idea that any of us is sheltered from countless national data bases or ID cards has long since been overtaken by technology. Americans are already vulnerable to massive invasions of their privacy, courtesy of computerized data bases and ID cards. The paradox of our national phobia against ID cards is that we already have most of the liabilities while denying ourselves potential benefits of computerized record keeping.” (Kuttner)
Thus, with proper social oversight, this system would allow the government to streamline its operations and to eliminate many of the data entry and attribution mistakes that lead to identity theft, delays due to errors, and more. The precursor, the social security number, was never meant for universal ID purposes, lacking a check digit, "a digit that doesn't actually store information, but verifies that the other digits are correct. Without a check digit, there's no way to detect swapped digits or mistyped numbers. All of these problems only increase the amount of invalid information that will be stored in databanks using SSNs for identifiers." (Garfinkel, p. 20)
A unified identity system would allow citizens to be more efficient because they would be able to access all of their government accounts in one location and update their data once instead of across all sites. Users would be allowed to suggest fixes to mistakes instead of relying on overworked employees to process them. A national identity system should allow for approximate identity verification; biometrics and passwords only partially protect citizens and in some cases can make problems worse (trusted systems drop peoples' defenses in verifying identities). Therefore the government may need to build a socially-monitored trust or reputation system where one's identity is verified because people around that person say he is who he says he is on top of all the other evidence. Such a system is also more compatible with human recognition of those one knows in his life. Open-sourced identity systems would also allow for re-dress mechanisms, so people can fix errors such as hackers ruining their credit or having incorrect but dangerous information attached to their identities by accident or through malice.
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