SHIFT: Is Obama a tech friend or foe?

DVICE writers take a closer look at the latest tech trends in our weekly column, Shift.

While President Barack Obama's honeymoon rages on, those of us who like to see technological progress are keeping a close eye on the horizon, looking for either dark clouds or silver linings.

So far we're seeing a mixed bag. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Obama sang the praises of technological progress, but some of his appointees aren't singing from the same hymnal.

At stake is the unfettered Internet, unlimited bandwidth, file sharing without government snoops breathing down our necks, and freedom to record what we want on our own DVRs. All of it could be at risk as some of the new officials move into their high offices in the Obama administration.


Questionable Appointees

The president has the final say in whatever decisions are made, but he could be influenced by his appointees, some of whom have repeatedly proven that they're no friends of technological progress. That's stoking our techno-fears.

First on the list is Vice President Joe Biden. Obama's VP has a long history of aligning himself with the recording industry. At one point he wanted to make it a felony to create a device capable of circumventing copy-protecting DRM (digital rights management).

Then there's the Department of Justice. Industry watchdogs say associate deputy Donald Verrilli and associate attorney general Tom Perrelli are "the RIAA's favorite lawyers." Add to them Neil MacBride, who before he was appointed associate deputy attorney general, was vice president of anti-piracy and general counsel at the Business Software Alliance (BSA). He headed up the practice of paying off people who report suspected software piracy to that organization. This is not looking good.

If Obama appointed these recording and movie industry advocates, who might he choose as head of the Federal Communications Commission? Former FCC chair Kevin Martin rejected the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) scheme to put recording blocks onto every DVR in the country. Now that Martin's gone, the MPAA is back knocking on the FCC's door, trying to put the squeeze on temporary FCC chairman Michael Copps. Will the FCC cave, letting the MPAA decide what we can record on our own TiVos? Will Obama appoint an FCC chairman who fights for the rights of Internet service providers, or for the users of those services?


Friends of Progress

Despite those questionable appointments, all is not lost, tech lovers. There's some good news, too. For instance, when California Senator Dianne Feinstein tried to slip in a provision for "network management," allowing Internet service providers to filter broadband streams looking for copyrighted materials under the guise of protecting us from child porn, the idea was shot down before it could slither into the stimulus bill.

More good news: The economic stimulus bill's $9 billion to fund wireless broadband networks in under-served areas was on its way toward oblivion, but after all the haggling was done, the cash ended up staying in, albeit at a diminished $7.2 billion. Someone must have agreed with Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who said a $10 billion broadband stimulus would create 498,000 new jobs. Good call.


The President's Say

There have been boatloads of alarm spread all over the Internet this past week about the diminishing role of tech in the economic stimulus bill, and most of that alarm turned out to be overwrought. The tech-smart and BlackBerry-carrying President Obama craves consensus, so he's not going to make it easy for file-sharing pirates to swipe movies and software, nor is he going to allow broadband providers to suck the life out of our crucial information conduits.

Let's hope the new president keeps a close eye on some of these record-industry and movie-business appointees of his, making sure that his fondness for Net neutrality and tech freedom isn't stomped down by greedy industry insiders who suddenly find themselves drunk on power.