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Open Source In Obama's Tech Agenda

Much noise has been made in the past week or so about President-elect Barack Obama's creation of a governmental chief tech officer position. My question is: What will be their stance on open source? Will they lean towards it, mandate it, forbid it ... or ignore it entirely? I looked into it, and came away feeling we had much bigger problems looming.

Much noise has been made in the past week or so about President-elect Barack Obama's creation of a governmental chief tech officer position. My question is: What will be their stance on open source? Will they lean towards it, mandate it, forbid it ... or ignore it entirely? I looked into it, and came away feeling we had much bigger problems looming.

Since no one has been named to the position yet and no nomination is imminent, you can expect plenty more speculation about who's to fill this first-of-its-kind cabinet position. There's little question in my mind that open source and especially open data interchange formats are a smart idea for government work, especially since other countries are getting wise to the idea.

What bothers me deeply, though, is that even if Obama chooses someone open to open source and standards, his picks for Justice Department slots have so far been uniformly tech- and open-culture unfriendly.

Look at the names. David Ogden, his Deputy Attorney General pick, is the one who organized the Child Online Protection Act (and whose firm argued the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act before the Supreme Court); and Obama's choice for third-in-command is sometime RIAA lawyer Tom Perelli.

The choice for the top Justice Department slot, Eric Holder, has come down in the past in favor of things like mandatory web content labeling and aggressive enforcement of intellectual property laws. It's a mixed bag: Yes, he defended Verizon against the RIAA when the latter came demanding subscriber names -- but he also stumped for broad surveillance proposals that were either porked into law as part of other legislation or added into the then-nascent Patriot Act.

One could, I guess, argue that strong copyright protection is actually a boon to open source advocates because it means their own works can be defended that much more vigorously in court from license violators, but that's a little like saying having a surface-to-air missile in your garage makes your neighborhood less prone to toolshed burglaries. We don't need more draconian legislation or even enforcement to make that happen.

Now, I don't believe that whoever gets tapped for the position should be an open source purist. Viz.: the recent flap about Vietnam mandating open source software for all government systems, which to my mind is a crippling gesture. If the options for one or the other exist, then a government body should choose the one that has the best support for open standards. It's the data that matters here, not the app itself.

But if the above choices are any kind of sign as to how Obama is handling the tech/IP/open side of things, we may not have to worry about someone leaning too far in that direction. No, I suspect that'll be the least of our problems.


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