No “Technology Czar,” Please

Like everybody else in town, we’re pondering the implications of the transition to the Obama Administration for various policy areas here at CEI. On the technology/Internet front, CNet’s Declan McCullagh has a superb overview today.

On the high-technology front, president-elect Obama has indicated he’d appoint a Chief Technology Officer. The role seems federal-government-focused: The tech “czar” would manage government technology policy with respect to matters like cybersecurity, privacy and Internet policies–basically securing governement networks and keeping government agencies on the cutting edge of communications technology.

The role as described seems limited to “bringing government into the 21st century.” But would the role remain circumscribed? “Czars,” like commissions of various sorts, are tempting for politicians, and can end up as barriers and stumbling blocks to non-political solutions to normal problems and challenges. A drug czar wages a hugely expensive war on drugs; An education czar ends up supporting funding of education programs from Washington, D.C.

Industries–and mere concepts like “technology”–do not need czars in Washington. Such enterprise needs to operate apart from this city. Indeed, even supposedly “deregulatory” Republicans were not reluctant to regulate the Internet. Bush favored federal privacy regulation, but never pushed it. His adminstration was also happy to target porn and “spam.” Legislation favored by the Republicans ran the gamut from gambling to cable regulation to media ownership. Right now, many firms in Washington are poised to push for federal privacy legislation to, as they say, pre-empt the states and get rid of the “patchwork” of privacy legislation with which they must deal. But the risk is merely trading 50 regulators for 51.

Given the constant pressures for meddling in technology by both parties, a “czar” can easily becomes a central figure in the drive to regulate someone, somewhere, rather than simply tend to government modernization knitting.

A government tech czar would likely grow in stature and as a focus of lobbying. It’s one thing to form a commission (such as the military base closure commssion) when we already have big government and are looking for ways to reduce it by fast-track means. But a technology officer seems too easily a mechanism for establishing government authority over our most vulnerable, frontier technologies and sciences. Leaving technology “officer-ship” to the private sector seems a better approach, and one more apt to ensure competition among the states as far as any regulatory policy goes.

So as far as a Chief Technology Officer is concerned, America is not any worse off without it, and could be a lot worse off with it. Hearings on the idea are in order at the very least, but best would be for the idea to simply fade.