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Grilling all the (next) presidents' men

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CFP 2008 Dear Potus 2008...

Top ten things you haven't seen a US presidential candidate discuss: infosecurity; privacy from corporations; software patents; the infrastructure fund; network neutrality; user-centric ID systems; ownership of personal information; science/technology education; open APIs for government data.

Actually, in a little under an hour the folks at last week's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference were able to think of a lot more than ten.

Why? the conference asked representatives of the McCain (Chuck Fish) and Obama campaigns (Danny Weitzner) on the first day. (The Clinton campaign was also invited but failed to send a representative.) How can we get the candidates to give issues of technology policy greater consideration and thought than the mass media's preferred binary Mac-vs-PC, diamonds-or-pearls level?

Weitzner, who is director for centralised information at MIT, pointed out that there was a lot of detail in the Obama campaign's technology policy documents. Obama, he said, supports network neutrality, wants to reverse the recent FCC-approved trend toward media consolidation, seeks to preserve freedom of expression while protecting children, and opposes censorship. Obama also favours privacy from government surveillance and consumer privacy; wants new privacy protections from misuse of personal information no matter how it's obtained; and wants government information to be more open to citizens.

Fish summed up McCain's stand as: "We should let the market work, but tend to it." Innovation, he said, implies action – improving the world. Innovation policy should let innovators keep the rewards of what they do. The US needs both available risk capital and a skilled workforce. McCain aims for light regulation, free and open markets, free trade, vigorous enforcement of all regulations, and reform of the Sarbanes Oxley regulations implemented to check corporate malfeasance.

As for privacy, Fish said it's part of the broader problem of personal security, needed in the digital age. A McCain administration would seek to ensure the personal security rights of consumers and society through education, technological innovation, targeted legislation, and regulation when necessary.

Fish and Weitzner went on to spend another hour answering detailed questions. Both campaigns doubted the value of an intellectual property czar ("Too many czars spoil the broth," quipped Fish).

Does it matter that the US is behind in deploying broadband? Does the country need increased competition in that market?

"I believe openness is more important than bandwidth," said Weitzner, who also strongly favoured open standards. In his former job at the W3C, he said, he saw directly how much of, for example, disabled access to the Web came down to open standards. Ensuring that requires more than relying on the market.

But the real key question - how do you get the mainstream media to pay attention to these sorts of questions? How do you get the candidates to address them directly? Start the debate - get people talking.

CFP therefore began a project to write a series of letters to the next president to do just that. You don't have to have gone to the conference to join in. If enough of us talk to them, they'll have to start answering. ®

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