Obama’s Missed Opportunity

According to National Journal, Susan Crawford is joining the Obama administration in a significant new role:

Internet law expert Susan Crawford has joined President Barack Obama’s lineup of tech policy experts at the White House, according to several sources. She will likely hold the title of special assistant to the president for science, technology, and innovation policy, they said.

This does not make me happy. Crawford is not a scientist, technologist, or innovator, and the job that’s been created for her needs to be filled by someone who is; and an exceptional one at that, a person with deep knowledge of technology, the technology business, and the dynamics of research and business that promote innovation. A life as a legal academic is not good preparation for this kind of a job. Crawford is a sweet and well-meaning person, who fervently believes that the policy agenda she’s been promoting is good for the average citizen and the general health of the democracy and that sort of thing, but she illustrates the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

As much as she loves the Internet and all that it’s done for modern society, she has precious little knowledge about the practical realities of its operation. Her principal background is service on the ICANN Board, where she listened to debates on the number of TLDs that can dance on the head of pin and similarly weighty matters. IETF engineers generally scoff at ICANN as a bloated, inefficient, and ineffective organization that deals with issues no serious engineer wants anything to do with. Her other qualification is an advisory role at Public Knowledge, a big player on the Google side of the net neutrality and copyright debates.

At my recent net neutrality panel discussion at MAAWG, I warned the audience that Crawford’s selection to co-manage the Obama transition team’s FCC oversight was an indication that extreme views on Internet regulation might become mainstream. It appears that my worst fears have been realized. Crawford has said that Internet traffic must not be shaped, managed, or prioritized by ISPs and core networking providers, which is a mistake of the worst kind. While work is being done all over the world to adapt the Internet to the needs of a more diverse mix of applications than it’s traditionally handled, Crawford harbors the seriously misguided belief that it already handles diverse applications well enough. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course: P2P has interesting uses, but it degrades the performance of VoIP and video calling unless managed.

This is an engineering problem that can be solved, but which won’t be if the constraints on traffic management are too severe. People who harbor the religious approach to network management that Crawford professes have so far been an interesting sideshow in the network management wars, but if their views come to dominate the regulatory framework, the Internet will be in serious danger.

Creating a position for a special adviser on science, technology and innovation gave President Obama the opportunity to to lay the foundation of a strong policy in a significant area. Filling it with a law professor instead of an actual scientist, technologist, or innovator simply reinforces the creeping suspicion that Obama is less about transformational change than about business as usual. That’s a shame.

Cross-posted at CircleID.

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