The Short List for U.S. Chief Technology Officer


Barack Obama has pledged to name a cabinet-level CTO to oversee a job-creating national broadband buildout if he's elected. Big names abound

Barack Obama says that the U.S. is not doing nearly enough to create jobs through technology. Shortly after he launched his campaign, the Illinois Senator promised that if elected, he would create the first-ever Cabinet-level post of chief technology officer. The economic crisis has since made it certain that a White House CTO would become one of Obama's most important advisers, should he triumph in November. "Obama sees greater broadband penetration as an enormous economic engine, much like the railroads were a century ago," says Andrew D. Lipman, a veteran communications lawyer in Washington. "That is why the CTO will play such a critical role in any recovery plan."

Among the candidates who would be considered for the job, say Washington insiders, are Vint Cerf, Google's (GOOG) "chief internet evangelist," who is often cited as one of the fathers of the Internet; Microsoft (MSFT) chief executive officer Steve Ballmer; Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeffrey Bezos; and Ed Felten, a prominent professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. An Obama campaign spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment about potential CTO candidates.

Obama—who has effectively used the Internet and social networks throughout his campaign to raise funds, engage voters, and put forward policy positions—has long criticized the Bush administration for not doing more to increase broadband penetration in the U.S., particularly in rural areas. The country ranked 15th among industrial nations in penetration, with a mere 23 out of 100 Americans having access to broadband service, according to a report released earlier this year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A White House CTO would be expected to help create incentive programs to expand broadband's reach, particularly tax credits for smaller carriers. But the tech czar would almost certainly be deeply involved in overseeing a federally-backed $50 billion venture capital fund that Obama has proposed to develop more environmentally friendly technology.

CTO vs. FCC?

What is less clear is how a CTO would interact with the Federal Communications Commission. While the FCC chairman does not belong to the Cabinet, the person filling that role has traditionally been a leading voice on issues of media, telecommunications, and technology. It is widely expected that President Bush's appointed FCC chair, Kevin Martin, would step down if Obama were elected. Sources say Obama might then consider appointing his former Harvard Law School classmate and current campaign adviser, Julius Genachowski, to the chairman's post. A former adviser to FCC chairs Reed Hundt and Bill Kennard, Genachowski won plaudits for his work as top executive at Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI). More recently, Genachowski has been running his own venture capital firm, Rock Creek Ventures.

One who does not foresee conflict between a CTO and the FCC, whose charge is mostly regulatory, is Lawrence Lessig, a noted scholar on law in the digital age and the founder of Stanford University's Center for the Internet and Society. Lessig says he sees the positions as "orthogonal"—or perpendicular—to one another. "That said, I do think the CTO could be a critically important position, from deciding how to make government more efficient and transparent through technology, to helping advance public policy questions like those surrounding global warning." Lessig, who would certainly be considered a candidate for the job of CTO, says he has not been approached by anyone on Obama's staff and adds that he would not be interested.

Princeton's Felten says he has not been approached by Obama's team either, but believes a government CTO is necessary for these times. He sees the job as holding far-reaching responsibilities. "First, the CTO could act as the cybersecurity czar, ensuring that reliability of the government infrastructure is protected. And much like the role of presidential science adviser, the CTO could offer advice to the president on all areas of technology. The role could be a catalyst to push us closer to being a more entrepreneurial, high-tech country." When asked if he would be interested in the job, Felten replied: "Almost anyone would be interested in doing that job." Bezos and Ballmer were less forthcoming; each declined to comment. Through a spokesman, Cerf said: "I have not had any contact with the Obama campaign on this topic."

Lowry is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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