Mitch Kapor likes beginnings. In 1982, he founded Lotus Development, which made the popular spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3. In 1990, he cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a political-advocacy and legal organization that champions free speech and privacy. And in 2003, he became the founding chair of the Mozilla Foundation, which is responsible for the open-source Web browser Firefox. Today, Kapor sits on the boards of such companies as Linden Research, and he heads his eponymous foundation, which provides grants to San Francisco Bay Area organizations working with low-income communities on educational and environmental issues.
Last fall, Kapor was called upon to help Senator Barack Obama define his technology positions. Kapor suggested that Obama, if elected president, should install a federal chief technology officer. Conservatives grumbled at the idea of another layer of bureaucracy, but Kapor and others in Silicon Valley say the government needs cohesive technology practices and policies.
Kapor recently spoke with Technology Review’s information technology editor, Kate Greene.
TR: Why does the country need a CTO?
Kapor: The underlying premise is that tech is inextricably intertwined with virtually everything. You can’t talk about homeland security or education or energy without it being in large part a conversation about technology. The president will be well served if policy making is done in a more technologically sophisticated way.
TR: What would a CTO worry about?
We’re in the middle of the pack as a nation in terms of broadband deployment. We need to have policies that will enable us to catch up and do so in a way that’s ubiquitous and affordable. I also think tech policies that stimulate innovation in the economy are very important, because innovation is the engine of growth. Getting the balance in intellectual-property law that will stimulate innovations is therefore very important. Net neutrality is also a huge issue in ensuring the Internet isn’t controlled by the people who own the wires, because that is just going to impede innovation.
TR: Would the CTO oversee the federal government’s infrastructure? Demand that networks of agencies work together?
The advantage of a CTO is that there can be coördination. There’s a ton of work that goes on within different agencies: there needs to be someone to identify the best ways of doing things and some common practices.
TR: In practice, how would a CTO do that?
You could take practical steps in terms of data and data storage and its accessibility and availability, both across department and agency boundaries and to the public.