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Does the U.S. Need a CTO?

Mitch Kapor, a pioneer of personal computing, says the position is vital given the growing importance of technology.

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?

Multimedia

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.

TR: How is that different from the job of a national chief information officer?

That’s a good question, and I’m not sure if I have a good answer. It seems to me that whatever you call it, it’s helpful to put the coördinating activities and policy advisory piece under the CTO umbrella. That feels different from a CIO.

TR: How much actual power would the position have?

How much formal authority versus soft power a CTO has is clearly a very big issue. No matter how much formal authority you have, if you don’t have soft power you’re not going to get anything done. So you want somebody who is taken seriously, and it would help if the president makes it very clear that this is a serious position. Second, it should be the kind of person who is able to lead by influence and not by command. I personally think that might well be sufficient.

TR: You mean the CTO would be a moral force, equipped only with soft power?

The idea of trying to give a CTO formal authority over other bodies and agencies has a very high risk of failure.

TR: It sounds as if the CTO would have no operational responsibility and be unaccountable if anything went wrong.

I don’t know. I was a volunteer on a committee that worked on the proposal last fall, so what I know about are the discussions that led up to the announcement. The plan of record for the CTO doesn’t get into a level of detail that would address this, and I don’t have visibility on what has or hasn’t happened since the plan was announced.

TR: You come from the world of startups. But our government is a series of competing, often sclerotic bureaucracies.

It’s important for whoever has the role to go in with the expectation that the federal government is the opposite of a startup. To expect it to be agile is just ludicrously unrealistic.

TR: So who’s on your shortlist?

I’m a million miles away from whatever group of people will actually pick the CTO. I would like it to be someone who has some startup DNA in him or her, but who’s realistic about getting things done.

TR: One has to ask: do you want to be CTO?

I’m interested in helping in some way, but the time to think about specifics is post-election.

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