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Obama Team Stumps for Tech Policy

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's tech policy team has been on a bit of a publicity junket of late.

In the four months since taking office, President Obama has added several tech advisory positions to the White House staff, made a series of splashy overtures to new media, and last week, he lent his imprimatur to an ambitious program to overhaul national cybersecurity.

And in an effort to demonstrate the administration's commitment to technology, members of the team in recent weeks have become regulars on the tech policy conference circuit.

One is Susan Crawford, the president's special assistant for science, technology and innovation policy, who was on hand to kick off this year's Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference here at George Washington University.

"Tech policy is at the heart of this administration's plans for the future," she declared.

Crawford held forth on a host of areas the administration has identified as priorities, including balancing security with privacy -- one of the prevailing themes of this week's conference -- as well as Net neutrality and universal access to high-speed networks.

"To be connected is increasingly essential," Crawford said, noting that much of the administration's domestic agenda, including healthcare and energy reform, hinges on ubiquitous Internet connectivity.

"Our broadband connections as a country are slow and expensive," she said. "We're not falling behind, we are definitively behind."

The administration put what it described as a down payment on the country's digital infrastructure with the February economic stimulus bill, which directed $7.2 billion for broadband projects. But that money, the administration acknowledges, is only a start.

"There is no one easy answer, but without adequate high-speed connections, we will miss tremendous opportunities to pioneer the great innovation of the future," Crawford said. "Because pioneers these days are working on data-intensive, collaborative projects that require high-speed connections that we may not have."

Crawford went so far this morning as to compare Obama to Lincoln in his commitment to the cutting-edge technology of the day. Just as Obama is forging a new digital infrastructure, she said, Lincoln was a driving force behind the expansion of the railroad. And when Lincoln arrived at the White House, he installed a telegraph line to receive real-time updates from his advisors in the field, much like the tech-savvy transition set about modernizing the IT facilities when it set up shop in January.

Critics have charged that the administration's actions haven't kept pace with its rhetoric about open and transparent government. The president had pledged to post all non-emergency bills online for five days before signing them into law, for instance, but in most cases that hasn't happened.

Nevertheless, the administration has taken the initiative to create or overhaul several Web sites in an effort to make government information more accessible to the public.

One was Data.gov, a project led by newly minted federal CIO Vivek Kundra and Beth Noveck, who holds the title of deputy CTO and is charged with promoting open government initiatives. The Web site houses vast stores of government information, organized and formatted in a way the administration hopes will make it easy for the public to access and analyze.

When administration officials talk about their open government initiatives, they frame them in the crowd-sourced model of Web 2.0 technologies, like Wikipedia, or the software development kits and APIs companies like Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) or Facebook have made available to the developer community. The aim is to make information available to as broad an audience as possible, unleashing a flood of innovation that runs in unpredictable directions.

"We have no idea how this data will be used, and that's the point," Crawford said.

Crawford also touched on the administration's efforts to promote collaborative technologies abroad as a vehicle for advancing the country's diplomatic agenda. All foreign service officers now receive training in new media technologies to better connect directly with the citizens of foreign countries as the State Department pursues a strategy it calls 21st century statecraft. Crawford also cited Obama's move to ease restrictions for U.S. telecom companies looking to do business in Cuba, an effort seen in part to sow the seeds of democracy by making it easier for Cubans to connect with the outside world.