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Obama's Unsung Tech Hero: Hillary Clinton

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We're two years into the Obama administration, and many are measuring how President Obama's government has delivered on Candidate Obama's campaign promises.

Here's a look at how he's done on technology policy. Before you yawn and click away, bear in mind: these wonky decisions will fundamentally determine the future of everything you read, watch, and listen to, maybe for generations.

On the campaign trail, Obama offered aggressive and lofty promises on technology policy -- from net neutrality (the principle that enables you to go anywhere on the Internet without permission from your phone and cable company) to media diversity to broadband policy. And he was technologically one step ahead of everyone else as his campaign used new technology innovatively to organize new voters across the nation.

These promises and innovative uses contributed to the overwhelming support Candidate Obama received from Silicon Valley, many "Net Roots" activists, and even among young voters who grew up with digital technologies.

But his early report card on technology policy is a mixed bag, with some real surprises -- both in the success column and certainly in the failure column. One of the biggest surprises is the low-profile successes of a high profile player.

But first, the glaring failure named Julius Genachowski, the FCC Chairman. I (and others) have written previously about how he has broken the president's promises and failed the public on network neutralitybroadband policiesmedia ownership, and public safety. He has even even broken these promises with impressive political incompetence. Many people are privately calling Genachowski the most disappointing failure in FCC history.

But there are some often-ignored victories that must not be ignored: stimulus initiatives in broadband deployment, open government, online privacy, and smart grid.

Here's how the wins stack up:
  • The stimulus bill in 2009 ordered the Commerce and Agriculture Departments to implement, from scratch, a $7 billion grant program for broadband infrastructure. It's too early to tell exactly how effectively the two agencies have implemented the program, and there are bound to be errors in any enormous, new project. But even with some potential mistakes, Congress and the administration deserve credit for recognizing the value of this investment. The nation will likely receive a tremendous return on these broadband networks, with benefits in the decades to come.
  • On open government, the White House has done a reasonable -- albeit imperfect -- job of delivering on its campaign promises. There is more yet to do, but the administration has gone further than previous administrations to provide the public access to government data. It has also initiated some successful experiments using technology to hear from the public, to catalyze potential solutions to major challenges in healthcare, education, and energy.
  • Over at the Federal Trade Commission, the Bureau of Consumer Protection has been both visionary and practical in addressing the new challenges raised by online privacy threats. While many naturally have differing opinions of the FTC's actions, few can doubt that the FTC has brought a deep level of thought and consideration to what are very difficult issues, and has proposed some workable solutions.
  • Several agencies are working together to ensure our nation can transition to "smart grid" technologies, which are necessary both to plug renewables into our grid and to give consumers more control of their energy consumption. The Department of Energy has taken the lead, from implementing billion-dollar stimulus initiatives to thinking through the privacy implications of a connected electricity grid.
The Secret Hero

The most surprising and impressive successes on technology policy in this administration have come from perhaps the agency and the woman least expected to deliver them -- the State Department and Hillary Clinton. In 2008, she was supposedly techno-challenged and out of touch... a creature of the 90s... a luddite who ignored Silicon Valley in the campaign and didn't quite understand the Internet era.

Remember that woman? (Remember 2008?)

Today, in 2011, I'm giving Secretary Hillary Clinton the nod as the Obama Administration's improbable MVP in the technology realm. While she has not magically downloaded world peace on every nation's hard drive, she has been the smartest, most aggressive, and most successful senior member of the Obama Administration to attempt to harness all things digital to serve her department's wide-ranging agenda. For that alone, she deserves credit. She has initiated several innovative technology-based diplomacy and development efforts as a means of re-imagining power relationships in a networked world, under the umbrella of a State-Department marketing slogan -- "21st Century Statecraft."

So, while I have often noted Administration shortcomings (especially at the FCC), here I can give credit where due.

From where I sit, it appears the State Department has become a hub of technology activity. The Department has been dreaming up imaginative ways to use technology and actually implementing them in particular communities, for the benefit of particular people, in ways that further American diplomatic and development goals.

Here are some encouraging examples:
  • Clinton's team facilitated more than $30 million in donations from Americans through text messages for earthquake relief in Haiti. This "people-to-people" diplomacy can be more immediate than "diplomat-to-diplomat" diplomacy, both to other nations' citizens and to our own. It can win hearts and minds abroad and increase engagement here.
  • Clinton's team has rethought the State Department's approach to civil society with a program called Civil Society 2.0 that connects grassroots organizations with technologists.  They have used multiple strategies based on mobile technologies in both the Afghanistan war zones and Mexican drug wars.
  • They have started initiatives that further economic and human development by promoting entrepreneurship in developing countries.
  • Clinton has also used technology to address the key development challenge of gender inequality, announcing, with Cheri Blair, an "MWomen" initiative aimed at slashing in half the gap between men and women who use mobile technology. She's also sending a delegation of women techies to Liberia and Sierra Leone to explore how technology can increase opportunities for women and girls in those countries.
  • And they are injecting new ideas into the State Department while inspiring the next generation. For example, more than 100 college students now have internships in the "virtual student foreign service," helping embassies understand how to use social media.
But, more than even these initiatives, Clinton's global Internet Freedom agenda has struck me as the most important Internet policy initiative of the Obama Administration. Of course, I have worked on open Internet, speech, and entrepreneurship issues for years; so this item is close to my heart.

But Clinton has done something historic here.

Almost exactly a year ago, she launched the initiative to place Internet Freedom at the center of our nation's diplomacy and development agenda. While this initiative specifically challenged China and Iran in some ways, it's more a broad directional commitment than a specific project.

Putting Internet Freedom center stage in our diplomatic agenda is part of a long game. International relations, and even international "law," turn largely on persuasion, on ideas, and on customs among nations. The long game is to change assumptions about, and actions concerning, technology, politics, and economics in the Internet age.

Rather than being mere rhetoric, in international relations, demonstrating thought leadership and injecting ideas into international dialogue plays an important role in this long diplomatic dance. Governments, supporters, and critics already measure their views and actions on global Internet Freedom against the standard she set in that speech and subsequent actions.

The Internet Freedom agenda has some vocal skeptics. And they make some good points, though many of these points seem to be criticizing some 1990s utopian hacker rather than Hillary Clinton.

I don't see much evidence that Clinton and her deputies are cyber-utopians overlooking the threats of digital technologies in the hands of autocrats. Clay Shirky has addressed this strawman. Do you really think Hillary Clinton, of all people, is an impractical utopian? Her point-man on these issues told the New York Times Magazine the obvious: Clinton "doesn't believe you can sprinkle the Internet on something and everybody grows up to be healthy, wealthy and wise."  Even in her Internet Freedom speech a year ago, she noted the Internet's double-edged sword-that technological disruption would bite the US in some ways, even while it fueled our economy and our own diplomatic initiatives.

I also disagree with critics suggesting that the initiative hasn't accomplished enough quickly enough. We cannot expect repressive autocrats suddenly to see the light of logic and freedom, within a year of any initiative. And we certainly should not abandon the initiative because Clinton's Department has failed to bring world peace within a year of announcing a bold policy vision.

We don't abandon a challenge merely because it is difficult. We simply have to employ more innovative strategies to meet those challenges.

That is why it is a good thing that these initiates may not be a flash in the pan. It appears they will become baked into the State Department. Clinton recently released a four-year strategic-policy review called, in the artful language of bureaucracy, the "Quadrennial Diplomatic and Development Review." If enacted, pieces of it would institutionalize much of her technology-based activity.†In the difficult business of turning enormous bureaucracies in new directions, Clinton's accomplishments in technology could be a signature piece of her legacy.

The WikiLeaks Challenge

One year in, the State Department has not yet met some of the biggest challenges to the 21st Century Statecraft agenda, particularly on Internet Freedom.

Its toughest challenge to date appears to be WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks will force the leaders on Internet Freedom and open government (both at home and abroad) either to reaffirm their principles under fire or else explain how targeting WikiLeaks is consistent with those principles. If the Administration adopts over-the-top policies of domestic Internet surveillance or puts Julian Assange in the dock on modern-day sedition charges, it will be hard to convince the rest of the world that we still believe in Internet Freedom -- as I've written elsewhere.

The response at State and across the Obama administration was not encouraging at first. But we are still in early days.

Clinton's initiatives and articulated ideals give me some hope -- at least her decisions will be based on reflection and a sensitivity to our ideals. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, declaring that all men were created equal, he owned slaves. Women couldn't vote. But, throughout history, our abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights leaders called on our nation, in reality, to live up to the nation's professed ideals in that Declaration. At least Clinton, like Jefferson, has declared as our goals in the 21st Century to be the highest ideals of freedom and equality. And many are calling on the U.S., once again, to live up to these ideals.

As a result, as I watch the WikiLeaks become the latest flashpoint balancing liberty and security, I take some comfort that this flashpoint has happened now, with Clinton, Obama, and their lawyers at the helm -- rather than a few years back in the days of Bush, Cheney, Addington, and John Yoo. The Bush-era ideals were better reflected in now-reversed legal memos than in initiatives for online privacy, energy innovation, and Internet Freedom.

Through this challenge, and others, we'll see if the State Department will maintain a strong, consistent record that will serve our nation in the long-term -- or demonstrate the kind of lovable but myopic lack of courage and vision that will define FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's legacy on a range of issues.

I expect some disagreement and know the biggest challenges await. But if you're giving credit where due, and recognizing the best tech policy and leadership in this Administration's first two years, you have to give credit to Secretary Clinton.

Marvin Ammori is a law professor at the University of Nebraska, where he teaches domestic and international telecom law and cyberlaw. He is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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