The FTC’s New Chief Technologist

September 18, 2012

In my post yesterday, I talked about Prof. Ed Felten’s stint as the first Chief Technologist of the US Federal Trade Commission [FTC], and his comments on that experience.   Prof. Felten was successful at the FTC in at least one other important way: there will be a second Chief Technologist.

I am very glad to see that the FTC has made another excellent choice in appointing Prof. Steven M. Bellovin to the post.   Dr. Bellovin is a professor of computer science at Columbia University; previously, he worked for many years at AT&T Research. He has made many contributions to the development of the Internet, having served as a member of the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Architecture Board.  He describes his research interests as “Networks, security, and especially why the two don’t get along”, and is co-author of the classic book, Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker, first published in 1994, a copy of which has been on my shelves for many years.  Prof. Bellovin, in his new role,  has an introductory post on the Tech@FTC blog.

It seems to me that getting experts of the caliber of Ed Felten and Steve Bellovin involved in the FTC’s policy making process is a good thing from any reasonable point of view, and I think the FTC should be commended for making it happen.

Prof. Felten’s Take on Washington

September 17, 2012

Back in November, 2010, I wrote about the appointment of Prof. Ed Felten, of Princeton University, as the Federal Trade Commission’s Chief Technologist.   This was a term appointment, and Dr. Felten is now back at Princeton as a professor of computer science and public affairs.  He is also resuming his role as Director of the university’s Center for Information Technology Policy, and frequent contributor to the Freedom to Tinker blog.

Ars Technica has an interview with Prof. Felten, focused on his experience in Washington.

So what’s it like to be a geek in the land of lawyers? Ars Technica interviewed Felten by phone on Tuesday to find out.

The interview is short, but well worth reading for anyone interested in technology policy.  As the article points out, many people in policy-making positions in Washington have little to no technical background; many are lawyers.  And many of these people, regardless of their background, have some odd ideas about technology in general.

Computer scientists are a rare breed in lawyer-dominated Washington, DC, and Felten said it was sometimes a challenge helping policymakers understand the nature and limits of technology.

For example, he said a lot of people in Washington have a misconception that any problem “can obviously be solved if you try hard enough.”

In the absence of technical knowledge and understanding, many policy makers rely on getting advice from people they trust, on the basis of personal relationships.  This, of course, is at the root of the enormous lobbying business, but it is not all bad.  If the trusted people are actually competent, and not just pre-scripted automatons, it provides a means for technically qualified people to communicate their views.

… Felten said there are ways ordinary geeks can influence the policy process. The most important thing they can do, he said, is to develop relationships with people who do have direct connections to the policy process.

Although technology and science evolve quite rapidly, human nature has really not changed all that much.  Technical people ignore or discount personal relationship building at their peril.

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