The State of the Union usually has as its centerpiece jobs, the environment, or social justice. But when President Obama delivers the speech before Congress on Tuesday night, he'll likely focus more than usual on technology. Here are three areas of tech policy and the major proposals he's expected to announce.
In December, Mr. Obama made headlines when he announced his support for strong net neutrality rules and for disallowing broadband Internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon from blocking or slowing the delivery of online content. He hasn’t brought up the issue since then, but FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hinted earlier this month that the Commission will follow the President’s lead on this issue by reclassifying broadband providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.
“Common carrier” reclassification isn’t a foregone conclusion, however. Senate and House Republicans introduced a bill this month that would codify the major principles of net neutrality (including the “no blocking” and “no paid prioritization” measures supported by the President) but would leave broadband providers as Title I “information service” providers. The bill would also reduce the FCC’s general authority to make Internet regulations. Obama may use the State of the Union to reiterate his stance on net neutrality, and to publicly urge that broadband providers be reclassified under Title II.
Municipal broadband is rare in the US, as only Chattanooga, Tenn.; Wilson, N.C.; and a small number of other communities have successfully deployed gigabit community networks. But plenty of cities, spurred by voters who aren’t happy with the service offered by fiber or cable companies, are considering deploying their own networks. The catch is that many areas have laws preventing municipal broadband.
Obama has said that he wants to end these laws, and the White House’s new broadband plan includes a program, BroadbandUSA, that will encourage communities to deploy their own high-speed networks. BroadbandUSA will offer guidance on planning, financing, and building municipal broadband networks, and even includes funding for “in-person technical assistance to communities.”
Obama will likely use the State of the Union to pitch this initiative, especially since Internet providers and trade groups are lobbying against it, arguing that government-funded networks are inefficient and unfairly compete with private companies to boot. Obama could sell municipal broadband as a practical way of providing more choice to consumers.
Obama will likely also use the State of the Union to call for stronger protection against identity theft and harsher penalties for hackers convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). These proposals aren’t as straightforward as they might sound. The language of the CFAA is already pretty broad, and security specialists have argued that Obama’s revisions could actually make legitimate security research illegal. Harsher penalties might deter some hackers from attempting any mischief, but that’s a purely speculative benefit.
Obama will also call on companies to do a better job of sharing threats to their networks with one another and with the government, with the goal of minimizing damage done by hacking attacks. The recent attacks against Target, Home Depot, and Sony Pictures might have been less devastating, Obama argues, if the companies involved were able to identify the threats earlier and enlist the help of the FBI.
The White House leaked the President’s plans for net neutrality, community broadband, and computer abuse ahead of time, but it’s possible Obama will announce new tech policies during the State of the Union. Since the President is no longer politically constrained by midterm elections, the White House might be a bit bolder about making technology rules between now and 2016.