More Than Gimmicks: How Obama's Tech Tools Are Shifting the Debate

Critics deride the White House's fondness for platforms like Google Plus and web petitions, but they're proving effective at surfacing issues the media would otherwise ignore.

Just 10 days after a petition supporting cell phone unlocking posted to the White House's We the People site surpassed the 100,000-signature mark that triggers an official response, the Obama Administration today replied, saying, "The White House agrees with the 114,000 of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties." (The technologists organizing around the petition had offered an incentive: They'd jailbreak one phone for anyone who'd contribute a signature.) The response is signed by R. David Edelman, a senior White House adviser on Internet policy who is just a half-dozen years removed from his senior year at Yale. A pro-unlocking policy, said the statement, is "common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers' needs."

The episode is of a piece with a pattern that's the talk of policy circles. The Obama Administration's fluffy not-quite-press engagements -- not just the We the People petition site, but also things like its Google Hangouts -- keep nudging conversations. And for all the fuss over the goofy White House response to request that the federal government build its own Death Star, there's something bigger at work. In a recent article titled "Obama, the Puppet Master," Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei argued the White House has "taken old tricks for shaping coverage" and "put them on steroids," bypassing the traditional press -- and, by implication, accountability. But that framing doesn't fully capture what's actually going on.

Partly by design (i.e., the self-locking of the Obama Administration into public participation) and partly a product of the fact that people who mix it up online and who work in government both lean nerdy, we're witnessing the White House's digital platforms draw attention to obscure, often intensely geeky issues and turn them into major policy issues.

Untethering cell phones from AT&T et al. isn't the sort of thing that traditionally rises to the level of "White House issue." It's not an emergency situation nor the kind of topic that the National Economic Council is rushing to put on its own agenda. The Library of Congress has the job of working out what's exempted from the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act's rules on circumventing copyright restrictions; this fall it dropped cell-phone unlocking from that list. And yet, last Monday -- only two working days after the unlocking petition merited a response -- just under a dozen officials from major officials and federal agencies convened at the White House to discuss tackling the topic. That meeting was one of what an administration official calls "a number of internal discussions" held in the days immediately after the petition qualified for a response.

What had been a fight between tech giants had become a conversation between the president and a pink-haired electrical engineer from SoHo.

What real authority does the White House have over the legislative branch's library? None, really. But it still did something big. It made plain that shifting device control from carriers to consumers is no mere dork obsession -- it's something worth the worrying of serious Washington people.

On other arguably esoteric topics, We the People is emerging as a sort of Mariano Rivera of policymaking, pushing stalled issues towards closure, say observers both inside and outside the administration. Last last month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a widely praised policy statement in favor of increasing free public access to federally funded scientific research, along the lines of the National Institutes of Health's PubMed Central database. It's been a long time coming. Congress mandated two full years ago that the White House science office figure out an approach on maximizing public access. But sources say it was the momentum around a petition on the topic, which reached the then-25,000-signature threshold in June, that helped focus internal processes and finally push a policy public.

Then, of course, there was last winter's debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the PROTECT IP Act in the Senate. The bills were already on shaky footing in Congress when the White House, its hand "forced" by the massive public interest in a related petition, said it could never sign off on policy proposals that sounded a lot like SOPA and PIPA. Not that Republican Lamar Smith, SOPA's champion, would have cared much on his own. But "Pat Leahy did," explains a senior House Republican staffer of the House Judiciary Committee chairman's Senate counterpart, "and this was still a coordinated effort." Both bills went into the dustbin.

Meanwhile, though not once during his Google Plus video chat with a handful of citizens shortly after the State of the Union did President Obama actually utter the phrase "patent trolls," those who work on patent reform report say that what he did say had the effect of rebooting the issue of excessively aggressive patent holders, a policy topic that had effectively gone into sleep mode.

About a third of the way into the 45-minute "Fireside Hangout," Obama fielded a question from Limor Fried, an electrical engineer and proprietor of Adafruit Industries, a New York DIY and tool shop. (Google picked the president's five interlocutors, based largely on their online popularity, and flagged for the White House ahead of time which topics would likely come up.) "When I go around and talk to other entrepreneurs," Fried explained to Obama, "what I hear is they're worried that if they become successful they're going to be targeted by software patent trolls." Sure, the president and Congress have passed some legislation on patents, she granted. But what about that?

"It's a great question, and you're right," a chatty president responded to Fried. The patent system still has its failings. "The folks you're talking about," said the president, balleting around the loaded t-word, "they're a classic example. They don't actually produce anything themselves. They're just trying to essentially leverage and hijack somebody else's idea and extort some money out of them."

Obama then snapped into "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand" mode, but he'd said enough to thrill patent reformers, among them Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which hosts the annual CES tech extravaganza in Las Vegas.

"For him to speak out on a business issue is rare, other than negative things, like so-called tax loopholes," Shapiro said in a call last week. As you might have guessed, Shapiro has his issues with Obama, but even those few words were a "green light and a strong message that it's a priority for him and that Democrats in the House and Senate should support it." If the interpretation is self-serving -- Shapiro hates "trolls" -- it also seems to have the benefit of being true.

Congress's seven-year debate that ended with 2011's America Invents Act was so long and exhausting, say watchers, that it left Capitol Hill with patent-reform fatigue. For members who hadn't paid much attention since, Obama's mention was a reminder that the "fix patents" box hasn't yet been checked. For the more engaged ones, it was a signal that reformers have an ally in the administration. Last Wednesday, Oregon Democrat Peter Defazio and Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz just re-introduced a bill in the House to, basically, make those who aren't a patent's inventors or original investors pay for the costs of failed suits. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation quickly did the work of marrying the two developments. ("President Obama recently acknowledged...")

What had been a lawyer-saturated fight between tech-industry giants has become a conversation between the president of the United States and a pink-haired electrical engineer from SoHo.

The public-interaction tools the White House is pushing into the world have proven particularly primed to bring up issues that a critical mass of the public actually does turn out to care about, but that aren't normally the substance of big Washington public-policy debates. It's not surprising that tech has dominated -- it's an Internet truism that the web over-represents technology. And whether that focus of debate can shift and broaden is, for sure, well worth watching. Either way, there's likely more to come -- the supply of geek policy obsessions runs deep.