Home' Technology Review : September October 2008 Contents Q&A
Mitch Kapor likes beginnings.
In 1982, he founded Lotus
Development, which made
the popular spreadsheet program
Lotus 1-2-3. In 1990, he cofounded
the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a
political-advocacy and legal organiza-
tion that champions free speech and
privacy. And in 2003, he became the
founding chair of the Mozilla Founda-
tion, which is responsible for the open-
source Web browser Firefox. Today,
Kapor sits on the boards of such compa-
nies as Linden Research, and he heads
his eponymous foundation, which
provides grants to San Francisco Bay
Area organizations working with low-
income communities on educational
and environmental issues.
Last fall, Kapor was called upon to
help Senator Barack Obama define
his technology positions. Kapor sug-
gested that Obama, if elected president,
should install a federal chief technology
o cer. Conservatives grumbled at the
idea of another layer of bureaucracy,
but Kapor and others in Silicon Val-
ley say the government needs cohesive
technology practices and policies.
Kapor recently spoke with Technology
Review's information technology editor,
TR: Why does the country need a CTO?
Kapor: The underlying premise is
that tech is inextricably intertwined
with virtually everything. You can't talk
about homeland security or education
or energy without it being in large part
a conversation about technology. The
president will be well served if policy
making is done in a more technologi-
cally sophisticated way.
What would a CTO worry about?
We're in the middle of the pack as a
nation in terms of broadband deploy-
ment. We need to have policies that
will enable us to catch up and do so in a
way that's ubiquitous and a ordable. I
also think tech policies that stimulate
innovation in the economy are very
important, because innovation is the
engine of growth. Getting the balance in
intellectual-property law that will stimu-
late innovations is therefore very impor-
tant. Net neutrality is also a huge issue in
ensuring the Internet isn't controlled by
the people who own the wires, because
that is just going to impede innovation.
Would the CTO oversee the federal
government s infrastructure? Demand that
networks of agencies work together?
The advantage of a CTO is that there
can be coördination. There's a ton of
work that goes on within di erent agen-
cies: there needs to be someone to iden-
tify the best ways of doing things and
some common practices.
In practice, how would a CTO do that?
You could take practical steps in terms
of data and data storage and its accessi-
bility and availability, both across depart-
ment and agency boundaries and to the
How is that different from the job of a
national chief information officer?
That's a good question, and I'm not
sure if I have a good answer. It seems to
me that whatever you call it, it's helpful to
put the coördinating activities and policy
advisory piece under the CTO umbrella.
That feels di erent from a CIO.
How much actual power would the
How much formal authority versus
soft power a CTO has is clearly a very
big issue. No matter how much formal
authority you have, if you don't have soft
power you're not going to get anything
done. So you want somebody who is
taken seriously, and it would help if the
president makes it very clear that this is
a serious position. Second, it should be
the kind of person who is able to lead by
influence and not by command. I person-
ally think that might well be su cient.
You mean the CTO would be a moral force,
equipped only with soft power?
The idea of trying to give a CTO for-
mal authority over other bodies and
agencies has a very high risk of failure.
It sounds as if the CTO would have no
operational responsibility and be unac-
countable if anything went wrong.
I don't know. I was a volunteer on a
committee that worked on the proposal
last fall, so what I know about are the
discussions that led up to the announce-
ment. The plan of record for the CTO
doesn't get into a level of detail that would
address this, and I don't have visibility
on what has or hasn't happened since the
plan was announced.
You come from the world of startups. But
our government is a series of competing,
often sclerotic bureaucracies.
It's important for whoever has the role
to go in with the expectation that the
federal government is the opposite of
a startup. To expect it to be agile is just
So who s on your shortlist?
I'm a million miles away from what-
ever group of people will actually pick the
CTO. I would like it to be someone who
has some startup DNA in him or her, but
who's realistic about getting things done.
One has to ask: do you want to be CTO?
I'm interested in helping in some way,
but the time to think about specifics is
A pioneer of personal computing says the U.S. needs a CTO.
Photograph by DAVE LAURIDSEN
Watch a longer version of this
interview with Mitch Kapor:
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