Dear US gov: Stay the hell out of Silicon Valley

Leave the technology to technologists


Open...and Shut It will come as no surprise to the largely libertarian technology industry that big government has done little to advance the interests of Silicon Valley. But you might raise your eyebrows at the degree to which the US government is hurting the very people it tries to help.

As a general rule, Silicon Valley has been happiest when the bureaucrats in Washington, DC stay far away from tech and mostly uninvolved. Ever since the US Justice Department inserted itself into Microsoft's business practices, however, the tech world has been forced to invest in lobbying federal lawmakers. Just last year, Google increased such spending by 29 percent over 2009.

Pity that this lobbying money hasn't erased Washington, DC silliness.

Example: Startup America, President Obama's "initiative to celebrate, inspire, and accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship throughout the nation." Because, you know, startups were struggling without government aid.

O'Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures managing director Bryce Roberts ridicules the program on his blog, arguing that the initiative completely misses the point:

I can’t help but think that there has always been more opportunity in the government’s loopholes than in their legislation. When their paper programs meet a startup’s reality they become…laughable…[R]eal entrepreneurs don’t ask permission from anyone to startup America, not even the President.

That said, while Startup America is unlikely to help form the next Twitter, the real concern is when government programs actively hurt the people they're designed to support.

Example: the State Department's Internet Freedom Agenda.

Put in motion a little over a year ago in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US began to actively advocate Internet freedom (except Wikileaks because it's, well, different). One year later, it appears that in addition to accomplishing little of value, the US stance may actually be counterproductive. Government? Counterproductive?? Imagine that.

At least, that's the view of Evgeny Morozov, contributing editor of Foreign Policy. In a recent column, he criticizes the program for being ineffectual, for being heavy on optimism and light on technical understanding, and for crushing Internet freedom even as it seeks to advance it:

The State Department's online democratizing efforts have fallen prey to the same problems that plagued Bush's Freedom Agenda. By aligning themselves with Internet companies and organizations, Clinton's digital diplomats have convinced their enemies abroad that Internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism.

Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don't talk about promoting Internet freedom. Her Newseum speech was full of analogies to the Berlin Wall and praise for Twitter revolutions -- vocabulary straight out of the Bush handbook. To governments already nervous about a wired citizenry, this sounded less like freedom of the Internet than freedom via the Internet: not just a call for free speech online, but a bid to overthrow them by way of cyberspace:

In response, companies/products like Google and Facebook went from being "accidental emissaries" of freedom, things that authoritarian regimes largely overlooked as email systems and such, to Government Enemy Number One:

Democratic and authoritarian states alike are now seeking "information sovereignty" from American companies, especially those perceived as being in bed with the U.S. government. Internet search, social networking, and even email are increasingly seen as strategic industries that need to be protected from foreign control.

Was this what the federal government hoped to accomplish?

No, but then, it seems that our enthusiasm often gets in the way of our pragmatism. Just as startups would do better with less government interference (i.e., lighter taxes on capital gains, for example), so, too, is the freedom agenda better served by the U.S. federal government letting Google et al. be businesses that happen to promote freedom by their very nature, rather than strange bedfellows for the State Department.

Yes, government is good for many things…just not starting tech companies or starting revolutions through tech companies. Leave that to the technologists, please.

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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