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5 tech issues Obama should address in the 2014 State of the Union (but probably won’t)

At 9pm ET tonight, President Obama will deliver the 2014 State of the Union address. Many expect him to cover such fun topics as Obamacare, climate change, and the rising inequality between the haves and the rest of us. But with technology firmly planted at the center of many of our lives, there are some particularly pressing topics I hope Obama plans to address during this year’s big speech. Will he actually talk about any of these issues? Eh, probably not – though he did give big props to 3D printing during the 2013 State of the Union, so I’m holding out for a surprise. Regardless, these are the issues he should bring up, at least as far as I’m concerned.


Yes, Obama already delivered a major speech about the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities and how he plans to remedy the situation. And the Department of Justice did reach a deal with major U.S. tech firms to let them tell us more about the data they share with the feds. But with new revelations pouring out virtually every week, the issue is far from settled.

The NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata will continue. And, it seems, so will the NSA’s efforts to create backdoors in technology products we all use – which can then potentially be used by really nefarious people. The so-called “third-party doctrine” will still justify dragnet data collection (even though it shouldn’t, according to a federal judge and an independent government watchdog group). And big data tools may still be used to dig even deeper into our lives than we can possibly imagine.

Point is: The NSA surveillance remains a huge deal for many Americans. Announcing further steps to protect our privacy and civil liberties during the highest profile speech the president gives each year would be a good step toward continuing this conversation, as Obama has admitted we need to do.

Chance it’ll be in the speech: 65 percent

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

You may not know it, but you may have committed a felony in the past week simply by using the Internet. How is that possible, you ask? (Assuming you are not a criminal mastermind.) Well, it’s all the fault of an outdated law known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). 

This charming law, enacted in 1986, outlaws a slew of things related to computers. It’s also the law that has put many hackers behind bars – a list that would have included Aaron Swartz, had the programmer and activist not taken his own life at the prospect of spending decades in prison. 

Unfortunately, the law could also be used against the average American thanks to its prohibition on gaining “unauthorized access” to a computer. What does “unauthorized access” mean? Good question. It could mean simply violating a website’s Terms of Service. You read all of those, right? Exactly.

As Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu notes in the New Yorker, Obama has plenty of power to reform the CFAA himself, even if Congress isn’t particularly interested in the issue. If he says anything of the sort during the State of the Union, you can bet technology policy nerds will be downright giddy.

Chance it’ll be in the speech: 5 percent

Patent reform

If you read technology business news regularly, you know patent reform is a major issue for the industry. Google, Apple, Samsung, Facebook – virtually every tech company struggles with the current state of patents – or uses them as a weapon in the courts. Thanks to so-called patent trolls, companies that make nothing can rake in millions of dollars from other companies.

Fortunately, Obama has already made some progress on this issue. Last February, the president called out patent trolls as a major problem in the US.  And in December, the House of Representatives passed the Innovation Act, which would give patent trolls a major beating (but not kill them off entirely). Still, this is a major issue for technology businesses, and meaningful patent reform could serve as a victory for Obama and Congress.

Chance it’ll be in the speech: 71 percent

Net neutrality & digital divide

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court essentially killed the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, the policies that helped ensure that Internet service providers don’t play favorites when it comes to the types of data flowing through their broadband wires. While this is certainly a big deal for Internet users and companies like Netflix, it may also be a sticking point for Obama, who promised during the 2013 State of the Union to connect “every part of America to the digital age.”

The problem for Obama’s quest to close the so-called “digital divide” – the gap between Americans who have high-speed Internet access and the 100 million or so who do not – is that ISPs may begin to charge higher prices for access to an Internet that’s not subsidized through backroom deals with Internet content companies. So, while more people may get online, those same people may only have access to a walled-off Web, turning the wall at the center of the digital divide into a veritable maze. 

President Obama could direct the FCC to change its categorization of ISPs in a way that would allow the agency to bring net neutrality back from the dead. And the State of the Union seems like a perfect time to issue such a directive, don’t you think? But considering this issue may find its way back into the courts, that probably won’t happen.

Chance it’ll be in the speech: 32 percent

Robot apocalypse

You laugh, but the robot apocalypse is coming unless we act immediately. Seriously. Google, if you haven’t heard, is well on its way to building a freakin’ robot army. And, to top it off, the company is also in the process of buying an artificial intelligence company, DeepMind, whose technology is so powerful that it reportedly required Google to create an “ethics board” to help ensure that it isn’t abused – a fact that makes me nauseated just thinking about it. (Apparently having “Don’t be evil” as a slogan wasn’t adequate reassurance.)

As if that weren’t frightening enough, the US Army is considering replacing more than 100,000 of its human soldiers with computer-brained killing machines. That’s great and all – but you see where this is headed. Five, 10, 20 years from now, we humans will be standing dead center between a super-powerful corporation and super-powerful nation state, both of which have near-sentient death contraptions doing their bidding.

I, for one, reject our robot overlords. And I hope President Obama has the wherewithal to do the same tonight.

Chance it’ll be in the speech: 1 percent (Hey, I’m holding out hope.)

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