Obama Talks Lots of WiFi, Little Spying, in State of the Union

Innovation got bigger billing than privacy battles Tuesday.

A portrait of Edward Snowden declaring him a 'hero' is seen during a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The disclosures of widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency of US allies has caused an international uproar, with leaders in Europe and Latin America demanding an accounting from the United States. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Jan. 28, 2014, 5:17 p.m.

Amer­ic­ans ex­cited about high-tech schools got a shout-out in Pres­id­ent Obama’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress Tues­day. Those en­raged about the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sur­veil­lance prac­tices were left with less.

Obama an­nounced a step for­ward in his pro­pos­al to im­prove In­ter­net ac­cess in schools on Tues­day: Ac­tions by the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion and tech com­pan­ies — in­clud­ing Apple, Mi­crosoft, Sprint, and Ve­r­i­zon — will bring high-speed broad­band In­ter­net to more than 15,000 schools and 20 mil­lion stu­dents over the next two years, Obama said.

The is­sue is one of the few do­mest­ic ini­ti­at­ives that Obama can achieve without con­gres­sion­al sup­port. The FCC already pays for In­ter­net ac­cess in schools and lib­rar­ies through a pro­gram called “E-Rate” that is fun­ded by fees on monthly phone bills. Last year, Obama called on the agency to dra­mat­ic­ally ex­pand the pro­gram to provide high-speed In­ter­net to 99 per­cent of all stu­dents. The agency is still con­duct­ing a reg­u­lat­ory re­view of wheth­er to ex­pand E-Rate, but FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er said Tues­day he will use “busi­ness-like man­age­ment prac­tices” to make the ex­ist­ing funds go farther this year. The White House said it will have more de­tails about the phil­an­throp­ic com­mit­ments from the tech com­pan­ies in the com­ing weeks.

An­oth­er ma­jor tech is­sue that Obama high­lighted in the speech was pat­ent re­form, ur­ging Con­gress to pass le­gis­la­tion that al­lows “our busi­nesses to stay fo­cused on in­nov­a­tion, not costly, need­less lit­ig­a­tion.” The House passed le­gis­la­tion last year aimed at com­batting “pat­ent trolls” — firms that use bogus pat­ent in­fringe­ment claims to ex­tort set­tle­ments out of busi­nesses — but the Sen­ate has yet to act.

But one is­sue that was not­able for its al­most com­plete ab­sence in the speech was the con­tro­versy over NSA sur­veil­lance. After a year of leaks by former fed­er­al con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden, the agency’s pro­grams have be­come both con­tro­ver­sial and an on­go­ing polit­ic­al hassle for the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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Obama laid out his views for re­form­ing the agency in a speech earli­er this month, and — though his ad­dress Tues­day did make brief men­tion of work­ing with Con­gress on sur­veil­lance re­form — he oth­er­wise showed little in­terest in re­vis­it­ing the is­sue.

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