Obama touts fast networks, cyber security in State of the Union

Some familiar tech topics turned up in President Obama’s annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, including a pledge to build “the fastest internet” and the need to ensure hackers can’t “shut down our networks [or] steal our trade secrets.”

This year’s speech, which focused heavily on themes of education and the middle-class, also included shout-outs to four Silicon Valley companies — [company]Google[/company], [company]eBay[/company] and [company]Tesla[/company] and [company]Facebook[/company]’s Instagram — while praising America’s advances in solar and wind energy.

Obama also emphasized the need for more broadband in building the economy:

I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.

An online version of the speech also included a graphic that hit a tech trifecta of open internet, crowd-funding and solar energy:

SOTU image

(Close observers of the net neutrality debate may note, however, that Obama’s speech did not repeat his call last year for the FCC to employ a common carrier law called Title II to ensure net neutrality.)

At a time when cyber security and surveillance remain front and center in light of the Sony attacks and ongoing Snowden revelations, Obama delivered what was perhaps a mixed message. On one hand, he called for tighter security and new laws to protect privacy:

We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information [..]

As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties?—?and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks. So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I haven’t. As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.

But on the other hand, the President did not address his government’s controversial policies to undermine encryption (which offers the best guarantee of privacy and security), and nor did he speak to the ongoing legal challenges to the NSA’s collection of meta-data and internet communications.

Another tech issue that failed to make the cut was patent reform legislation, which the President said in last year’s speech was needed to ensure companies could “stay focused on innovation, not costly, needless litigation.”

And while Obama did address drones, which are a hot topic for the tech sector, he only did so in terms of civil liberties, claiming the government has “worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.”

Ultimately, the most memorable tech aspect of the speech may turn out to be how the White House delivered it: instead of following the past practice of issuing copies to favorite media outlets, the Administration posted it to the buzzy publishing platform Medium before Obama even delivered it, and invited the public to follow along and “tweet favorite lines.”

Obama to target botnets and spyware as part of cybercrime agenda

President Obama, who this week announced plans to better protect American consumers and businesses from privacy breaches, will also propose new laws to go after those who use computer networks to commit crimes.

The details are to be announced Tuesday afternoon at a cybersecurity event in Virginia, but a White House fact sheet shown to Politico refers specifically to the overseas sale of spyware, and to cracking down on botnets:

The law enforcement proposal will contain provisions broadening prosecutors’ powers against cyber crime, for example by criminalizing the overseas sale of stolen U.S. financial information. It would also allow for the prosecution of the sale or rent of botnets, and would allow courts to shut down botnets engaged in criminal activity such as distributed denial of service attacks.

The recent White House focus on computer crime and privacy coincides with a spate of high-profile hacking episodes, targeting companies like Sony and Microsoft, that have increased public awareness of cybersecurity issues.

The Obama Administration has also indicated it will weave these themes into next week’s State of the Union address. Ordinarily, the topics included in the annual speech are a closely guarded secret, but this year the White House has decided to break with tradition and air some of them beforehand.

According to the New York Times, Obama will also propose laws to encourage companies to share security incidents with industry groups and with Homeland Security. The measures will also reportedly sweep more malicious computer activities, such as operating botnets, under a law known as RICO, which stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

RICO provides prosecutors with the power to seek harsh penalties against those who commit various other crimes as part of an organization.

While any proposed criminal measures Obama proposes are likely to be popular with Congress, which is likewise paying renewed attention to cybersecurity issues, there is also a risk that the new legal tools could be abused by overzealous prosecutors.

Many scholars and civil liberties organizations are already critical of how the federal government uses existing computer law statutes, perceiving the laws as overly broad and out-of-date. The White House, however, appears to be anticipating such criticism and is planning to reform the notorious Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to ensure “insignificant conduct does not fall within the scope of the statute.”

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Where to watch the 2012 State of the Union Address online

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Today in Cleantech

Let’s put some facts and figures behind last night’s SOTU clean energy pitches. As you’ve all read by now, President Barack Obama called for America to get 80 percent of its energy from clean energy resources by 2035. What does that mean? Well, first of all, Obama included natural gas and “clean coal” in his list of clean energy, a rhetorical addition that actually makes 80 percent a more realistic target, even if clean coal technology is probably 25 years down the road. Still, given that the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that coal will shrink from producing half of the country’s electricity today to a mere… 44 percent by 2035, we’d better find a way to make it cleaner. Second, Obama didn’t say how his administration or Congress might put us on that path during his remaining term. Will a national renewable energy mandate start us on the way, or will we have to rely on the 29 states and counting that have individual renewable portfolio standards? Third, Obama did say he would push Congress to strip the oil and gas industries of their federal subsidies and tax breaks, which according to some estimates have added up to $76 billion over the past decade, or 70 percent of all federal energy subsidies combined. Finally, Obama didn’t bring climate change into the argument — perhaps a good thing, since his hand-picked climate policy adviser is stepping down and carbon cap-and-trade legislation is all but dead for the next two years.

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President Obama addressed renewable energy briefly and early on in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night and unveiled a new U.S. clean energy challenge that said by 2035, “80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.”

Where to Watch the 2011 State of the Union Address

This year’s broadcast of President Obama’s third State of the Union kicks off officially tonight at 9 PM ET/6 PM PT, and online plans for it have evolved dramatically from last year’s coverage, with enhanced viewing options offering heightened insight into the action on screen.