Obama Campaign Tech Policy Panel

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Monday September 29, 2008.

Cross-posted at This is Reno.

I spent the early evening on September 23 at Cathexes (major Flash warning) watching the Obama-sponsored technology policy panel discussion. The panel, moderated by Tracy Viselli of Reno and Its Discontents, featured four local tech-savvy people: Tim Casey, Co-Founder and Partner at Silversky Group L.L.C.; David LaPlante, CEO of Twelve Horses; Donica Mensing, Associate Professor at University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism; David Bobzien, State Assemblyman from Reno.

Barack Obama Tech Policy Panel DiscussionThe panel discussion of Barack Obama’s technology policy in Reno, Nevada featured, from left; Donica Mensing, David Bobzien, David LaPlante, Tim Casey, and Tracy Viselli. Photo by Ryan Jerz.The panel was stacked. I have a relationship of some sort with all of the panelists, and I’ll detail those:

  • Tim Casey – I was introduced to Tim by David LaPlante when I was looking for information on whether emails are copyrighted material. This all stemmed from my dealings with Terri Patraw. Tim helped write the DMCA, which makes him somewhat expert on copyright. He also told me he feels like the DMCA is not being used as it was intended. He gets major points for that, both in my case and in cases in general.
  • David LaPlante – I consider Dave a personal friend. We have hung out several times and I can get advice or help from Dave anytime, it seems. He’s a very cool guy.
  • Donica Mensing – She was a professor in my graduate program, which automatically makes us pretty close. I recently spoke to her Travel Writing class about writing stories for traveling in Nevada.
  • David Bobzien – David is not just a state assemblyman; he’s also a local blogger and Twitter dork. I’ve spent time with David at social functions before, and interviewed him when he was merely a candidate back in 2006.

First off, in case you don’t believe me, here’s proof I was there (Dave should have been scared).

Without going into everything that was said, I wanted to pass along what I thought were the most interesting points made by the panelists. Some of it is due to how I view the panelists and how I think their roles are defined, so it may not actually be the most interesting thing they said. I also will add a tiny bit of my own commentary mixed with a couple of questions I would have asked.

Tim Casey

Time mentioned at one point that Obama wants to reform the patent office.

Currently, when a patent is filed, a fee is paid. The money from that fee is distributed, roughly, 2/3 to the treasury and 1/3 to the patent office itself. Obama’s plan, according to Tim, is to let the patent office keep all of that money (or, at least much, much closer to all) to operate more efficiently. Based on the explanation, that would mean that the current backlog (ridiculously, something like 4-6 years) in approving or denying patents could theoretically be fixed. The patent office would have enough money to increase staff to handle the backlog.

Another point on the same topic is that the way the office currently works results in the patent fee being a tax on the filer. With the way the money is distributed now, you could define it as a tax, but under the new plan, it would amount to an operating cost. It’s sort of splitting hairs, but if the patent process is improved, and the cost remains the same, it would be hard to argue that it’s not a better deal overall.

David LaPlante

Dave mentioned that Obama has Lawrence Lessig involved in shaping his policy. For several reasons—namely his involvement with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and his intelligent stance on digital rights—I have to agree that it’s a really smart move to involve one of the leading thinkers in the country, if not the world, when it comes to the rights of citizens to use information in a digital form. This stood out as the most interesting thing by far, and it is a credit to Barack Obama.

Donica Mensing

Donica’s most important point was that she saw a big difference in how each candidate approached citizens in the technology policy. Specifically, she said that Obama tended to use language like “community” in addressing the role of citizens, while McCain seemed to want to convey that citizens were “customers.” Donica’s emphasis was that Obama’s language was friendlier and more conducive to the public and government working together in solving the issues confronting the entire public’s (both citizens and government) technology challenges.

That’s a fundamental difference between modern day Democrats and modern day Republicans. The bottom line, for me, is that there simply isn’t a right answer. It’s merely a way of distinguishing the overall philosophies of the parties. One outwardly addresses government as a company run for the benefit of its customers (whether they act that way is another matter); those customers can suggest changes, but it’s ultimately the government’s decision whether to act on those suggestions, based on all the information presented and what the leaders think is for the best. The other sees itself as a member of the community. It works from within the public to do the deeds it believes the public wants.

That fundamental difference is one of the root causes of the political divide. You might think government should operate one way, and only one of the parties is saying things that go along with that philosophy, while the other is saying a completely different thing that you think is either misguided or irresponsible.

David Bobzien

Bobzien’s most poignant item of the evening was this: he recently spoke with a company thinking of developing a solar farm in Nevada. Bobzien said that with Obama being elected, Nevada stood a better chance getting the solar farm than if McCain were elected. The reasoning is that with Obama’s technology policy being more focused on renewable energy, the financing options would be greater. My assessment of that is that banks would be more willing to lend money (I’m presuming that money would be partly backed with grants or subsidies) to a renewable energy source when the president’s policy is behind that source.

That statement was a look into what politicians see and hear behind the scenes. It’s also important to note that the statement doesn’t make it a guarantee that if Obama is elected, we’ll see a solar farm in Nevada, complete with the jobs that have to either move here or are created in order to run it. It doesn’t even make the possibility likely to happen. But it does increase the chances. As an electorate, we have to weigh whether that trade-off is a good one for us.


The panel was a good one to attend. While it was sponsored by the Obama campaign, it did not amount to a cheerleading session, which I worried might happen. The information was plentiful and worthwhile. Reno and Its Discontents has a video up of Donica Mensing’s comment I referenced above.

Ryan JerzRyan Jerz is an all-around good guy who wants people to eventually refer to him as "that dude who climbs mountains."

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