Privacy tops telecom agency’s agenda with Strickling at helm

Newspaper ads displayed on a wall in Lawrence Strickling’s office herald a technological revolution that will create a smaller, more interconnected world. 

Though the slogans might sound like the beginning of the Internet era, the ads actually date to the turn of the 20th century, after the adoption of the telephone. 

Strickling said the ads serve as a reminder that the challenges facing his agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), haven’t changed that much since the era of Alexander Graham Bell.

“It’s funny how these are some of the same issues as today,” Strickling told The Hill.

NTIA, an agency within the Commerce Department, was founded more than 30 years ago to advise the president on telecommunication issues and to manage how the federal government uses the airwaves. 

But as the Internet has become a central feature of daily life and an engine of global commerce, NTIA has stepped forward as one of the primary federal agencies for setting online policy.

Strickling, who served in the Federal Communications Commission under President Clinton and worked on President Obama’s campaign in 2008 as an adviser, has headed NTIA since 2009. 

He said the agency’s changing priorities “reflect the growing importance of the Internet.”

One of the policy issues on NTIA’s agenda is privacy protection. The agency is leading discussions between Web companies and consumer groups about how best to safeguard people’s information online. 

The discussions grew out of the White House’s “Privacy Bill of Rights” — a list of principles to guide how Web companies handle people’s personal information.

The White House’s guidelines aren’t legally enforceable, so the goal of the discussions headed by NTIA is to develop codes of conduct tailored to specific industries. If a company agrees to follow a code but then violates it, federal regulators could sue the company for deceiving customers.

But Strickling said the codes of conduct are no substitute for action from Congress and said lawmakers need to enact privacy protections into law.

“I think the big issue has been that people haven’t understood how their information is being used,” Strickling said. “I think as people learn more and more about how their information is being used, people become more and more concerned about it.”

He said privacy violations can cause real harm and pointed to data breaches that reveal personal or financial information. Clear rules for online privacy, he said, would build trust and encourage e-commerce. 

“First and foremost, what we’re trying to do with our privacy policy, as well as all of our Internet policy activities here, is to see the Internet thrive and grow and be an engine of innovation and job creation,” Strickling said.

Earlier this year, NTIA was involved in discussions on one of the highest-profile issues for Internet policy — the battle over anti-piracy legislation. 

Entertainment companies argued that tough new measures were necessary to protect their industry’s jobs and profits, but Web companies said the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would stifle innovation and censor speech.

The White House eventually issued a statement expressing many of the same concerns as the technology community, and Congress pulled the legislation after protests on the Web.

Strickling hinted that NTIA had serious concerns about the anti-piracy legislation and said the agency had “very spirited discussions” with another Commerce agency, the Patent and Trademark Office, about what position the administration should take.

“We reached a consensus within the Department of Commerce, which was: We want to stop this, we want to protect intellectual property, but we want to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine the Internet.”

Strickling’s portfolio also covers the government’s contract with the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the gatekeeper for domain names. 

ICANN is accepting applications for new Web domain address endings that move beyond the traditional .com and .org. Soon, websites will be able to end in almost any word or phrase, such as .food, .sport or .bank.

Advertisers and some U.S. officials, including Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, have expressed concern that ICANN’s plan will confuse consumers and force companies to defensively buy up domains related to their brands.

But Strickling said he suspects many businesses support the change and haven’t spoken up yet because they don’t want to reveal their plans for new Web addresses to their competitors.

“I think we’re about to hear the other half of the story,” Strickling said.

He predicted that when ICANN reveals the applications for new domain endings, “we’re going to learn a lot then about how a lot of companies have found ways, or believe they have found a way, to take advantage of this expansion of top-level domains.”

Although NTIA has taken on new issues in Internet policy, the office still has its old responsibilities managing how the government uses wireless frequencies, known as spectrum.

And because of the growing popularity of data-hungry smartphones and tablet computers, the value of spectrum has skyrocketed in recent years. Wireless carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, are lobbying the government to free up more spectrum for wireless Internet, arguing they cannot keep pace with demand.

In response, NTIA unveiled a plan in March for government agencies and wireless carriers to share bands of spectrum.

Strickling said spectrum sharing is the “necessary future way” of accommodating all the groups that want to use the crowded airwaves.

CTIA, the wireless industry’s main trade group, is skeptical of the plan, saying that the government should clear as much spectrum as possible for commercial use.

“Look, we’re trying to effect some change here,” Strickling said. “Certainly CTIA is interested in doing it the way they are used to doing it. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

But he said clearing out the frequencies for the wireless companies isn’t realistic.

“Those days are pretty much done. We don’t have the ability to pick up the federal systems and put them somewhere else, because there isn’t any spectrum to put them to,” he said.

Strickling said the project that has taken up the bulk of his time in recent months is laying the groundwork for a 

$7 billion high-speed wireless network for first responders.

He is currently recruiting applicants for a board of directors that will manage the construction of the network.

Congress set aside the spectrum and funding for the network as part of the payroll tax cut extension approved earlier this year. The network, which would allow officials from different agencies to communicate with each other during emergencies, is one of the last outstanding recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report.

With so many important projects in the pipeline at the NTIA, Strickling said it’s too soon to say what the Obama administration’s legacy in technology will be.

“Ask me in four years,” he said.