5 big tech issues await Obama in second term

President Barack Obama talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during an event at Facebook headquarters in April 2011.

Story highlights

  • Cybersecurity would have to balance infrastructure protection, private companies' autonomy
  • Consumers want privacy from digital tracking by private companies, law enforcement
  • Education and immigration reform could provide more skilled tech workers
Technology policy didn't get much air time in the 2012 presidential election, but the Obama administration will face serious issues over the next four years.
The country is facing a shortage of qualified technology workers. Potential cybersecurity attacks threaten the nation's power and transportation infrastructures.
Privacy advocates fear the seemingly unchecked digital tracking of consumers by private companies and law enforcement agencies. And the online piracy of music, movies and other content remains a thorny issue.
Here's a look at five of the biggest tech issues facing President Barack Obama, and the country, in his second term:
Few topics riled the Internet in 2012 as much as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), an anti-piracy bill that raised concerns about free speech and privacy online. The Obama administration opposed that doomed bill but is expected to address the piracy issue again in the next four years.
Hollywood was a major contributor to Obama's re-election campaign, and the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, is optimistic that Obama will support some sort of anti-piracy effort in his second term.
"I look forward to continuing to work closely with the Obama administration to ensure the creative industries have every opportunity to thrive," Dodd said in a statement after Obama's re-election victory. Earlier in the year, Dodd threatened to cut off campaign contributions to politicians who did not support SOPA.
The issue isn't limited to people illegally downloading movies, music and TV shows in the U.S. Hollywood is also battling rampant copyright infringement abroad, and the administration will likely have to address ways to make other countries respect U.S. intellectual property.
But as Washington learned earlier this year, any anti-piracy stance would have to be sensitive to Internet freedom and privacy concerns.
There are two main foes in consumers' ongoing struggle to preserve their online privacy: companies that collect data and track people's online behavior to sell them things, and law enforcement agencies that collect data and track people to investigate crimes.
The rules for monitoring modern electronic communications are ill-defined. For the government, a warrant isn't currently required after a certain period of time for older information -- e-mail, social networking profiles or cell-phone location data -- stored "in the cloud" on Web servers.
Congress will likely try to address some of these issues during Obama's second term by updating the antiquated Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which dictates what types of personal information the government can access.
"We're concerned that the administration will continue to use national security as a pretext to undermine privacy and other critical rights," said Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, citing the administration's warrantless wiretapping programs, the prosecution of whistle-blowers and what he called an overall lack of transparency.
Civil liberties groups and large technology companies are teaming up to lobby for reform that would dictate what information the government can request and how. Tech companies will also face a separate battle over how they collect data.
The Obama administration has said it wants consumers to have control over whether companies track their online activity. Together with the Federal Trade Commission, the administration pushed Congress for online privacy legislation earlier this year.
The FTC does not currently have the power to pursue companies for privacy violations, but it is tangling with major tech companies on other fronts. Currently it is investigating Google for antitrust violations, claiming the company ranked its own services higher than those of competing companies.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to prompt action. Experts are hoping that won't be the case with a crippling cyberattack on the nation's power plants, financial systems or other vital industries.
"If nothing bad happens, progress will be slow. If we do get some sort of damaging attack, it will move much more quickly," said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In his first term, Obama appointed a national cybersecurity coordinator. In his second term, he will most likely try again to pass cybersecurity legislation. It's also possible he will issue an executive order instead of wrestling with Congress.
The administration's last attempt was the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which aimed to help protect critical U.S. infrastructure through increased collaboration between the government and the private sector. Private industries such as energy, banking, telecommunications, water and transportation are all potential targets for a cyberattack, experts warn.
But the bill was successfully blocked in August by Senate Republicans who sided with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and businesses that balked at the idea of having the government regulate their security. Private industry, wary of government oversight, argued there was nothing the government could do that they could not do on their own. Another sticking point was that the process would have been overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
"The dilemma is that, left to their own devices, we can't be sure companies are going to take these steps," said Lewis. He expects the Obama administration to wait until the 113th Congress is sworn before it tries to resurrect cybersecurity legislation.
STEM education
College costs are rising, as is the demand for qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematics (dubbed STEM) professionals. Experts warn the demand for skilled workers will increasingly outpace the number of qualified graduates in this country.
Over the next four years, Obama will likely expand his education policies.
The $4.35 billion Race to the Top program awards financial aid to states' K-12 school systems that set specific goals, such as establishing standards for assessing teachers, gathering data and finding innovative ways to improve the worst-performing schools. The president told the Des Moines Register that he wants to continue expanding the program in his next term and focus even more on STEM education.
In July, the Obama administration kicked off the national Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Master Teacher Corps program with $100 million in funding. The program will start by training 50 STEM teachers, but the plan is to increase that number to 10,000 teachers over the next four years and to 100,000 over the next decade. The idea is that these specifically qualified teachers will spread their skills and knowledge to other schools and educators around the country.
When those fresh batches of science and math students are out of high school, they will face dauntingly high college costs.
During the campaign, Obama promised to continue to increase the Pell Grant program, which provides need-based financial aid for college. Critics claim that raising the amount of aid doesn't help, because colleges will just continue to raise their costs to meet the increased demand. The Pell Grant got a large boost in Obama's first term with an influx of money that was made available when the administration eliminated the federal guaranteed student loan program, which went through private banks.
Immigration reform
While our school systems adjust to produce more tech graduates, Silicon Valley will need fresh talent. One solution is to allow qualified workers from other counties to stay in the United States and take those jobs after college. So far, however, the Obama administration has faced difficulty passing relevant immigration reform.
"We need more green cards so that all these people who are stuck in limbo, these millions of skilled workers -- doctors, scientists, engineers, computer programmers -- can get permanent residency," said Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur and vice president at Singularity University. "They're here legally, they've done everything right."
One potential fix is the bipartisan Startup Act 2.0, which would provide up to 50,000 visas to foreign STEM students who get their master's or doctorate degree in the U.S. The new category of visa would require recipients to work in a science, technology, engineering or math field continuously for five years before they can become a permanent legal resident.
The proposal would also pave the way for entrepreneurs to start businesses in the United States, which could lead to more jobs.
The bill is supported by some tech heavy-hitters, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft, and is currently being considered by a congressional committee.