White House names Google’s Megan Smith the next Chief Technology Officer of the United States


The next Chief Technology Officer of the United States, Megan Smith (Photo credit: Joi Ito under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license)

The White House announced Thursday that it has named its next Chief Technology Officer. She is Megan Smith, a Google executive with decades of experience in Silicon Valley. The Obama administration named as deputy U.S. CTO, Alexander Macgillivray, a former Twitter lawyer known as a staunch defender of the free flow of information online.

(Photo credit: Doc Searls under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)
New U.S. Deputy CTO Alex Macgillivray (Photo credit: Doc Searls under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

With the announcement, President Obama gets a pair of widely-respected technology world figures, both steeped in the workings of some of Silicon Valley's biggest and highest-profile companies, but with different expertise -- one an engineer with a record of executing upon ambitious, even fantastical ideas, the other a lawyer who has navigated some of the Internet's trickiest policy questions.

Obama will likely need the help, as the country attempts to stay on top of technological innovation while addressing the complications raised by an increasingly connected world. The U.S. CTO spot was conceived by Obama when he was a candidate. But its mission has been fuzzy at times. Under out-going U.S. CTO Todd Park, the job became in part a hands-on one, as he helped salvage the troubled HealthCare.gov project.

But under Smith the position is expected to re-focus on being agenda-setting and forward-looking -- something of the technological equivalent of the President's Science Advisor.

Said the president in a statement, "Megan has spent her career leading talented teams and taking cutting-edge technology and innovation initiatives from concept to design to deployment. I am confident that in her new role as America's Chief Technology Officer, she will put her long record of leadership and exceptional skills to work on behalf of the American people. I am grateful for her commitment to serve, and I look forward to working with her and with our new Deputy U.S. CTO, Alexander Macgillivray, in the weeks and months ahead."

Smith, the new U.S. CTO, is an MIT-trained mechanical engineer and entrepreneur with deep roots in the California tech world. She currently serves as a vice president at Google[x], the company's lab for ambitious next-generation projects, like its delivery-by-drone Project Wing and its balloon-borne Internet connectivity program Project Loon. For nine years, Smith led Google's team responsible for developing new business, where she led the acquisitions that would become Google Earth and Google Maps. And she's familiar to Washington's burgeoning "civic tech" community through her work with the Google Crisis Response project.

Smith also has a record of focusing on digital inclusiveness. Before Google, she was the CEO of the online LGBT community PlanetOut. And she has worked to bring more women in the engineering and technology fields, including through the company's WomenTechmakers program. Smith also has an adventurous streak; she was once part of a student team that raced a solar car across Australia's outback.

"As U.S. CTO," presidential science advisor John Holdren writes on the White House blog, "Smith will guide the Administration's information-technology policy and initiatives, continuing the work of her predecessors to accelerate attainment of the benefits of advanced information and communications technologies across every sector of the economy and aspect of human well-being."

Macgillivray -- known as both Alex and, perhaps even more so, "amac" -- is a graduate of both Princeton University and Harvard Law School. The White House said that his focus will be on policy matters, from so-called intellectual property to where big data and privacy intersect.

Macgillivray served as Twitter's general counsel from 2009 until August of 2013, where he was widely credited with establishing what former U.S. Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin has called the platform's "free speech, pro-news bias." Before joining Twitter, Macgillivray was for six years deputy general counsel at Google, where he was deeply involved with the company's legal wranglings over its Google Books search feature. Before Google, he was a litigator at the Silicon Valley law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, representing clients like the copyright group Creative Commons and the Internet Archive. MacGillivray is an affiliate of Harvard's Berkman Center, an think-and-d0 tank focused on the creation of Internet norms.

Macgillivray, though, also does a bit of engineering of his own. After leaving Twitter, he hand-coded a script for resurfacing old Gmail messages to which he hadn't yet replied.

Smith will be the country's third-ever Chief Technology Officer. Obama named former Virginia Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra to the new position in the spring of 2009, and he served until the winter of 2012. Chopra was replaced by health-care entrepreneur and former Department of Health and Human Services CTO Todd Park, who announced in late August that he was leaving the post.

Park is returning to Silicon Valley, where he'll stay on in the White House to help recruit technologists to federal service -- a path that is growing ever more well-trodden by the day.

Reactions in the technology policy world were largely positive, with some expressing concern about seemingly close ties between the tech industry and the Obama White House.

"As a privacy group, we have concerns with the continuing role of Google officials working at the White House," wrote Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, in an email. "Google hasn't demonstrated any serious interest in transparency, accountability, or privacy protections when it comes to its online targeting of individuals," adding, "Ms. Smith should be asked to publicly clarify whether she supports such practices before she assumes such a key White House post."

Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that she was a major fan of Macgillivray in particular, saying "it was under his tenure at Twitter that the company pushed back against censorship." But, she added, she had concerns about a "revolving door between Silicon Valley and government."

"We are pleased that the Administration has moved to fill these two important roles," said Kate Bedingfield, a spokesperson for the Motion Picture Association of America, which is deeply involved in the online copyright issues under the CTO office's purview. "We hope that Megan and Alex will continue to encourage growth and innovation online while recognizing that responsibility and accountability from all stakeholders in the digital ecosystem are critical to protecting a safe and secure Internet for everyone.”

Said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, in a statement, "We applaud the White House for naming Megan Smith as U.S. CTO and Alexander Macgillivray as deputy CTO. Both are exceptional technology leaders."

Law professor, writer, and political activist Larry Lessig said that he knows both Smith and Macgillivray well; the latter, in fact, was a student in the first 'Law of Cyberspace' Lessig ever taught at Harvard Law School.

"I can't imagine better appointments," Lessig writes. "It's wonderful news."

 

This piece has been updated with reactions to the appointments. 

Have more to say on this topic? Join us today for our weekly live chat, Switchback. We'll kick things off at 11 a.m. Eastern. You can submit your questions now, right here.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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