Although many industry-watchers believe the Clinton administration is moving in the right direction on technology policy, they don't think Ira Magaziner, soon to leave his post as senior technology adviser to the president, should be the last person to hold the job.
"Ira did a lot of important work on internet issues, but more work remains to be done, particularly on privacy and encryption," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
It was still unclear yesterday who President Clinton might name to succeed Magaziner as his chief high-tech policy adviser, if he names anyone at all. Neither Magaziner nor White House officials could be reached for comment, and Magaziner's office would not speculate on who might be on the short list to be a successor.
Rotenberg said the administration might not appoint any one person to take over Magaziner's duties, but could ask different people to serve as advisers on various technology issues.
For the administration to proceed without a tech policy adviser or group of advisers would be bad news for the industry, several experts agreed. "They need a full-time person in there," said Solveig Singleton, director of information policy at the Cato Institute think tank.
Vice President Al Gore or one of his assistants might be asked to step in, said Eric Olbeter, director of the information technology program at the Economic Strategy Institute think tank.
Observers said Magaziner has been largely successful in educating the administration about the importance of the technology industry to the nation's economy.
Since Magaziner put the Clinton administration's ecommerce policy plan into motion last year and opened a debate on policies seen as hostile to the industry, such as the encryption export rules, he probably felt he could go now having largely fulfilled his mandate, Olbeter said.
"Ira has set the framework for how things are going to move forward" on e-commerce, the domain name system privatization, online copyright issues, and data privacy questions, he said.
Although Commerce Department officials are still involved in talks with the European Union on the EU's recent privacy directive, Magaziner's absence should impede those discussions only if they reach an impasse, Olbeter said.
Magaziner did a crucial favour for the industry by helping educate Clinton and other White House officials about the internet, and lately he has been one of many voices in Washington opposed to regulating online commerce, but barring a major political shift, his departure won't cause a policy shake-up, Singleton said.
Magaziner is likely to be remembered for helping to bring order to a chaotic debate during 1997 over the government's role in internet commerce and for helping convince White House officials to adopt a laissez-faire approach, observers said.
"The question now is who will be the man at the White House who can bring together the State Department, the Commerce Department, and the industry," Olbeter said, noting that Magaziner was adept at convincing government bureaucrats and corporate executives to meet one another halfway on policy disputes.
Magaziner presided over the creation of the administration's Framework for Electronic Commerce last year, and has said he will remain as Clinton's head technology adviser until a follow-up to that report is completed, according to a spokesman. Once that project is done, he is expected to move back to his Rhode Island home, from which he has been commuting to Washington for the past six years.
"He's been a good friend to the industry and a steady voice in times of great change," said Dave McClure, executive director of the Association of Online Professionals trade group.
McClure and others in the industry said that even though the administration has not reversed its opposition to the widespread export of strong data-scrambling encryption software, Magaziner at least succeeded in bringing the issue to the table. Several legislators have said they will try to convince the White House to consider loosening the export controls during the next Congress.
"We're sorry to see him go, but when you think about it, his job is largely done," McClure said. "I think that after six years he simply wanted to go back and be with his family. I don't read anything deeper into it than that."