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Ed Felten Takes Tinkering to the FTC

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, November 5 2010

Photo credit: Patrick Gage

If you had to come up with a list of people who have worked the longest and hardest to advance the idea that public policy on modern technologies should be driven by a vision of what's best for the actual users of those technologies, Princeton Professor Ed Felten would be near the top of that list. Seriously, like one or two. Not for nothing is his blog called "Freedom to Tinker." Which is why it's so intriguing that Felten is taking a leave of absence from Princeton for a year to become the in-house Chief Technologist at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. From the FTC announcement:

"Ed is extraordinarily respected in the technology community, and his background and knowledge make him an outstanding choice to serve as the agency's first Chief Technologist," [Chairman Jon] Leibowitz said. "He's going to add unparalleled expertise on high-technology markets and computer security. And he also will provide invaluable input into the recommendations we'll be making soon for online privacy, as well as the enforcement actions we'll soon bring to protect consumer privacy. We're thrilled to have him on board."

Felten has been at the core of debates over everything from the security of electronic voting machines to the wisdom of "digital rights management" technologies to how we should think about online privacy. As a professor of both computer science and public affairs at Princeton, he's part of a new breed of geek-wonks who, some hope, can push a sort of knowledge-based approach to the complex decisions that Washington has to make when it comes to technology and communications in the years to soon come.

The Federal Trade Commission is, by design, the expert agency responsible for protecting consumers as far as commercial products go, and they've gone and gotten themselves one of the preeminent experts in the field when it comes to things that light up, beep, and otherwise shape our lives through their digital bits.