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Q&A: Microsoft's chief strategist on China, cyber attacks, immigration

Image representing Craig Mundie as depicted in...

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Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, thinks there needs to be ways to identify Web users to help deter cyber attacks. He also thinks it's not as difficult to conduct business in China, where censoring is mandated, as some would make it out to be.

Those were among the many topics covered in a wide-ranging conversation I had with Mundie at Microsoft's Imagine Cup technology competition Monday in Washington. We talked about immigration reform, the national broadband plan and fostering better science education -- issues that are all central to Microsoft's mission in Washington. To help get students interested in technology, students at the event competed to develop technology solutions to real-life problems such as poverty, remote healthcare and lack of clean water in developing nations.

Here is an edited transcript of our 20-minute interview:

Q: How does Imagine Cup translate into business for Microsoft?
A: It doesn’t translate into business directly. The reason we care is that we care about having well-educated people that can work in our companies and others like ours. If you think of Microsoft as a factory, the only raw material that goes into our factory are smart people and the only things that go out are their ideas wrapped up in software. We are always concerned about whether globally we are going to continue to attract enough students into the science and engineering fields and have them excel and enjoy the world with many opportunities.

Q: What can be done by the administration and federal government to facilitate those goals?
A: One, the schools as they are today in the United States, particularly in the elementary stage and high school stage don’t have enough teachers adequately trained in technologies that are going to be critical going forward. Nor are they all that well-trained in basic science. When teachers aren’t really good, it's hard for them to excite students. When material is intrinsically more challenging, you see a falloff. So the U.S. has seen a decline in the last decade in its yield of smart young people into science and engineering.

Right now we struggle to get enough out of our population. In the past we were a country with a very open immigration policy, particularly in graduate and post-graduate education. In the last nine-10 years, that has become more difficult. We are going to have to address the question of facilitating high-skills immigration at least in the educational sense in order to continue to strengthen our overall capability and make sure we have as many of the world's smart people not only to get educated in the U.S. but to also live and work in the U.S.

Q: In your opinion, is the administration addressing immigration reform adequately?
A: The administration so far hasn’t gotten around to a lot of focus on immigration. There is a lot of talk about it now. But it's been a hot topic for years. Bill Gates and I for many years in our own engagement with people here on the Hill have said high-skills immigration is the number-one issue as far as Microsoft is concerned, even on top of taxation. Despite some efforts that got close to reform in the high-skills area, today we don't have anything that is currently visible as a solution to that problem.

Q: Is immigration still your number-one issue in Washington? What would you say are your top two or three issues?
A: I’d say that getting smart people is the top issue. It's hard to do this, whether that's because of high-skills immigration or quality education.

Q: What about other policies? There's a lot more activity around tech policy these days.
A: Broadband infrastructure -- obviously very critical and we provided a lot of comments at the Federal Communications Commission in the plan. It's another case where we are the leader in the development of technology as a country but are laggards in terms of penetration and price of our high-performance broadband capabilities. That will take more of a toll. The intersection of broadband evolution with research communications capabilities will be another place where these things come together more tightly.
In terms of intellectual property, our issues are more trade-related than domestic. We don't have a level of communications and protection around the world that we would like to have.
Cyber security is an area that I am personally involved in. That is continuing to build steam as an issue. The fact is that today we continue to see an escalation in various criminal activities on the Internet. We have great difficulties in establishing identity on the Internet that would facilitate law enforcement or attribution in the event of cyber attacks or hacking attacks. I think this will be an important issue in the next year or so.

Q: Along the lines of identification online, there were reports that you had called for some kind of Web identification in a speech earlier this year. What were you talking about?
A: The thing you read, I was giving an analogy in a panel at the World Economic Forum. I was pointing out that in our physical lives, we find it important to have identification for a whole variety of things and to have a license for certain activities. So your driver's license we both use as a credential for proving who we are and our ages, but it also authenticates us and gives us permission to drive. Many people thought I was saying we will need driver's licenses for the Internet. What I was trying to say is that I do think we are going to have to see the introduction of some types of identification for certain types of activity on the Internet. Some people believe almost everything should be anonymous. But I gave the analogy because in our physical real world life, we don’t let people walk around being anonymous. You can't say, “I'm anonymous,” and then want to go into a bank vault. You can’t say, “I’m anonymous,” but then want to go into the Capitol building.
As higher and higher value activities take place on the Internet, we are going to demand some people have believable credentials.

Q: What are examples of those activities?
A: As you do more and more commerce. Banks are a good example. They will go to some significant trouble to try to give you a way to prove who you are on a Web site so you go pay bills and get bank balances. We don’t have a good uniform way to provide identities in a trustworthy way. If you look at some of the cyber attacks that have been in the press in the last few months, the root of the challenge is that no one can say with certainty where it comes from.

Q: Google has said its decision to withdraw its search business from China had in large part to do with business. You can't have a patchwork of business regimes where you censor in some countries and not in others, they said. As you think of Microsoft's strategy globally, would you agree that it is bad business to abide by those rules in China and Turkey, for example, and different rules in other nations?
A: I’ll tell you how Microsoft thinks about things and then Google can tell you what Google thinks. We believe that when you operate any services in a country, you don't have a choice but to comply with the law of that country. Businesses don’t have discretion for compliance. The only choice is to operate there or not. We have not found it difficult from a technical or business point of view to put mechanisms in place to comply with various laws. And we do that in many countries, like China. We do believe that it is important to have frank discussions with governments around the world around questions of freedom of speech and political expression. But the way we chose to do that is to create the Global Network Initiative, and we continue to focus on that as the best vehicle to sort those out as a baseline for those policy issues.
In the case of Microsoft in China, we’ve operated there for some time. The decision we made, that complies with GNI policy, is that if we are asked to filter result, we mark that or annotate that result so the user knows that it is restricted in content by the authorities. So it's transparent. So our view is that we are better off to be there and provide what turns out to be the vast majority of information that is unaffected.

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By Cecilia Kang  |  April 27, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Broadband , FCC , Google , International , Microsoft  
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