Re-Computing Your Presidential Choices
Back in February, I devoted a post here to comparing the positions of the major Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on tech-policy issues that can affect the goods and services available to you next month, next year and over the next decade.
Seven months have passed, those five candidates have dwindled to two and they're having their first debate together tonight; it's time I revisited this topic.
Both Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Az.) provide lengthy position papers on their Web sites. Let's dig through McCain's first, then Obama's. But let's also set aside verbiage covering broader economic topics, such as upgrading the educational system or reforming research-and-development tax credits, to focus on each candidate's stances on five key consumer-tech topics: broadband availability, "net neutrality," copyright policy, the patent system and electronic privacy.
McCain's roughly 2,700-word statement doesn't get to any of those issues until about halfway down the page. There, we have a statement that might not exactly thrill the folks at the RIAA and the MPAA:
Protecting intellectual property creates the incentives for invention and investment in commercial innovations. Yet too much protection can stifle the proliferation of important ideas and impair legitimate commerce in new products to the detriment of our entire economy.
But there's little substance following it, aside from the goals of hiring more patent examiners and setting up a faster mediation process to resolve patent disputes.
It's not quite clear what a McCain administration would do about "net neutrality" -- i.e., whether the government should prohibit Internet providers from restricting or favoring particular Web sites or services on their networks -- to judge from these successive statements:
John McCain will focus on policies that leave consumers free to access the content they choose; free to use the applications and services they choose; free to attach devices they choose, if they do not harm the network; and free to choose among broadband service providers.
John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like "net-neutrality," but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices.
The next section of this document, outlines how he'd foster that competition: by providing Internet providers with tax subsidies and helping cities and counties build their own broadband systems (something that major telecom firms have opposed in the past).
McCain's tech-policy page also opposes new taxes on Internet services and urges lower taxes on wireless services. A separate press release on McCain's site outlines the candidate's views on electronic privacy and lists what he's done in the past to protect it. But the principles outlined here may place too much trust in companies that have let customers down: "Industry also must pursue effective self-regulation and continue informing and educating consumers about the collection and use of personal information."
Obama's tech-issues page leads off with a set of bullet points about how he "strongly supports the principle of network neutrality" (though there are no details about what he'd do to make that happen) and opposes media consolidation.
This document, like McCain's, endorses expanding broadband availability, but a sloppy edit seems to have left out the "how" -- the paragraph ends with "Specifically, Obama proposes the following policies to restore America's world leadership in this arena:"
On intellectual-property policies, Obama "believes we need to update and reform our copyright and patent systems to promote civic discourse, innovation and investment while ensuring that intellectual property owners are fairly treated." But how? I was looking for more info on that this spring and I still am now. (For what it's worth, the Copyright Alliance, a group advocating stronger copyright enforcement, seems slightly nervous about Obama's views in this blog post.)
Obama, like McCain, wants to hire more patent examiners but, in addition, endorses "opening up the patent process to citizen review."
People who read Obama's tech-policy statement this spring may notice that the current version is shorter and less detailed, but it links to a roughly 5,200-word PDF that fills in some of those blanks.
For instance, this second document states that Obama would enforce network neutrality by prohibiting Internet providers from charging "fees to privilege the content or applications of some web sites and Internet applications." And it cites one way Obama would expand broadband deployment: He'd use the Universal Service Fund to subsidize Internet access, not just voice phone service, in rural areas.
The PDF also adds a little detail to Obama's electronic-privacy stance: The candidate "supports restrictions on how information may be used and technology safeguards to verify how the information has actually been used."
If you're wondering whether Obama agrees or disagrees with McCain about taxing Internet and wireless services, you can only guess after reading these two pages.
This document also contains one section that doesn't count as a consumer-tech policy, but I want to call it out anyway because I think it's such a good idea. Obama endorses "Making government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities" -- in other words, helping people make mash-ups of government data to spotlight what the Feds are doing wrong or right.
It's fair to say that these candidates often advocate similar goals but disagree about how they'd get there. In many cases, these differences reside in basic concepts of the Democratic and Republican worldviews: One party urges government action to prevent abuse of power by corporations, the other is more worried about abuse of power by government.
What else should you consider about each candidates' tech-policy views? You can consider evaluations of their stances by third parties; see, for instance, this analysis (PDF) from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-partisan I Street think thank.
You can also tally up the endorsements each candidate has received from notable people in the tech industry. For example, Stanford University professor and copyright-reform advocate Larry Lessig has been one of Obama's earliest and most consistent supporters (see this endorsement on his blog from last winter), while eBay founder Meg Whitman is a co-chair of McCain's campaign.
I don't, however, believe you should place much importance on either candidate's computing skills. I don't think a president has to know how to use a computer or answer an e-mail, any more than the commander in chief has to know how to fly an F-16 or shoot an M-16 -- provided he or she remembers to seek the advice of people who do know these things.
I'll close this post as I ended February's item: In the comments, help me fill in the blanks about what these folks think about tech policy. Please link to your source -- whether it's from a candidate's own site, a vote they cast or a quote from an interview.
September 26, 2008; 10:48 AM ET
Categories: The business we have chosen
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