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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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 26, 2008; 10:48 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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"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."

Sorry, it makes no sense to compare the ability to use an extremely common and essential productivity-enhancement tool to being able to use a specialized weapon.

Posted by: techie | September 26, 2008 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't disagree more. I think that the advancements of the last several decades have vastly changed the landscape of information exchange and to not know how to use these tools inhibits the shape of the future.

I do not think that knowing how to fly a plane is synonymous with knowing how to use a computer. I would equate computer usage to the ability to effectively communicate.

Sure you could be a president and not know how to effectively communicate but wouldn't it be better to have a president that could?

I'm not saying that knowing how to search for the cheapest shoes on ebay is essential to becoming president, but the computer age is changing the way we live our lives, produce goods, trade globally and communicate with others. I believe knowing how to use and more importantly understand why computing is important is a vital trait that I seek in the highest public office.

Posted by: techie2 | September 26, 2008 3:01 PM | Report abuse

In business I had to make many hiring choices. So the best advice I can give in this election is the same advice I always followed in business

Posted by: Bud Cherry | September 26, 2008 3:01 PM | Report abuse

McCain is the past, Obama is the future. Take your pick.

Posted by: thebob.bob | September 26, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Osama Hussein Obama Oops I mean Barak Hussein Obama is the muslim communist with communist agenda for this country.Do we need a muslim communist in WH?

Posted by: Anonymous | September 26, 2008 3:32 PM | Report abuse

is anyone keeping tracking of McCain's stunts?

1. Cancel the first night of convention
2. Select Palin as VP
3. Lipstick on a Pig
4. Cancel Letterman show
5. The economic rescue stunt - yet we still don't know where he stands
6. Lying throughout the campaign...not sure that is a stunt or a personality flaw.
7. Country First crap......he puts himself first
8. Injecting POW story at every chance he gets.
9. Talks about being a champion of Main St, but throws out older lady who lives on Main St from his rally.
10. Using every tactic possible to avoid discussing the issues
11. Changes campaign platform from Experience to Change (he steals too)
12. Changes uniform from Republican to Whatever
13. Goes from 26 years as regulator to de-regulator.
14. Tries to get the Hillary supporter votes
15. Etc

I'm sure I missed plenty???????????????

God, what's next? If Obama's poll numbers keep rising as it gets closer to Nov 4, who knows what he may do?

Maybe McCain should try staying in one place and stick to the issues -- oops, that would mean he would have to talk about what is important to American people instead of

Posted by: steve | September 26, 2008 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Nobody likes Chuck Baldwin?

Posted by: |L-I-L)||(L-l-L| | September 26, 2008 3:33 PM | Report abuse

McCain is the past and McCain is the future, Obama is the very dark future. Take your pick.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 26, 2008 3:34 PM | Report abuse

just too sad that this is the best that our country can offer from either party. what we really need is someone to run right in the middle of these two jackasses.
and maybe actually solve the countrys problems instead of blaming each party for them.

Posted by: rob | September 26, 2008 3:36 PM | Report abuse

" 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 "

Excuse me but do you realize just how few jobs in America do not require computer skills? Personally, I could care less if the President NEVER uses a computer during his term in office; however, I think it is extremely important that they know how to do so.

Look at our situation with 9/11. God forbid we ever have another attack like that and the President or VP is on the run and doesn't have the staffers with them for computer assistance. Wouldn't it make sense for the President to know what to do?

I look at it this way. If you applied for a job without computer experience nowadays you generally will not get the job.

Posted by: Gary | September 26, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

just too sad that this is the best that our country can offer from either party. what we really need is someone to run right in the middle of these two jackasses.
and maybe actually solve the countrys problems instead of blaming each party for them.

Posted by: rob | September 26, 2008 3:36 PM

Rob you are so right about both of them.Even more sad that bunch of Liberal jackasses are trying to hijack this country and are trying to change it to something like fagotland.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 26, 2008 3:41 PM | Report abuse

McStunt chose beuty over bains as his running mate. The answers Palin gave to Katie Couric in her interview were more in line with the answer from Miss.South Carolina during the beuty peagent. If we chose McStunt as the head of state, his staff will be filled with airheads as policy makers. This country will be thrown back to the stone age.

Posted by: Sam | September 26, 2008 3:46 PM | Report abuse

why do Republican pseudo-pundits always hide behind anonymous in much the same way Neo-con republicans hide in shadows of truth?

Posted by: Michael | September 26, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Hey, "Anonymous," I didn't ask for racist and homophobic drivel. Find somebody else's blog if that's all you have to contribute here.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | September 26, 2008 4:06 PM | Report abuse

People that are arranging the bail out should consider how much money our senators and congressmen/women will lose. Is bush protecting his assets? I may lose 30k but he may lose 20 million?

Posted by: Anon | September 26, 2008 4:45 PM | Report abuse

We need a President who is intelligent and uses technology which would help in making the important technology decisions in the future. Obama is the clear choice.

Posted by: Terry | September 26, 2008 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Hey "Anonymous",

It must be nice to sit in your basement and ooze this vile, racist C-R-A-P. I have a dare for you - if you're going to write this ignorant garbage, grow a pair and write your real name. Then maybe try to crawl out of your narrow-minded hole, join reality and have something intelligent and meaningful to say. The country is in serious trouble and you can't get past race and religion - news flash - basic human decency has no color. You're part of the problem not the solution...grow up and get an education.

Posted by: Sha | September 26, 2008 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, no links or other hard evidence of what either of these two "support" for intellectual property rights or any "online" neutrality. However, you can bet every dime you have that if McCain gets in then whether you use a Zune or an ipod... every single thing you have on it and how many times you play any of it and when, where, how etc... all of it will be known by the "owners" of it. Also, you can bet that Time-Warmer, AT&T, Google and Microsoft (just to name a few) will all be able to do anything under the sun as long as they make lots of money and keep their pockets open to the GOP (ie: good by "open source" anything)

Posted by: a guy with at least half a brain | September 26, 2008 4:57 PM | Report abuse

The Birk Economic Recovery Plan

Hi Pals,

I'm against the $85,000,000,000.00 bailout of AIG.

Instead, I'm in favor of giving $85,000,000,000 to America in a We Deserve It Dividend.

To make the math simple, let's assume there are 200,000,000 bonafide U.S. Citizens 18+.

Our population is about 301,000,000 +/- counting every man, woman and child. So 200,000,000 might be a fair stab at adults 18 and up..

So divide 200 million adults 18+ into $85 billion that equals $425,000.00.

My plan is to give $425,000 to every person 18+ as a We Deserve It Dividend.

Of course, it would NOT be tax free.

So let's assume a tax rate of 30%.

Every individual 18+ has to pay $127,500.00 in taxes.

That sends $25,500,000,000 right back to Uncle Sam.

But it means that every adult 18+ has $297,500.00 in their pocket.

A husband and wife has $595,000.00.

What would you do with $297,500.00 to $595,000.00 in your family?

Pay off your mortgage - housing crisis solved.

Repay college loans - what a great boost to new grads

Put away money for college - it'll be there

Save in a bank - create money to loan to entrepreneurs.

Buy a new car - create jobs

Invest in the market - capital drives growth

Pay for your parent's medical insurance - health care improves

Enable Deadbeat Dads to come clean - or else

Remember this is for every adult U S Citizen 18+ including the folks who lost their jobs at Lehman Brothers and every other company that is cutting back. And of course, for those serving in our Armed Forces.

If we're going to re-distribute wealth let's really do it...instead of trickling out a puny $1000.00 ( "vote buy" ) economic incentive that is being proposed
by one of our candidates for President.

If we're going to do an $85 billion bailout, let's bail out every adult U S Citizen 18+!

As for AIG - liquidate it.

Sell off its parts.

Let American General go back to being American General.

Sell off the real estate.

Let the private sector bargain hunters cut it up and clean it up.

Here's my rational e. We deserve it and AIG doesn't.

Sure it's a crazy idea that can "never work."

But can you imagine the Coast-To-Coast Block Party!

How do you spell Economic Boom?

I trust my fellow adult Americans to know how to use the $85 Billion

We Deserve It Dividend more than I do the geniuses at AIG or in Washington DC .

And remember, The Birk plan only really costs $59.5 Billion because $25.5 Billion is returned instantly in taxes to Uncle Sam.

Posted by: Cindy | September 26, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

To Anon,

Bush is not going to lose anything, Big Mac took care of all who hides their money off shore.

Posted by: Friend | September 26, 2008 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Who cares if McCain can use a computer or not? His campaign is a rudderless ship. He is floundering in the storm. His Straight Talk Express is running out of steam and about to hit the end of the line.

Palin is lost out in the ozone somewhere and is pretty much useless to him at this point. Ms. Eskimo Pie turned out to be an embarassing selection on his part. We want so badly for her to answer any of these questions well but it is just too painful to watch anymore.

His own staff is as much of an embarrassment for all their hidden connections to the money stream McCain laments over in criticising Washington. He may as well start gnawing his arm off if he really is honest in eliminating lobbyists and the money they have access to.

He can't manage a presidential campaign any better than he can send us an email begging for help. His program is about to crash--big time.

Sorry John. Thanks for the service to your country. Thanks for the memories. But you're a tired old dinosaur. We'll save a space for you and put you on display at the Smithsonian Museum.

Posted by: Humpty dumpty | September 26, 2008 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Barack Hussein Obama will bring change, just like he says. Only it will be a change devastating to America, but welcomed by Islamic extremists.

If every member of Al Queda, and ever Islamic extremist, could vote in our election, who would they vote for? EVERY SINGLE ONE would vote for Barack Hussein Obama... BET ON IT! You libs know it's true!

McCain is the only choice we have this election. Barack Hussein Obama is downright frightful!

And, for all of you liberal Obama minions, do your homework on Obama. You won't thought, because you won't like what you're gonna' find...

ACORN, William Ayers, Bernadette Dohrn, Saul Alinksy. Not to mention Tony Rezko.

Obama's two most influential non-family members: Frank Davis, diehard communist mentor during high school; and the notorious Jeremiah Wright, ultra-racist pastor for 20 years and his mentor all that time.

Why does Obama not release his medical records? Why does he not release his grades at Columbia, which would hopefully explain how in the world he got into Harvard Law School? And how exactly did he get into Harvard?

Posted by: Indy Voter | September 26, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Indy Voter! Barack Hussein Obama will be a disaster for America!

McCain is the only one of the two who will keep America safe.

Posted by: Joe from Pennsylvania | September 26, 2008 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Obama understands that the U.S. has fallen far behind its communications technology potential, and is comfortable exploring how best to catch up to and connect to the rest of the developed world.

McCain can probably see a telephone pole from his house, and believes that's enough to see through the smoke and mirrors with which his lobbiest/advisors try to wring a few more dollars out yesterday's tech.

Posted by: CopyOwner | September 26, 2008 6:15 PM | Report abuse

Its important for the President to use a computer so they can understand why Net Neutrality is important. If it takes 2 minutes for a page to download because the server's owner isn't kicking back to Comcast, that will effectively destroy any hope that independent media (for example) can compete on an equal footing with MSM.

Posted by: j_dog | September 26, 2008 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Cindy - isn't 85 billion divided by 200 million = $425 ?

I don't want to make it sound like I'm picking on Cindy here, but maybe we need to invest some of that money into basic math education - even a lot of politicians make mistakes like this...

Posted by: j_dog | September 26, 2008 6:25 PM | Report abuse

As to the FALSE claim by the poster too chicken to leave an identifier: Barack (whose name has a HEBREW equivalent as well as Arabic) Obama is neither a Moslem nor a communist, but even if he does have "socialist" leanings, can you honestly say looking at the mess the economy is in as a result of the greedy Capitalists on Wall Steet that maybe a little socialist thought might not be a good thing?

Posted by: rbarr | September 26, 2008 6:50 PM | Report abuse

"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

Using a computer or email are basic skill and tools much like a phone glued to McCains head. Flying a plane clarly isnt.

Though I would conceed it a petty issue to make a point. There are much more substantive ways to pain someone out of touch.

Posted by: sue | September 26, 2008 7:42 PM | Report abuse

Bill Clinton surprised me in one sense. With all his pointed armchair observations, he made such a simple and devastating mistake for seasoned politician.

By not putting all support behind Obama, he kissed the African American community support behind Hillary’s chances good bye forever should Obama not win. They supported him and his response is a slap in the face. By his own premise, people don’t just vote on issues and essentially gave them permission to practice what he preaches.

If I was Obama I would take what he said to Brokaw and use it against McCain under the premise Obama represent the future and McCain the past just to break his balls.

Posted by: sue | September 28, 2008 1:27 PM | Report abuse

a black and an old man what a choice

Posted by: Paulie in Brooklyn | September 28, 2008 4:30 PM | Report abuse

"Hey, "Anonymous," I didn't ask for racist and homophobic drivel. Find somebody else's blog if that's all you have to contribute here.

- RP"

Good on ya', Rob. I was hoping to see a discussion of government and technology (an interesting and important topic) but it was all too quickly hijacked by the knuckleheads.

I think that simply "using a computer" is no standard for judging a candidate's knowledge about technology. I've done tech support - there are lots of computer users out there who have no idea what is happening when the send an email, heck they don't have a clue as to the difference between AOL, an email and a Word document. Just knowing how to perform simple tasks learned by rote on a computer won't help any politician set policy. They need to talk to experts, not just industry lobbyists to gain an understanding of the ramifications of net neutrality, availability of Internet access, etc. before they make laws.

Keep up the good work Rob,

Posted by: lofti | September 28, 2008 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I agree with you on what you say in your last paragraph where you say that a presidential candidate's computer skills should not be considered an important requirement (excuse me for summarizing in my words).
A "CEO" needs to be able to motivate, to judge inputs, to make decisions based on inputs, to pick the right experts, to have character, not be afraid to act decisively, and so on ...

Posted by: observer 31 | September 28, 2008 6:05 PM | Report abuse

The future of communication is at the core of our country's ability to compete in the future. Every President in some ways has to be a high tech President. There is a collection of Obama's interaction with the internet and high tech at There was a link to this story there.

Posted by: FoxFan | September 29, 2008 9:12 PM | Report abuse

If any one needs to decide their choice based on the candidates tech position we are in trouble . As important as it is it is not a central issue.

Posted by: Arava | September 30, 2008 11:39 AM | Report abuse

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