Where Do McCain and Obama Stand on Tech?

McCain and Obama Tech Policy
Obama and McCain speak during the presidential debate at Hofstra University earlier this month. Source: Reuters

When Americans go to the polls next Tuesday, Sen. John McCain’s and Sen. Barack Obama’s technology policies might not be at the forefront of most voters’ minds. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.

The campaign has lately been dominated with mudslinging over the candidates’ economic plans — and with good reason, given the current climate — and tech policy has been almost entirely absent from the discussion.

But the intersection of technology and government has been a busy place lately. The next administration will face a host of policy issues with a real impact on nearly all Americans, whether they know it or not.

“If you were to choose a single subject in which you might argue there was the greatest gap between the daily experience of Americans and the discourse of the presidential campaign, I think you could make a case that it lies in technology policy, about which we’ve heard virtually nothing from the campaign,” Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, a progressive think tank, said at a recent policy discussion at the group’s Washington office.

So while the candidates’ debates and stump speeches might not have elucidated their positions on Net neutrality, online privacy or spectrum allocation, Obama and McCain have outlined their technology agendas in some detail on their Web sites.

Here’s where they stand on six of the issues:

Net neutrality

Net neutrality, the idea that Internet service providers should be required to treat all data packets transmitted over their networks with equal favor, is the clearest point of disagreement on the tech front between the two candidates. Obama favors it. McCain opposes it.

The issue came to a head earlier this year, when the Federal Communications Commission rebuked Comcast for throttling data-rich peer-to-peer applications on its network and forced it to change its traffic-management policy. Proponents cheered the agency for taking action to ensure that the Internet remains open. Critics charged that the government was overstepping its authority and heading down the slippery slope of regulating an industry that has thrived under a free-market regime.

Those same contrasts are found in the candidates’ defenses of their positions.

“A key reason the Internet has been such a success is because it is the most open network in history. It needs to stay that way,” Obama’s tech policy states. “Barack Obama strongly supports the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet.”

By contrast, McCain maintains that Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem, and that it’s unnecessary regulation that threatens the openness and innovation that have characterized the Internet since its birth.

According to McCain’s Web site, the GOP nominee “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.”

Page 2: Broadband and spectrum

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Broadband and spectrum

Last year, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a multinational economic forum, confirmed what many in this country had long suspected: America is falling behind in Internet access. The OECD report ranked the United States as No. 15 in broadband deployment, and the ensuing months have seen a wave of interest in plans to boost the nation’s standing by bridging the digital divide, spreading broadband to users without affordable access to it.

The problem is acute in rural parts of the country, where ISPs would have to invest heavily in network buildouts to reach a relatively small number of customers.

McCain favors a market-based approach, saying that he would encourage private firms to continue to invest in network infrastructure through a series of tax incentives provided under the auspices of a “People Connect Program.”

Obama takes a more hands-on approach. He proposes a modification of the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes rural phone service, to include broadband access.

One path to greater broadband access involves freeing access to wireless spectrum that is currently unused or inefficiently allocated.

One such proposal that’s currently at the center of a lobbying maelstrom involves opening access to the vacant spectrum that sits between TV channels to create new wireless networks, similar to Wi-Fi but far stronger. The FCC is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on whether to move forward with freeing up the so-called “white spaces.”

Another plan involves licensing a higher-frequency spectrum band to create a free, universal broadband network with filters to block adult content.

The candidates have not weighed in on the specific proposals — both of which are opposed by powerful and deep-pocketed industry lobbies — though both say they support more effective use of the spectrum.

On McCain’s site, he says the government should “auction inefficiently-used wireless spectrum to companies that will instead use the spectrum to provide high-speed Internet service options to millions of Americans, especially in rural areas.”

His Democratic challenger has likewise called for a rethinking of the nation’s spectrum policies, declaring that Internet service should be a citizen’s basic right, like phone service and electricity.

Page 3: Immigration and privacy

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Immigration

Technology companies are virtually united in their calls for Congress to increase the number of H1-B visas granted to foreign workers, arguing that immigration restrictions keep highly skilled talent out of the country, putting U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage.

McCain’s Web site pledges that he “will expand the number of H-1B visas to allow our companies to keep top-notch talent — often trained in our graduate schools — in the United States. The Department of Labor should be allowed to set visa levels appropriate for market conditions.”

Obama, by contrast, has called for a temporary increase in the cap, currently set at 65,000, but has stopped short of advocating a permanent raise.

Reed Hundt, Obama’s technology adviser and former chairman of the FCC, recently explained that Obama’s temporary increase would be “part of a broader review of the entire immigration policy. And he would like to have that broader review be an outcome, not something that we struggle on year after year after year.”

He added, “When he says he wants a broader review, it’s of a very serious problem. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want skilled foreign workers to come to the United States — we absolutely do.”

Privacy

Online privacy has been a game of tug-of-war over the past few years. On one side are the watchdog groups that routinely blast Internet companies for amassing huge amounts of customer information while also calling on government to introduce meaningful safeguards. On the other side are firms like Google and Yahoo, which argue that they would be disinclined to abuse users’ information because the market would punish them, and maintain that they have robust privacy policies in place.

Obama believes that a new federal privacy law is necessary to meet the challenges of protecting privacy online.

McCain takes a more market-based approach, calling on the industry to continue its policy of self-regulation and efforts to educate consumers about how their information is collected and used.

Rather than introduce a new law, McCain calls for a stricter enforcement of existing laws, as well as incentives for companies that develop new security technologies.

Page 4: Technology in government and green tech

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Technology in government

Both candidates acknowledge that government agencies haven’t deployed technology as effectively as they could. Web sites are difficult to navigate and important information is often unavailable. Agencies often run legacy systems and are slow to adopt new technologies.

McCain pledges that the government will lead by example on the technology front.

“Government services should be available online and government can better serve the American people by operating more efficiently through the use of technology, including videoconferencing and collaborative networks,” his tech policy says.

McCain also vows to bring “talented men and women of science into the federal government,” and promises that the people he appoints to government positions will have experience in science and technology.

Obama goes a step further, promising to create a new position for a cabinet-level CTO who would coordinate the technology initiatives across the various agencies and spearhead efforts to bring more transparency to government activities by putting more information online.

Green technology

Both candidates believe that green technology offers a remedy for the energy, environmental and economic crises.

McCain supports the development of nuclear energy, with the goal of creating 45 plants by 2030, and working toward the ultimate goal of 100.

In the meantime, he proposes an annual government investment of $2 billion to develop clean coal technologies, and plans a $300 million prize for the development of a new battery technology that could power a plug-in hybrid or fully electric vehicles. McCain also calls on automakers to move more aggressively on their commitment to make 50 percent of their new cars flex-fuel vehicles by 2012.

Obama pledges to invest $150 billion in developing clean energy over the next 10 years, a stimulus that he hopes will result in the creation of 5 million new jobs. In that same time period, Obama hopes to end oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela while steadily increasing fuel-economy standards and offering a tax credit for individuals who purchase energy-efficient cars.

McCain offers a $5,000 tax credit for anyone who buys a zero-carbon-emissions car.

Both candidates favor a cap-and-trade system that would allot companies a certain number of permits for greenhouse gas emissions. Every unused permit could be sold for cash, thereby creating an incentive for companies to go green.

McCain set a timetable that by 2050 would see greenhouse gas emissions reduced to 66 percent below their 2005 levels. Obama has a similar timetable, which would cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

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