The Candidates' Technology Policy Reviewed

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., climbs the steps of his campaign plane in Asheville, N.C., Oct. 7, 2008; Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. boards his campaign plane in Denver, Oct. 24, 2008. (AP Photos/Alex Brandon, Carolyn Kaster)
AP/Alex Brandon, Carolyn Kaster
We're only a few days away from an election that, among a lot of other things, will help determine how America approaches its technological challenges - and we do have challenges.

Despite the fact that we're the home of Hewlett Packard, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Google, Apple and many other incredibly innovative companies, the U.S. is not always number one when it comes to the utilization of this technology.

For example, the U.S. is in 15th place when it comes to broadband penetration per capita. We're way behind Denmark, the Netherlands and our neighbors in Canada, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We're in ninth place when it comes to broadband speed. In terms of speed, Japan averages 61 megabits per second compared to 4.8 here in the U.S., says the Technology & Information Foundation.

Both candidates have a technology platform on their Web sites and, not surprisingly, their technology policies are more or less reflective of their overall political philosophies. On the surface, the contrast is not as stark as you might expect. Both Senators Obama and McCain want to see more innovation, a stronger and more technologically savvy workforce and widespread connectivity at all income levels.

But that level of similarity can be said for other major policy areas. Both want prosperity and security and an America that the world respects. The question isn't so much what they want, but how they plan to achieve it.

In 2004, President Bush pledged to bring "broadband technology to every corner of our country by the year 2007 with competition shortly thereafter."

It hasn't happened. McCain sees less regulation as the solution.

"I have been a leading advocate in the Senate for seeking market-based solutions to increasing broadband penetration," he told CNET news. "We should place the federal government in the role of stimulator rather than regulator of broadband services, remove state and local barriers to broadband deployment, and facilitate deployment of broadband services to rural and underserved communities."

Obama's tech policy platform says "we can get true broadband to every community in America through a combination of reform of the Universal Service Fund (USF), better use of the nation's wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives."

Both candidates want to see more rigorous enforcements of trademark and copyright laws, though Obama's Web site polity statements place more emphasis on international piracy, especially China.

"While the Internet has provided tremendous opportunity for the creators of copyrighted works," says McCain's site, "it has also given rise to a global epidemic of piracy. John McCain supports efforts to crack down on piracy, both on the Internet and off."

In September, McCain policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin waved his BlackBerry around and said, "you're looking at the miracle that John McCain helped create."

Of course, the BlackBerry is from a Canadian company and McCain had nothing to do with its development. Another McCain aide later dismissed this as "a bonehead joke by a staffer." Unlike Obama, McCain doesn't even carry a BlackBerry, or any other smart phone, and has been quoted as saying that his wife Cindy has to help him access the Web.

Still, McCain was chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, where he was a staunch advocate for deregulation. While not claiming to have invented anything, his campaign site does say that "under John McCain's guiding hand, Congress developed a wireless spectrum policy that spurred the rapid rise of mobile phones and Wi-Fi technology."

In January, McCain told CNET, "I believe that we must promote competition and reduce regulation in order to secure lower prices and higher-quality services for consumers and encourage the rapid deployment of new technologies."

Obama plans to appoint a national CTO (Chief Technology Officer) to "ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century."

The CTO "will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices," according to Obama's site.

Obama advocates "doubling federal funding for basic research over ten years, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology."

McCain's campaign told the New York Times that "he will encourage corporate research by reducing the capital gains and corporate taxes and promoting "conditions favorable to investment." He has also been quoted as wanting to lift "burdensome regulations" that inhibit innovation.

One of the most controversial technology issues today is network neutrality. For most people in the United States, the only two practical means to get broadband are from either their cable company or phone company, leading to a duopoly when it comes to connectivity (satellite broadband is available but it's slower and more expensive than what the cable and phone companies offer).

There has been a great deal of pressure on Congress to do something to assure that these companies treat all Internet traffic fairly and not favor their own services over those of competitors. There is worry, for example, that phone companies could interfere with competing voice over Internet service or cable companies might favor their own video programming over that of rivals. Critics of net neutrality have pointed out that there has been relatively little blockage of competitive services and that there is no need for government regulation.

Sen. Obama is in favor of the government assuring network neutrality while Sen. McCain wants to leave that up to market forces. McCain "does not believe in prescriptive regulation like 'net-neutrality'."

I was at a Wall Street Journal conference last year where McCain said, "when you control the pipe you should be able to get profit from your investment." Obama's campaign says that "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. Barack Obama strongly supports the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet."
By Larry Magid