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Technology in the '08 US Presidential Election

Screenshot of McCain\'s website

With the 2008 United States Presidential Election just around the corner, I think it is important to reflect on the candidates' policies on technology. Granted, in the mists of the economic crisis and many other issues more pressing on society, most people probably don't care too much about technology policy. However, the candidates' policies on technology are still vital to the future of our nation and the audience reading this probably does actually care. Here we are going to analyse each ticket's policies on net neutrality, broadband availability and speed, promoting research, online privacy, intellectual property and patent reform, and incorporating technology into the government.

Screenshot of Obama\'s website

Do not be quick to jump the gun and assume McCain does not understand technology at all, as is often assumed. While he does not have any real technology experience himself (as he has never personally used the Internet until recently), he does have some policies that are good for the technology industry. Also, don't assume the Obama-Biden ticket is the saviour-of-all-things for technology just because Obama himself passionately supports technology. I will also take a moment now to state that Ron Paul is probably the only politician that actually understands the Internet, even if his policies are a bit too radical for the general public.

My information is coming from each candidate's technology policy (external link) page (external link) and their past voting records on technological issues. As Sarah Palin is rather new to the national political scene, she has not yet stated her stance on a number of issues, particularly technology issues, but I will mention them when available.

Policies Each Candidate Share

Luckily, both candidates share some common policies towards technology. Both Obama and McCain, of course, believe in promoting research and technological advancement in America and in equipping our youngsters with the skills to use technology effectively. Both of their technology policy pages are filled with fluff and sensational text about both these topics, which I will largely ignore. No one would vote for a candidate that didn't support both promoting research and preparing children for the digital age.

More specific, both candidates want to make the R&D Tax Credit permanent, which will help companies to be able to fund more research and development. Even better, Obama and McCain both support a permanent net-tax ban, which will save the Internet from ever being taxed by the government. This may not seem as important in light of the net neutrality debate, but it does save the Internet from the possible mess of taxes and fees seen with telephone lines. Do you ever wonder where that extra $20 on your phone bill not in the advertised price comes from? That would be federal, state, and local taxes. It's easy to say we don't want those types of fees to be tacked onto our Internet connections as well.

Outside of these few things, the candidates policies on technology differ here and there. However, the similarities provide some small glimpse of hope for the future in the government's role in technology.

Net Neutrality

In this election, net neutrality is debatably the most important technological issue because the elected candidate's policy on net neutrality could easily make or break the Internet. Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet's freedom should be mandated through legislation to ensure that the telecommunication companies do not tier their backbone networks or charge content companies ridiculous amounts of money, which hence will probably destroy the Internet as we know it. You can read more about net neutrality in Lowter's fantastic article Net Neutrality: Preserving the Free Internet, written by yours truly.

Barack Obama has been one of net neutrality's best spokesmen, a passionate believer in preserving the freedom of the Internet. He was one of the senators to co-sponsor the Internet Freedom Preservation Act (external link), along with his former opponent Hillary Clinton (who is also an adamant supporter of net neutrality). Net neutrality has always been an integral part of Obama's policies. However, Joe Biden, Obama's running mate, has been a bit sceptical of net neutrality and has not supported such legislation in the past. While his current "official" stance is in support of net neutrality, he has before spoken out that such legislation is not necessary. Where has he been in the last few years? Biden has also expressed support in the past about an Internet tax. Luckily, the ticket is Obama-Biden and not Biden-Obama. Obama is just more tech-friendly than his running mate.

John McCain wants to "place the federal government in the role of stimulator, rather than regulator". Hence, he does not support net neutrality regulation because he does not want to "stifle" integration from the telcos under the burden of government regulation. His website even goes as far as to state his stance against net neutrality (instead of something safe and vague): "John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like 'net-neutrality,' but ... that an open marketplace ... is the best deterrent against unfair practices." It's hard for an oligopoly to have sufficient competition to deter against unfair practices, but whatever, ignore the examples of the RIAA and the MPAA and the oh-so-fair practices of the telecommunication companies in the past. Granted, McCain doesn't necessarily want a tiered Internet, he just fails to miss the point why we need the regulation just in case.

Overall, the Obama-Biden ticket is better for net neutrality, with a firm supporter and a sceptical supporter, rather than McCain-Palin, with only a strong opponent. It is also very important to note that while Obama supports net neutrality and McCain doesn't, the support for net neutrality is more important within Congress, who would be the one to pass the legislation. Most Democratic Senators and Congressmen "support" net neutrality, but two years after they have won control of Congress we still haven't seen any net neutrality legislation passed. It is also worth noting that every single major Democratic Senate candidate running for election supports net neutrality (external link), so there is some hope in the future that more politicians will start to support the issue.

Broadband Availability and Speed

Obama and McCain both support increasing broadband availability, especially bringing broadband connections to rural areas of the country. They both also want to increase broadband speeds and to develop new broadband-based technology. It is hard to say which candidate supports increasing broadband availability and speed more than the other, but we can rest assured they both at least support improving the broadband infrastructure in some capacity. McCain has had a hand in a lot of important legislation about the wireless spectrum, so he has a sure commitment to expand technological infrastructure, despite not using technology as much himself.

Looking towards Alaska, we might be able to glimpse into Palin's possible support of improving broadband infrastructure. Alaska has the slowest average Internet connection of around 800 Kbps. This lack of broadband infrastructure is due to the geographical nature of the state, where everyone is pretty spread out and it is difficult to connect everyone to the Internet. However, Sarah Palin, Alaska's governor, has made no effort to expand the state's broadband infrastructure to bring these more remote communities into the digital age. While she has no official stance, her utter disregard of the whole issue isn't very hopeful either.

Online Privacy

Online privacy is a bit more of a sticky issue when it comes to which candidate supports protecting citizens' privacy more. We ideally want a candidate who clearly will protect our online privacy from the government and from businesses, no matter what. McCain's policy page only says he wants to protect "secured consumer privacy", whereas Obama explicitly states he wants to "hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy". To me, it seems that Obama is a bigger supporter of online privacy than McCain, but take their words for yourself and decide.

However, I can easily say that Biden is simply against online privacy. He has introduced two bills - the Comprehensive Counter-Terrorism Act (external link) and the Violent Crime Control Act (external link) - that are explicitly against encryption. Furthermore, he introduced the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (external link), which is meant "to make clear a telecommunications carrier's duty to cooperate in the interception of communications for law enforcement purposes". He is basically against encryption where there isn't a backdoor for the government (and in turn hackers as well) to use. Currently, his "official" policy is against wire-tapping and other invasive privacy violations, but his past records would indicate him as pro-FBI, pro-wiretapping, and anti-encryption. Biden has also proposed to monitor peer-to-peer activity in search for child pornography, although simply the monitoring of web traffic is a bad practice. Overall, Biden is not the best choice for protecting our online privacy. Again, luckily, the ticket is Obama-Biden and not Biden-Obama.

Intellectual Property and Patent Reform

With fair use and patent reform, we have another situation where Obama and McCain support something with little to no detail of how they would actually support it, and Biden comes in as America's worst nightmare for the particular situation. Obama and McCain both vaguely support reforming the copyright and patent systems to create a better equilibrium between copyright/patent holders and consumers. Since any trace of concrete details are left out, it is probably safe to say neither candidate will actually do anything to ensure consumers' fair use rights are not violated.

Biden and the RIAA are best friends and Biden has had a significant hand in pushing forward bills that violate fair use rights. He sponsored the RIAA-backed Perform Act (external link) that restricted the ability of Americans to record and play back individual songs from satellite and Internet radio services. Left and right he has become the music industry's and Hollywood's buddy, and overall is an enemy in the intellectual property wars. He was also one of only four senators to be invited to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act celebration. If you are worried about your fair use rights being violated (more than they already are), then you probably don't want someone holding hands with the RIAA and the MPAA. Yet again, luckily, the ticket is Obama-Biden and not Biden-Obama.

Technology and the Government

Screenshot of Obama\'s iPhone app

Obama is an adamant supporter of using technology to keep citizens involved and informed (a transparent government), as seen through his campaign's crafty use of technology. He even has his own iPhone app (external link), which is actually not lame. Officially, he wants to use technology to "create a transparent and connected democracy". He is very embracive of using the tools of the digital age to connect with ordinary citizens and make them feel like part of the government. Obama also teamed up with Republican Senator Tom Coburn "to pass a law that will lift the veil of secrecy in Washington by creating a Google-like search engine that will allow ordinary Americans to track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and loans online." Obama also plans to appoint our first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) "to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century".

McCain doesn't use technology much himself and he doesn't explicitly state much about using technology to connect with citizens. He does support putting information online for the public to view, but he is not as embracive as Obama. However, this does not mean he is against the idea, it just isn't as important to him as other issues. Palin, on the other hand, has actually taken a step in government transparency in her home state of Alaska. Any cheque written by the Alaskan government over $1000 is posted online for the Alaskan citizens to see. She may be more progressive than McCain in using technology to make the government more transparent.

Conclusion

I hope that you learnt about each candidate's policy on technology so that you at least understand the future of the technological world if either candidate is elected. Also, I hope that I shed some light on Joe Biden and his stances on important technology issues that are generally harmful towards consumers. Make sure that you go out and vote on 4 November 2008!