Every four years by the time we head into Election Day, many technology policy observers have already done their best to make a pitch for which candidate will be the best for tech. This year has been no different, with the candidates themselves having made obligatory visits to Silicon Valley months ago and their campaigns having shored up their final pitches on technology just as soon. And while there have been no technology-related gaffes this election (remember when George W. Bush used the term “Internets” during not one, but two, presidential debates in 2000?), technology as a voting issue has once again taken a back seat to the often predictable analysis that the best candidate for tech is always the more business-friendly candidate. At first glance, that would seem to give Governor Romney a slight edge, but the Obama administration’s thoughtful and forward-looking positions on Internet policy merit consideration as well.
Gaffes aside, politicians aren’t always the most thoughtful about technology. Policies promoted by lawmakers and candidates over the last few years seem to fundamentally misunderstand the importance of a free and open Internet. In the last year alone, we’ve seen politicians hit back hard against net neutrality; propose anti-piracy bills that threaten Internet freedom, and appear clueless on the increasingly serious issue of cyber-security. But there’s also the premise floating among the electorate that there’s no reason necessarily that tech industries should depend on the White House — or Congress for that matter — for their success. That’s why for Chicago and Boston this election year, technology has become at best an issue of second or third-tier importance. This simply shouldn’t be the case.
In today’s economy, information technology can’t afford to be taken as a non-serious election issue. According to the TechAmerica Foundation, the tech industry added nearly 100,000 jobs in the first six months of 2012, nearly 8 percent of all jobs created during that time. And broadband investment alone in the last year has been $66 billion. In contrast $90 billion in taxpayer money was spent to grow "green" jobs resulting in a mere 28,854 jobs over four years. In an election year when the candidates are supposed to be talking about jobs, tech’s contribution to that discussion shouldn’t be unfairly diminished. So, it’s important to decide: Who’s the best candidate for tech?
If elected, Mitt Romney has already made it clear he’d have a deep bench from which to fill top government jobs that matter to tech. Politico reports that Romney has asked his campaign's readiness team for the names of five people for key agency slots, such as the chairmanships of the FCC and the FTC. This shows a willingness to quickly overhaul Obama administration policies on broadband and antitrust. A Romney presidency would likely favor deregulation when it comes to communications issues and be more likely to loosen ethics rules mandated by President Obama that prohibit many federally registered lobbyists from joining his administration.
But a technology policy that involves less government may not be the right approach for our times. In fact, it could actually prove dangerous in erasing several key advances by the Obama administration on tech policy. On the whole, the administration has performed well on Internet issues, and considering how poorly politics has handled technology, that’s no small feat. So, here’s three reasons why Obama is the best candidate for tech this election:
The administration’s opposition to the twin anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA, tactfully announced in a blog post, shows that the current administration is able to tackle the toughest issues of expression online. The White House’s measured response to bills that were overzealous and threatened to fundamentally alter the open nature of the Internet showed sophistication in dealing with a complicated tech issue, by going beyond grassroots activism to involve a nuanced approach that acknowledged web giants like Wikipedia and Google on one side and the music and movie industries on the other.
More recently, the administration has demonstrated leadership by supporting the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which was designed to enhance security by facilitating information sharing among private companies and the government, and by purportedly authorizing the deployment of Flame and other cyber-weapons against Iranian nuclear facilities, the President has shown that he is willing to manipulate technology for national security purposes. Additionally, Obama has shown willingness to sanction foreigners who use information technology to carry out human rights abuses, and the State Department has successfully disseminated technologies that preserve anonymity online to support dissidents in repressive countries and help democracy activists, particularly in Syria, make human rights abuses apparent. These are signs for optimism that a second term may yield further watershed moments in increasing cyber-security defenses, while promoting a robust agenda of Internet freedom abroad.
Finally, the Obama administration deserves credit for recognizing that the potential for anti-competitive behavior exists even in upstart Internet companies. The FTC’s tough stance on Google over the last year has been a model for demonstrating a second-term commitment to ensuring fair competition among technology firms, and that adherence to competitive fairness looks to be expanded upon in the coming months as other high profile tech companies, including Apple and Amazon continue to be investigated by the FTC. The administration’s silence on the net neutrality battles of last fall are a disappointment, but the alternatives suggested by the Romney campaign, likely resulting in a gutting of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), offer a dramatic case for a defense of the status quo under the most successful FCC commissioner in decades, Julius Genachowski. A Romney administration, while arguing that it may be the best creator of tech jobs, would join it’s Republican counterparts in Congress and go far to destroy regulations that have been crucial in ensuring communications competition across all platforms. Rather than stifling free enterprise, the regulations that a Romney administration would likely overhaul, are a farsighted effort to maintain and safeguard the kind of free and fair competitive environment that has played such a large role in the Internet’s success. While not always appreciating the nuance of these regulations, the Obama administration has show a commitment to protecting net neutrality nonetheless.