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Obama vs McCain: Courting The Tech Vote

With the arrival of presidential candidate Barack Obama in Des Moines tomorrow, I thought it might be a good time to take a look the candidate’s positions on technology issues. Amidst all the online punditry over presidential candidates, there is very little actual insight into the candidates’ positions on technology, and how these positions will effect you and everyone else who relies on the Internet. While I have strongly conservative leanings, having voted Republican since I was old enough to reach the lever, this year’s election has me thinking with a much more tech-based Libertarian mindset.

According to TechCrunch, the second most popular blog on the planet, information technology voters strongly prefer the policies of Ron Paul over the rest of the field. Ron Paul, however, is no longer in the race, so here is how the two remaining major party candidates stack up on the issue of technology:

Net Neutrality
Winner: Barack Obama

Net Neutrality refers to the idea that you should be allowed to access any portion of the Internet you like. If the big Internet Service Providers want to prevent you from visiting Web sites that do not pay them an advertising kickback, or charge more to visit selected "packages" of Web sites, much like cable does now, there is nothing to prevent that from happening. 30518340

Sen. Barack Obama has stated that signing a guarantee of Net Neutrality into law will be a priority during his first year in office. Conversely, Sen. John McCain opposes Net Neutrality legislation.

Winner: None

Both Sen. McCain and  Sen. Obama state that they are interested in preserving and strengthening the online privacy of their constituents. In terms of putting their votes where their platforms are, however, both Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain voted in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). These amendments grant immunity to electronic communication service providers that conspired with the government to spy on United States citizens. Regardless of the rhetoric, this vote indicates that neither candidate is a stalwart protector of online privacy rights.   

Winner: Obama

Both candidates support a strong stance against foreign infringement of music and movie copyrights. If both candidates follow through with their other copyright proposals, as opposed to merely dumping taxpayer money behind stopping the overseas sales of bootleg copies of Gigli, the plans seem equally beneficial. With regard to the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), however, there is a difference between the candidates. The DMCA offers safe harbor to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) accused of hosting copyright infringing material on their servers. If the material was posted by a third party, the ISP merely removes the accused material and forwards the complaint to the third party poster. If the poster submits a defense to the ISP, the ISP reposts the material and sends the reply to the complainant.

Recently, this issue arose in the context of the presidential campaign. A YouTube video in support of Sen. McCain was taken down in response to an allegation of copyright infringement under the DMCA. Per the DMCA, YouTube took down the videos and forwarded the complaint on to the McCain campaign. Instead of merely following DMCA protocols, or attacking the DMCA itself as being intrinsically unfair, the McCain campaign wrote a letter to YouTube explaining why it should receive VIP treatment and not have its videos taken down.  This "I make the online rules, but I do not have to follow them" mentality is certainly frightening. For this fantastic mix of hubris and cojones alone, McCain falls far short on the issue of online copyright protection.

Other Intellectual Property
Winner: Tie

President Bush just signed the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2007 (PRO-IP Act), into law. The PRO-IP Act creates a new Intellectual Property Czar and promises federal government assistance in the policing of patents, trademarks and copyrights. Whether this means protecting the intellectual property interests of the "big guys" to the detriment of the "little guys" and stifling both innovation and online functionality in the process, will largely be determined by the philosophical bent of the next president.

Sen. Obama wants to reform the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to make our patent system clearer and more predictable. He also sees the need to update our system of copyright to balance the interests of civic discourse, innovation and investment against the interests of copyright owners. Sen. McCain also supports additional resources for the USPTO, to ensure timely, predictable and effective patent review. In addition, Sen. McCain is interested in providing alternative approaches to patent litigation. While certainly a laudable goal, it is not clear how he intends to implement and manage such extremely complex reform.

The downfall of both plans is in the execution. Will the proffered reform be in favor of small inventors and intellectual property development, or in favor of large companies and a chilling of innovation? Only time will tell.

Technological Savvy
Winner: Obama

While technological savvy is by definition a very subjective category, it is probably the most important. Without some "hands on" experience with emerging technologies, tech issues are much less likely to come up on a candidate’s radar, let alone be properly addressed. The more experience a candidate has with technology, the better equipped he or she will be to push legislation which either promotes or regulates that technology toward the greatest good. Just as caveman were not overly interested in regulating fire until they actually got burned, so to Luddite candidates have little interest in regulating things such as 700MHz spectrum auctions, until complex problems have arisen and the opportunity for a simple regulatory solution has long passed. Costs increase, delays ensure and hundreds of new technologies and businesses die on the vine, awaiting a solution.

So who’s the man, when it comes to tech savvy? Well, despite John McCain having created the Blackberry, neither major party candidate is a techie’s dream candidate. While voters at TechCrunch resoundingly favored Ron Paul, the two major-party candidates at least demonstrate a better grasp of tech issues than our current leaders.

Sen. McCain, while generally fairly pro-technology in his platform, takes a decidedly anti-net neutrality and anti-renewable energy stance. He has also admitted that he is "illiterate" when it comes to computers. Despite these flaws, Sen. McCain’s strong leadership skills and tech savvy advisers make him far preferable to the existing leadership.

Sen. Obama’s technology platform indicates computer "illiteracy" will not be a concern. Furthermore, his proposed resolution of complex tech issues indicates both a tech and consumer friendly approach.  While he may not be the best pro-tech candidate, he is certainly the most pro-tech of the viable candidates.

Information technology professionals often feel disenfranchised by candidates’ clear ignorance of the issues affecting online activity. Especially disheartening is the fact that the next president’s policies will govern for the next four years, a lifetime in the tech world. While the present election is clearly a choice between the lesser of two evils when it comes to technology issues, hopefully the foregoing analysis provides some basis for choosing a leader committed to increasing legislative attention paid to pro-tech and pro-consumer issues.

Brett Trout

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