CNet quizzes presidential candidates on technology

By Martin Bosworth

With the war in Iraq, the faltering economy, and health care dominating the issues front for the candidates, it’s no wonder technology issues have largely been back-burnered in the mainstream political debate. But that doesn’t make them any less relevant or important–or less requiring of coverage.

CNet’s Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache sent 10 technology-oriented questions to the candidates, discussing net neutrality, Internet taxation, REAL ID, wiretapping, and other issues, and CNet has published the answers as part of their Technology Voter’s Guide. After the jump, we’ll take a closer look at who answered (and who didn’t), and what they said.

So far, the guide has answers from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Ron Paul and John McCain, with John Edwards and Chris Dodd’s answers still to come. It’s worth noting that none of the frontrunner Republican candidates answered this questionnaire–not Romney, Giuliani, or Huckabee. On the Dem side, Neither Biden nor Richardson have a realistic chance of winning the nomination at this point, nor have either of them made technology innovation a primary focus of their campaigns, so their failing to answer is understandable, if regrettable. (Note that CNet apparently didn’t bother to include Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel.)

I urge everyone interested to read each questionnaire in depth, but here’re brief summaries:

John McCain favors a very hands-off, pro-market approach to technology issues. He opposes net neutrality laws and government actions to increase broadband development. He claims to oppose illegal wiretapping, but defers the question of retroactive immunity for telecom companies to following the “process” of investigating what they did. He supports REAL ID, opposes Internet taxation, is a strong proponent of greater regulation of social networking sites against sexual predators, and would favor expansion of H1-B visas for skilled immigrants according to “market conditions.”

Ron Paul, as you might expect, is pretty much anti-everything that would increase government activity with regard to technology. He’s against net neutrality legislation, and opposes REAL ID, warrantless wiretapping, regulation of social networking sites, governmental retention of data records from ISPs, and supports a permanent Internet tax ban and expansion of the H1-B program.

Hillary Clinton sees a much more central role for government in spurring broadband development and adoption, including offering tax incentives for building new connections in rural areas and improving the FCC’s data collection efforts on broadband penetration. She evinces strong support for net neutrality, tends to favor stronger laws against copyright infringement and tracking sex offenders, and supports expanding the H1-B visa program and extending the moratorium on Internet taxation.

Barack Obama supports full broadband availability for all Americans, and wants reformation of the Universal Service Fund as well as tax incentives and grants in order to spur development and ensure the money is spent right. In his words, he will “take a backseat to no one in his support of net neutrality,” and opposes warrantless wiretapping and retroactive immunity, as well as REAL ID. Obama advocates a stronger look at privacy policies and legislation for companies that trade in the sharing of information, prefers shifting a focus towards funding law enforcement over targeting social networking sites for sex offenders, and wants America to turn out more skilled workers with IT abilities (especially among minorities) in order to compete with H1-B holders.

As a thumbnail analysis, all of the candidates have responded in manners consistent with their positions, even if their positions aren’t always consistent.

McCain’s “hands off” attitude toward the Internet seems grounded in his very cushy relationship with certain telecom lobbyists, and is at odds with his “Protect the children!” attitude about social networking sites and willingness to support governmental intrusions into American lives in the name of “security.”

Paul’s answers are consistent with his Libertarian leanings–if it’s from the government, he wants it gone. I respect his cohesive policy framework, even if his attitude about net neutrality and broadband development is dead wrong.

Clinton’s answers are a frustrating mix of progressive innovation and regressive corporatism to me. While I think she’s on point with providing incentives towards broadband development, her support of expanding the H1-B visa program strikes a sour note when you consider how many American IT professionals are out of work, having been outsourced or replaced by foreign nationals working at lower pay.

Obama’s answers are the most forward-thinking for me, especially when he makes a point of addressing how our education system is not only failing minorities in general, but specifically in technology and tech-related areas, and that we can’t rely on foreign workers to fill that gap forever. And to this date, no candidate has eclipsed him on the net neutrality issue that I can see.

Overall, I’m unsurprised at these answers, but glad to have them in concrete to refer to for the future. I’ll publish a follow-up post next week once Edwards’ and Dodd’s positions are live. This is a welcome and necessary look at how our potential leaders have (or don’t have) a handle on some extremely relevant issues of technology that affect us all.

11 replies »

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  2. Thanks. Living as I do in the middle of nowhere, rural broadband access is a meaningful issue for me. My old liberal days say: “The government should require telecoms to provide me access (and at a competitive price.” My more recently adopted libertarian leanings (damn!) say: “I’m screwed. I don’t want government to require it, and the telecoms will never provide it because I’ll never pay the exhorbitant price they’ll charge, and they won’t knock it down.”

    So I’ll be curious to see how candidates walk that fine line. Market innovation? Government regulation? Economic or tax incentives?

    Thanks, Martin.

  3. (Note that CNet apparently didn’t bother to include Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel.)

    Bah. Nor were any notable independents asked (Nader, McKinney & other Greens or Libertarians, or our own esteemed Dr. Smith).

  4. I think that basic broadband should be included in your line charge, and surcharge things that need streaming, instead of packet handling.

    You want your video, VOIP, you pay.

    You want to surf and search, that is background stuff for the switches anyway.

    I would like to see energy tech included in this questionaire.
    Now that they have been able to make hydrogen by adding aluminum to water, or aiming a sound transponder at a glass vial, do they still think we should be using the last of our farmland for corn that is just going to be biomass.?
    Corn isn’t as good as soybeans for biomass, takes more chemicals, more water, and is raising the prices of foodstuffs (especially hops for beer !)

    This is critical for the nation, and I feel it is way underground (sts).

    Desert Rat

  5. Morgan,

    Good points on all fronts. The types of questions asked tend to betray the political leanings of the questioners–I don’t know Anne Broache’s politics, but Declan McCullagh is an avowed libertarian who tends to focus on issues intersecting between civil rights, privacy, and technology.

    Regarding the idea of tiered pricing for broadband, that’s been a fundamental tenet of the net neutrality fight. Despite what some folks on the other side may tell you, there’s nothing wrong with charging more for dedicated tiers of faster service–as long as it doesn’t degrade or block basic existing service, or direct customers to one site over another.