Presidential candidates stake out tech positions

They've offered up views on everything from Net neutrality to H-1B visas

Technology policy hasn't played a major role in this year's U.S. presidential campaign, but the major candidates have staked out positions on issues such as Net neutrality and skilled-worker visas.

As in past presidential campaigns, candidates haven't viewed technology issues as ones that drive voters to the polls.

Instead, debate over the war in Iraq, the economy, illegal immigration and other issues will inspire voters in 24 states (plus those in American Samoa and Democrats living overseas) on Super Tuesday to choose which candidates they want to be nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Some tech groups have long complained that many politicians don't "get" technology. In late January, the Washington-based tech PR firm 463 Communications released a poll in which two-thirds of respondents said that presidential candidates should have at least as much knowledge about the Internet as they do themselves. However, only 45% said the next president will know as much about the Internet as they do.

In December, Garrett M. Graff, an editor at large at Washingtonian magazine and the first blogger admitted to a White House briefing, wrote a column in The Washington Post, in which he complained about the lack of tech-savvy candidates. That prompted others to comment as well.

Members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, a panel that debates many technology issues, often talk about their lack of IT experience, Adam Thierer, a senior follow at tech-centric conservative think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation, wrote on the PFF's blog.

"Without missing a beat, they make jokes about not ever using the Internet or computers but that they have staffers or young family members who do and keep them informed," he wrote. "And yet, despite this stunning unfamiliarity with all things high-tech, they then move right on to pass reams of regulations governing the Internet and digital economy. Again, it's not funny anymore and we should stop allowing them to pretend it is."

That said, several presidential candidates have taken positions on technology-related issues this year. In alphabetical order, these are some of their views:

Sen. Hillary Clinton

New York Democrat Hillary Clinton, like other candidates, hasn't made tech issues a central part of her campaign, but she has championed an "innovation agenda" as one of her top issues. That agenda includes several policies that many large technology companies have embraced.

Clinton wants to pump up the basic research budgets at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the Department of Defense by 50% over 10 years.

She also would require that federal research agencies set aside at least 8% of their research budgets for discretionary funding of high-risk research, and she would increase funding for research on Internet- and IT-based tools, including supercomputing and simulation software.

"Under the Bush administration, agencies like the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have reduced support for truly revolutionary research," Clinton's Web site says. "This is a problem because DARPA has played a major role in maintaining America's economic and military leadership. DARPA backed such projects as the Internet, stealth technology, and the Global Positioning System."

Clinton also wants tax incentives to encourage broadband providers to deploy services in underserved areas. She has called for federal support of state and local broadband programs, including municipal broadband projects. Clinton has also called for a research-and-development tax credit, extended temporarily multiple times since 1981, to be made permanent.

Clinton has said she would support Net neutrality regulations for U.S. broadband providers.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee

Huckabee, an Arkansas Republican and ordained Baptist minister, has largely ignored technology issues during his campaign.

He has, however, called for an increase in immigrant visas for highly skilled and highly educated workers, a position shared by many large tech companies. Otherwise, Huckabee would largely shut down U.S. borders to immigrants.

Instead of technology, Huckabee has focused on social issues such as making abortion illegal and defining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.

Huckabee also wants the U.S. to achieve independence from oil-producing nations.

Sen. John McCain

The Arizona Republican is a longtime member of the Senate Commerce Committee. As such, he can argue that he has the most technology policy experience of any of the remaining major-party candidates.

In recent years, McCain has pushed for a nationwide voice and data network for public safety agencies. He was one of the Senate's leading voices in the effort to get U.S. television stations to give up part of their analog spectrum for use by police and fire departments. The rest of that spectrum is being sold in the Federal Communications Commission's auctions now under way.

McCain has been noncommittal about Net neutrality laws. He has said that he would be concerned if Internet users' access was blocked, but he has also suggested that broadband carriers need to recoup their investments.

McCain last year also called for an increase in government research-and-development spending, and he has said he would draft "the best and the brightest" of American CEOs to work in his administration if he were elected, including Cisco Systems Inc.' John Chambers and Microsoft Corp.'s Steve Ballmer.

He has also supported efforts to make an Internet tax moratorium permanent, recently calling the Internet "likely the most popular invention since the light bulb." In 2004, he urged the Federal Trade Commission to focus more of its efforts on fighting spam.

In 2005, McCain split from many other Republicans by authoring legislation that would prohibit states from outlawing municipal broadband projects. McCain said then that he was concerned that the U.S. had fallen behind more than a dozen other countries on broadband adoption.

Sen. Barack Obama

The Illinois Democrat in November released an extensive technology policy paper, earning him praise from several industry groups.

Obama understands technology, said Julius Genachowski, co-founder of Rock Creek Ventures and a longtime friend of Obama's. "He will be a true 21st century president, using technology to improve the lives of all Americans," Genachowski said at a tech forum last week.

In the policy paper, Obama called for Net neutrality regulations for broadband carriers. "Users must be free to access content, to use applications, and to attach personal devices," he said.

Parents need better tools and information to control what their children see on the Internet and television, he noted.

Obama called for greater privacy protections for all U.S. residents, including Internet users, and he said that government and businesses should be held accountable for privacy violations. He wants an update of government surveillance laws that allow intelligence-gathering on U.S. citizens to be done "only under the rule of law."

Obama said he would also increase the FTC's enforcement budget and focus on increased international cooperation to track down cybercriminals.

He also said that he wants to make government data more available online. He would seek to revamp a number of existing programs, and create some new ones, to help roll out broadband in the U.S. He called for a review of wireless spectrum use in the U.S. and said he would "confront the entrenched Washington interests that have kept our public airwaves from being maximized for the public's interest."

He has pledged to make the research-and-development tax credit permanent. He also called for patent reform, primarily by giving the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office more resources to improve patent quality.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney

Romney, a Massachusetts Republican, hasn't made many technology issues a central part of his campaign, but he has focused on U.S. competitiveness, a popular issue for many IT companies.

Romney's competitiveness initiative would seek to improve U.S. schools and at the same time cut individual and corporate tax rates. He has said he wants to improve worker retraining programs by consolidating and streamlining numerous federal programs.

He has taken positions on a couple of other tech-related issues as well. In interviews, Romney has expressed support for a permanent Internet tax ban, and he has said he supports free trade, a position echoed by many large technology vendors.

Romney has also said that he would support an increase in H-1B visas for highly skilled workers.

"I like the idea of the best and brightest in the world coming here," he told the TechCrunch blog in November. "I'd rather have them come here permanently rather than come and go, but I believe our visa program is designed to help us solve gaps in our employment pool. Where there are individuals who have skills that we do not have in abundance here, I'd like to bring them here and contribute to our economy."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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