Tech issues don't make much of an appearance in US presidential campaign

The 2012 presidential debate has focused more on the US economy, health care and jobs than on tech-specific issues

With the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday, it's fair to say that technology policy hasn't risen to the top of the agenda in the debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

The two candidates have occasionally mentioned issues important to some people in the tech industry -- including immigration, education and trade -- but the focus of the campaign has been on the sluggish U.S. economy, the government's huge budget deficit, health-care reform, and continued worries about terrorism and national security. The debate over the U.S. economy and jobs, in particular, has dwarfed other issues.

It's been a quiet presidential campaign for tech and mobile issues, said Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers. "That's, frankly, not surprising," he said. "As scintillating as we find a good conversation about spectrum policy, it's probably not going to move undecided [voters] in Iowa."

CTIA expects that the trade group's push for more mobile commercial spectrum, and other major tech issues, will again be policy priorities in 2013, no matter who is elected president. "We'll be here when they get around to focusing on us," he said.

Many tech and telecom issues, aside from a bruising debate on net neutrality in recent years, don't break down neatly into a partisan divide in U.S. politics. In Congress, both parties have pushed for cybersecurity bills focused on allowing private companies and U.S. agencies to share cyberthreat information with each other, although Republicans criticized Democrat-supported bills for being too regulatory.

In the debate over the controversial copyright enforcement bills the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), many Republicans and Democrats, including some with tech-friendly reputations, originally supported the bills. The opposition in Congress was led by Democrats from Silicon Valley and conservative Republicans concerned that the bills would damage the Internet.

Romney and Obama haven't focused directly on tech issues, but many of the debates during the campaign have related to the IT industry, said Morgan Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group representing app developers and other small IT firms.

It's hard to separate tech issues from broader issues in many cases, he said. "In a sense, tech has become the fabric of our lives," Reed added.

Both candidates have talked about funding for science and technology education, and Chinese trade issues, and those two issues are important to ACT's members, Reed said. App developers want to be able to sell their products in China, he said, and both candidates have talked about putting pressure on the country to open up to U.S. products.

Both Reed and Bartees Cox, a spokesman for digital rights group Public Knowledge, said they expect tech issues to gain a higher profile in Washington in coming years. Policy debates around cloud computing and spectrum could come to the forefront in Congress in 2013, Reed said.

Still, some people at Public Knowledge have been disappointed that tech issues weren't a larger part of this campaign, Cox said. Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms released earlier this year mentioned Internet freedom and other tech issues, Cox noted.

"I can say that we do feel like there should be more attention on technology and Internet issues this year, and often times I wonder why it hasn't been a premier issue," he said in an email. "I'm sure all of us understand that the outcome of the election holds serious implications for the future of internet video, data caps, intellectual property and net neutrality."

So what can voters expect from the two candidates? In September, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank, released a lengthy paper comparing Obama and Romney polices on technology and related issues.

Obama: Expect more of what he's already done

In general, voters should expect that Obama, if he's re-elected will continue to push many of the same tech policies as he has in the last four years. The Obama philosophy on tech issues champions a role for the government, including some regulatory and enforcement actions, but in many cases, government should work with private industry on solutions to problems or let private industry lead.

Critics of Obama have pointed to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's passage of net neutrality rules in December 2010 as the first major regulation of the Internet, although broadband providers were required to share their lines with competitors for several years. Some Republicans also questioned the need for more than $7 billion in broadband deployment funding in a huge economic stimulus package pushed by Obama and passed by Congress in February 2009.

Although Obama has not talked much about tech issues during the campaign, his administration released a federal cybersecurity plan early in his presidency, and he has backed legislation that would have created new cybersecurity standards for operators of critical infrastructure.

Under Obama, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have seized hundreds of websites accused of trafficking in counterfeit or pirated products, but amid huge online protests, Obama said he would not support SOPA.

Obama and the Democrat-controlled FCC pushed to open up new spectrum for commercial mobile services, although some Republicans have criticized the agency for not moving fast enough. The FCC also emphasized broadband deployment and higher speeds for U.S. residents in a national broadband plan released in early 2010.

The Obama administration has also pushed for privacy codes of conduct for Web and mobile companies, and it has convened workshops involving interested parties to develop those codes. The Democrat-controlled U.S. Federal Trade Commission has brought privacy complaints against several companies, including Google and Facebook.

The Obama administration has also been active in antitrust enforcement. The DOJ in August 2011, moved to block AT&T's proposed US$39 billion acquisition of rival mobile carrier T-Mobile USA. The FTC is investigating Google for alleged antitrust violations.

The Romney philosophy

On issues like cybersecurity, privacy and net neutrality, a Romney administration, along with potential Republican gains in Congress, would likely emphasize private solutions to perceived problems.

Romney's 161-page Believe in America position paper focuses on big issues such as the U.S. economy, tax policy and the government's budget deficit, and offers few direct references to tech policy.

However, the paper offers endorsements from Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems, who agrees with Romney's plan to reduce the corporate tax rate, and Meg Whitman, CEO at Hewlett-Packard and former CEO at eBay, who talks about Romney's plans to open up high-skill immigration and invest in worker training.

"We have to retrain American workers so they can flourish in emerging new industries," Whitman wrote. "A decade ago, there was not Facebook or Twitter. We must make sure that today's workforce keeps pace so that it can continue to fuel economic success and entrepreneurial prosperity."

In cybersecurity, the Republican Party platform called on the government and private sector to "work together" to address cyberthreats and to encourage investment and innovation in cybersecurity.

"We acknowledge that the most effective way of combating potential cybersecurity threats is sharing cyberthreat information between the government and industry, as well as protecting the free flow of information within the private sector," the platform said.

The Republican platform also criticized Obama's efforts on net neutrality, spectrum and broadband deployment. Obama has done little to bring broadband to the pockets of the country that still do not have it, Republicans said.

"The current Administration has been frozen in the past," the platform said. "It has conducted no auction of spectrum, has offered no incentives for investment, and, through the FCC's net neutrality rule, is trying to micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network."

Obama's "lack of progress" on universal broadband deployment hurts the rural U.S., the platform added. "Farmers, ranchers, and small business manufacturers need connectivity to expand their customer base and operate in real time with the world's producers," the platform said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Tags Scott McNealyMeg WhitmanU.S. CongressT-Mobile USAJot CarpenterBarack ObamalegislationPublic KnowledgeMitt RomenyMorgan ReedU.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcementat&tctiaU.S. Federal Communications CommissiongovernmentAssociation for Competitive TechnologyU.S. Department of JusticeU.S. Federal Trade CommissionBartees Coxregulation

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