IT and the Run for the White House

When it comes to high-tech issues, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, agree on the easy things, such as research and development tax credits and H-1B visas, while ducking the hard issues, especially online privacy protection and Internet taxation.

It's part of the formula for winning the presidency and not alienating the high-tech vote.

Bush has surrounded himself with an elite group of policy advisers organized into a high-tech council. That group includes Dell Computer Corp. Chairman Michael Dell, Intel Corp. founder Gordon Moore, former Netscape Communications Corp. CEO Jim Barksdale and Robert Herbold, Microsoft Corp.'s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

The Bush campaign says it has a strong grip on high-tech support. "Based on the kind of people that we have involved - I'm not sure who is left," says Steve Papermaster, president and CEO of Agillion Inc., an Austin, Texas-based Internet application developer, who's on Bush's technology advisory committee.

The Gore campaign doesn't have anything as organized as the Bush camp. But citing Gore's deep roots on technology issues, the vice president's people say they don't need it. "The Gore campaign has felt that they've had a network in [Silicon] Valley for a long time," says Jeff Modisett, deputy CEO and general counsel for the Democratic National Convention.

Treading Lightly

Both candidates are walking carefully on high-tech issues: neither is pushing for comprehensive privacy legislation. And don't expect either side to take a stand on online sales tax collections - it may be a poison pill.

Supporting the collection of online sales taxes by companies in jurisdictions where they now don't have any obligation "may have the appearance of favoring a new tax," said James Goldberg, the Washington counsel for the North American Retail Dealers Association, which wants online businesses to have the same tax collection obligations as physical stores.

And both candidates have have created problems for themselves with the way they have handled the privacy issue.

Robert Ellis Smith, editor of The Privacy Journal, ranked Texas last among states for privacy protections in a study he conducted last fall. While privacy legislation is "more of a product of the legislature than the governor," says Smith, "it certainly shows the environment that [Bush] comes from."

In 1994, Gore supported the so-called clipper chip, a "key escrow" system that would give the government access to encrypted messages. That plan drew considerable opposition, not unlike the concerns being raised about the FBI's proposed Carnivore system that could give law enforcement officials access to e-mail.

Gore is pushing for strong financial and medical privacy protection, and Bush is also stressing the importance of privacy. But don't expect specifics, say experts. "The high-tech industry right now doesn't want the legislation, and both parties are aggressively courting the high-tech industry," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

Some of the issues that may be most important to companies may never make it to the surface during the campaign. Take information security: The Clinton administration has been working to build a public/private partnership on improving the nation's information security infrastructure, most of which is in private hands. But despite such a call, regulatory agencies could begin requiring tougher security controls in the companies they oversee.

"Where the differences may actually show up between the two administrations, philosophically, could be at the regulatory level," says Rhett Dawson, who heads the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group in Washington.

But he says it's hard to predict what either candidate might do.

One area of difference may be the Microsoft antitrust case and antitrust enforcement in general.

Gore hasn't been critical of the U.S. Department of Justice's case. Bush, perhaps cognizant of a deep split among high-tech leaders on the issue, has avoided saying anything explicit about it. But with Microsoft's Herbold as part of the inner circle, a Bush administration is seen as potentially more willing to settle, if not outright scuttle, the case. "I think it's fair to say that the people who surround George Bush might not be as activist in a range of antitrust cases," said Ken Wasch, president of the Software and Industry Information Industry Association, which has supported the government's lawsuit.

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