SAN MATEO (03/03/2000) - In sharp contrast to the 1996 presidential election, the top four contenders now vying for the Oval Office have made high-tech policies central to their campaigns.
"It is clear that technology and technology policy are going to be critical in the election," said Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), in Washington D.C. "The technology industry has expanded to be the technology economy, and well over half of the labor force will be employed by the technology industry before this next administration is over."
Controversial Internet tax questions pop up in televised debates. Discussions of Internet privacy, information security, workforce education, and immigration issues are also coloring the campaigns.
But techno-political experts such as Zuck have found only subtle differences between the candidates' positions. Instead of accentuating their own technology platforms, the candidates seem to spend more time scrambling to prove they will do little to interfere with the thriving tech industry, observers said.
"The first rule that all of the candidates must adhere to is a version of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), in Arlington, Va. "They all seem to subscribe to that philosophy."
Technology and Internet issues are unlike other campaign issues, such as education and welfare reform. Most do not call for any direct government action, and the policies are not necessarily relegated to a single government agency.
"The four candidates understand very well that the future of the Internet depends on the president subscribing to the notion that the industry must lead," Miller said.
Still, there are some fine distinctions between the political platforms of the candidates. And each candidate has hit upon one or two pet technology issues.
For instance, Republican Sen. John McCain has grabbed on to the Internet tax issue. After serving as one of the congressional architects of the temporary ban now imposed on any new Internet taxes, McCain vociferously promises to put in place a unilateral, permanent ban.
McCain often challenges GOP competitor George W. Bush to make similar promises.
"Internet tax tends to come up a lot because McCain brings it up," Zuck said.
But Bush and the Democratic candidates also jockey to be on the side of minimal online taxation. For instance, Bush -- who is rumored to be considering a more aggressive "no Internet tax" position -- has promised to nix new Internet taxes at least through 2004 and not to tax Internet access.
Vice President Al Gore stops short of committing to never levying new online taxes, but touts White House efforts to put the current, temporary ban on Internet taxes in place. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate and former Sen. Bill Bradley has said he advocates a "fair" Internet tax policy, which promotes e-commerce growth, but not at the expense of brick-and-mortar companies or state and local tax bases.
In the heated GOP race, Bush has tried to build a case for his own high-tech record by pointing to his industry-friendly moves as governor of Texas.
Specifically, Bush references a package of tort reform measures advocated by the software industry, which was passed as a way to limit nuisance lawsuits.
Bush was also an early advocate of now-popular IT outsourcing because he tried to turn over to the private sector the state's billion-dollar computer system, which runs Texas welfare programs.
It was the Clinton White House that knocked out Texas' outsourcing move -- at the behest of powerful state employee lobbying groups, many analysts speculated.
Gore's allegiance to employee unions also caused him "moderate disagreement" with many technology executives over the H-1B visa issue. The White House was viewed as dragging its feet when the tech industry clamored for more H-1B visas needed to combat the technology workforce shortage, Miller said. But the Clinton administration rather quickly decided to raise the number of specialized workers allowed in the United States.
And in spite of that short-lived tension, Gore still emerges as the candidate with the best technical comprehension of the power of the Internet, many argue.
Gore trumpets his congressional efforts to foster the Internet. "Even his strongest critics have to admit that his early work led to the transition of the Internet into the private sector," Miller said.
Except for the famous backlash he got after misspeaking on claims that he invented the Internet, Gore has managed to play up his strength in technology.
"President Clinton has been no slouch on these issues, but he has always given the vice president top billing," Miller said.
Since the early 1980s, Gore has pushed legislation to stimulate global high-tech markets, promote technology in the classroom, and boost funding for federal research and development programs aimed at advanced networking projects.
McCain's resume is also heavy with technology issues, largely from his role as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, where he helped craft the Internet tax ban. McCain also strongly opposes legislation requiring Internet filters in schools and libraries to protect minors surfing the Internet.
On the other hand, Democratic contender Bill Bradley has perhaps the most abbreviated list of technology policies. "In the Senate, Bradley did not emerge as one of the technology leaders, though he did vote favorably on most technology issues," Miller said.
In his technology platform, Bradley -- who courted Silicon Valley during a brief teaching stint at Stanford University -- emphasizes educational opportunities to build up the tech workforce. He also includes an extensive "digital divide" plan to give lower income families and students access to technology and training.
The candidates at a glance
Al Gore - Vice president (D-Tenn.)
Helped turn the government's Internet over to private industryCrafted 1997 federal e-commerce agenda as a blueprint for the new economySupported relaxed export controls for encryption softwareBill Bradley - Former U.S. senator (D-N.J.)Voting record has been supportive of the high-tech industryTakes a moderate view of Internet tax, balancing e-commerce and local tax-base issuesEstablished Silicon Valley ties at StanfordGeorge W. Bush - Governor (R-Texas)In Texas, has pushed for massive tort reformPromises Internet tax ban through 2004 and no tax on Internet accessEnacted a research and development tax credit to spur Texas high-tech industryCreated "e-government" task forceJohn McCain - U.S. senator (R-Ariz.)As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, helped draft the temporary ban on Internet taxes and strong year-2000 legislationSponsored Child Internet Protection ActConstantly emphasizes his "no Internet tax ever" position on the stump.