Nine months after Barack Obama, John McCain has unveiled his own technology plan for America. At last, both candidates can be graded for their long-term friendliness to the tech sector.
Lost beneath the theatrics of Obama’s pledge to announce his VP choice via text messaging and McCain’s successful YouTube “fan club” videos are the real issues that matter most to the tech sector. One gets a clear sense of how the candidates think about technology from their opening sentences.
John McCain focuses on “a broad and cohesive vision for the future of American innovation” whereas Barack Obama wants to be the “generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age.”
So, we have one candidate who wants to promote innovation and another who wants to change the way the economy looks. These two openers say a lot about each candidate’s worldview and help frame their positions on more specific issues.
Net Neutrality, Antitrust, Capital Gains
On Net neutrality, Obama argues that government should regulate how networks manage their pipes. That would certainly be a change, but it would subject the Internet to one-size-fits-all management techniques.
McCain, in contrast, opposes regulations that place restrictions on what broadband companies do with their property, which would lead to increased innovation due to increased flexibility.
On the issue of antitrust activity, which has drained countless hours and resources away from technology innovation and toward legal fees, Obama plans to increase bureaucratic attention and “reinvigorate enforcement.” This would also be a change of pace — a misplaced reallocation of resources from innovation to bureaucracy.
McCain does not mention the antitrust issue in his plan, but rather focuses on how startup companies get investment capital. To increase investment in the sector, McCain plans to keep capital gains taxes at 15 percent, which should bolster innovation.
Obama, with a focus that clearly lacks an understanding of how companies grow, plans to increase capital gains taxes to between 20 percent and 28 percent. That would be another unwelcome change for tech health.
Internet Tax, Piracy, Broadband
Obama’s inclination to increase taxes may have further detrimental effects down the road as the Internet tax issue is not yet put to bed.
Those of us who have been following technology policy know that, beginning in 1998, McCain fought for a permanent ban on multiple or discriminatory state and local taxes on Internet access and e-commerce transactions.
Obama, on the other hand, would probably be willing to sign legislation that state governments require to start charging sales taxes on Internet commerce.
On piracy, McCain is clear that he “supports efforts to crack down on piracy, both on the Internet and off.”
Obama is not so clear. While he says he “will work to ensure intellectual property is protected in foreign markets” he also says, as Declan McCullagh has noted, “we need to update and reform our copyright system.” Does Obama think that domestic protections for intellectual property have to change, given new technologies? That would seem to be the case and is consistent with his opening statement.
On broadband, both candidates talk about the necessity of getting more Americans online, but both stumble by offering recycled ideas for getting there. Obama recycles the worst idea, subjecting broadband to the failed policy of universal service: a corrupt and wasteful government plan meant to guarantee affordable telecommunications access, which instead wound up wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.
According to Vince Vasquez, senior policy analyst at the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, “a 2005 congressional investigation found that program bureaucrats approved a ‘plainly fraudulent application’ for more than (US)$48 million in E-Rate subsidies for the San Francisco Unified School District.”
McCain’s ideas are not much better, as he suggests getting local governments into the business of providing broadband. That idea has failed in multiple jurisdictions for the obvious reason that politicians do not make good network administrators.
H-1B Visas, Transparency
On labor, the tech sector has been begging for more work visas, given that America is not producing enough home-grown experts. McCain says he will “expand the number of H-1B visas.” Such a policy would increase human capital and spur growth and innovation.
Obama has not made such a commitment and instead says he would “support pilot programs that provide incentives for businesses to grow their information technology workforce in inner-cities and rural communities.” Such a change might help, but would be slower and less effective than hiring capable people immediately. Obama also offers to “allow immigrants who earn their degrees in the U.S. to stay, work, and become Americans over time.”
Finally, there is the issue of transparency in government, the only tech area where Obama outshines McCain. He pledges to require “executive branch departments and rulemaking agencies to conduct the significant business of the agency in public, so that any citizen can watch a live feed on the Internet” and to enable citizens to “easily track online federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts with government officials.” That would be a change in the right direction.
McCain says that government “can better serve the American people by operating more efficiently through the use of technology, including videoconferencing and collaborative networks.” His use of “can” rather than “will” makes his statement seem noncommittal.
McCain’s greatest weakness is the transparency issue, but overall he looks better positioned than Obama on issues that matter most to innovators in the tech community.
Obama, on the other hand, has multiple weaknesses, particularly when it comes to taxes, property rights, labor and government waste that harms America’s tech sector.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.