Mr. Wi-Fi Goes to Washington?

By Jeff Goldman

October 20, 2008

Sure, this year's Presidential race is all about the economy and Iraq (and health care and the environment), but what about the candidates' stances on Wi-Fi, the Internet, and technology? Will voters favor the guy with the iPhone app or the one who thinks 'Net neutrality is too intrusive?

Obama’s and McCain’s policies regarding wireless technology and the Internet may not be front and center in media coverage of their campaigns, but their differences are worth a look.


As the presidential election approaches, there’s little discussion in the media of the leading candidates’ positions regarding technology issues. While that’s more than understandable when immediate concerns, such as the economic crisis, loom large, the differences between John McCain and Barack Obama on technology policy are worth a look.

In a recent report, Stephen J. Ezell and Robert D. Atkinson of the non-partisan Information Technology & Innovation Foundation examined the candidates’ positions on technology and innovation, noting encouragingly that both of their platforms “incorporate substantially more focus on innovation and technology policies than their predecessors’ platforms did in the 2004 election.”

Overall, the writers found, McCain “seeks to foster an environment for private sector investment in R&D and innovation through a clear and less burdensome tax code [and] limited government regulation,” while Obama would “[engage] the government as an active partner alongside industry in setting a national technology and innovation agenda.”

Obama, in fact, plans to appoint the nation’s first chief technology officer—as his technology platform puts it, “The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.”

'Net neutrality

The candidates’ clearest differences regarding technology lie in their positions on 'Net neutrality: Obama is for it, and McCain is against it.

Obama was a co-sponsor of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, and his technology platform clearly states, “A key reason the Internet has been such a success is because it is the most open network in history. It needs to stay that way. Barack Obama strongly supports the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet.”

And in an interview last year with TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, Obama said, “I will prevent network providers from discriminating in ways that limit the freedom of expression on the Internet… network providers should not be allowed to charge fees to privilege the content or applications of some Web sites and Internet applications over others.”

McCain, on the other hand, argues that ‘Net neutrality is overly intrusive. His technology platform states, “John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like 'Net neutrality, but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices.”

Rural broadband

The two candidates have similar, though not quite as stark, differences on rural access to broadband. The Obama campaign’s platform on rural issues states that Obama “will modernize an FCC program that supports rural phone service so that it promotes affordable broadband coverage across rural America as well.”

And as his technology platform puts it, “Obama and Biden believe we can get true broadband to every community in America through a combination of reform of the Universal Service Fund, better use of the nation’s wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives.”

As with ‘Net neutrality, McCain prefers a more hands-off approach, focusing on private investment rather than government action. His technology platform states, “As President, John McCain would continue to encourage private investment to facilitate the build-out of infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet connectivity all over America.”

Still, McCain doesn’t rule out government involvement. According to his platform, “Where private industry does not answer the call because of market failures or other obstacles, John McCain believes that people acting through their local governments should be able to invest in their own future by building out infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet services.”

Municipal Wi-Fi

One area of general agreement is citywide Wi-Fi. McCain co-sponsored the Community Broadband Act of 2007, which would block municipalities from banning public broadband services. As his platform puts it, “People acting through their local governments should be able to invest in their own future by building out infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet services.”

In fact, in June of 2006, Obama and McCain together announced a campaign to create the Public Internet Channel, an online information network targeted at low income individuals—and McCain said at the time that the plan would “ensure that all Americans have the same easy access to information and resources they need to prosper in our global economy.”

Similarly, in a letter to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in the fall of 2006 regarding community-based organizations’ involvement in supporting a planned citywide Wi-Fi network, Obama wrote, “I want to express support for their efforts to ensure that the new digital infrastructure is open, accessible, and useful to every community and small business in the city.”

Looking ahead

In general, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation’s report concludes, Obama “stresses technology and innovation as an overarching theme in his campaign,” while McCain does not. That attitude is reflected in the campaigns themselves, with technology serving as a key driver for Obama’s fundraising and voter recruitment efforts.

Most recently, the Obama campaign released an official iPhone application which goes far beyond just providing recent campaign news and information—it uses the iPhone’s GPS to direct the user to the nearest Obama campaign office, and to any events planned nearby. The app can also access the iPhone’s address book to help users contact their friends about the campaign.

Still, McCain’s record shows that his positions on key technological issues are also strongly held—and reports like the one from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, along with similar ones from the Annenberg Research Network on International Communications and others—can help voters better understand key differences between the candidates on technology policy.

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. He votes in California.


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