Beyond the occasional shout-out to Steve Jobs or the “next Google,” Mitt Romney and President Obama are not in the habit of citing technology policy on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, technology is at the center of their debate over the role that government should play in reviving the American economy.
When the BlackBerry-toting Obama took office in 2009, he drew praise as a tech-savvy president. His appreciation for technology extended beyond his personal grasp of the latest gadgets: He appointed the first chief technology and chief information officers of the United States, upgraded the role of the White House cybersecurity coordinator, launched government efforts to harness digital data, and signed legislation that enacted sweeping changes to the U.S. patent system, among other accomplishments.
The new positions he created and initiatives he launched were part of a larger vision that sees government as an active partner in deploying technology to boost the economy and improve lives. That philosophy has won him praise from many in the tech industry.
But technology companies are, well, companies. And White House policies on taxation and regulation have alienated some in the business community. Even as Silicon Valley basks in the attention of new federal technology officials, companies have called for more business-friendly tax policies and blasted any suggestion of new regulations on, among other things, Internet competition, political disclosures, online privacy, and cybersecurity.
Enter Mitt Romney. As the GOP nominee, he has joined the antiregulation fight waged by congressional Republicans. Few technology issues that have come before Congress have escaped a battle over the government’s role, and now those views are being aired on the campaign trail. Romney argues the best way for government to spur innovation in science and technology is to create a favorable environment for businesses by relying more on market forces to address issues like privacy, cybersecurity, and telecommunications.
“[Romney’s] jobs plan is predicated upon creating the climate in which entrepreneurs will take risks and start the next eBay, Genentech, Google, or Disney,” longtime ally Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard’s CEO, wrote in an online post for his campaign. “Mitt wants to make sure that the next world-changing invention is ‘Made in America.’ ”
The bottom line is that members of the tech community can find things to like and dislike in each candidate’s philosophies. The trick, according to a report released on Sept. 12 by the pro-industry Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, is to find a balance between Obama’s appreciation for the constructive power of government and Romney’s focus on business. “Unfortunately, Republicans are all too often focused on limiting or denying government’s contributions to bolstering U.S. economic competitiveness, while Democrats often seem more interested in shackling rather than harnessing the power of American enterprise,” the report’s authors write. “Each side has to bend if we are to restore U.S. economic greatness.”
One issue at the forefront of this debate is the Federal Communications Commission’s network-neutrality rules, which are designed to govern how Internet companies provide services to competitors. Under FCC rules, Internet service providers can’t discriminate against or block lawful websites, content, or traffic. According to Obama’s FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, the rules will prevent companies from engaging in anticompetitive behavior that could hurt consumers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.
Obama supported the principle during his 2008 campaign, but when FCC commissioners approved the rules on a party-line vote in December 2010, they reignited a years-long debate over such regulations. Republicans accuse the FCC of attempting to control the Internet. “President Obama’s net-neutrality regulation is an illustration of everything that is wrong with his approach to government: unneeded overregulation in search of a problem, [which] manages to reach beyond his authority and interfere with the investment needed for economic growth,” Romney domestic policy adviser Oren Cass tells National Journal.
On international Internet-freedom issues, the candidates largely see eye-to-eye. Obama’s State Department opposes any effort to shift international Internet governance from a decentralized system to a more government-based approach. Both party platforms include language supporting international Internet freedom. Similarly, both Obama and Romney have expressed opposition to antipiracy bills that were criticized as threatening free speech and innovation online.
Under Genachowski, the FCC has been working to fulfill Obama’s goal of making high-speed wireless services available to at least 98 percent of Americans. Republicans also favor extending broadband coverage but say that the administration has little to show after spending $7.2 billion.
This article appears in the September 22, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.