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What's John McCain's Technology Policy?

Surprise—he doesn't have one. And how does that compare to Barack Obama?

| Mon Jul. 7, 2008 2:00 AM EDT
Political observers have made much of John McCain's admission that he cannot use a computer without assistance. In a campaign where McCain's opponent is 25 years younger than him, the factoid is potent ammunition for those who argue McCain is out of touch and too old for the presidency. But not knowing your way around a MacBook doesn't mean you can't be president. And McCain's personal Ludditism isn't a deal breaker for tech leaders. "I don't give a damn if McCain ever turns on a computer or not," Michael Arrington, coeditor of the blog TechCrunch wrote in January. "I just want a president who has the right top-down polices to support the information economy."

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And where is McCain on tech policy? Not so shockingly, the computer-free senator's campaign is not as plugged in as his rival's. In fact, his campaign website fails to address America's lagging performance on broadband access or affordability, the technological capabilities of the federal bureaucracy, or the Internet's ability to increase government transparency. "There are red flags," says Brian Reich, author of the book Media Rules!: Mastering Today's Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience and the former editor of Campaign Web Review, a blog that tracked the use of the Internet by candidates, campaigns, and activists.

Barack Obama has embraced the Internet, with his thunderous online fundraising and sophisticated MyBO website. (Plus, he's comfortable talking about what's on his iPod.) Unsurprisingly, high-tech leaders hail his comprehensive tech policies.

Last fall, Obama went to Google headquarters to unveil his proposals related to information technology. He covered the waterfront: broadband access, federal funding for the sciences, using the Internet as a tool to increase government accountability, and more. He promised to appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer, a high-level staffer who will make sure that every federal agency has "best-in-class technologies" and uses best practices.

On his campaign website, Obama provides plenty of data on his information-technology stances:

  • He supports net neutrality, a pet issue of the netroots. Net neutrality would prohibit network providers from making websites load faster if their owners pay higher fees. In Obama's America, accessing www.nbc.com will take no more or less time than logging on to www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com.
  • An Obama administration would seek to provide all Americans access to broadband Internet, the same way they have access to phones.
  • Obama says he would make technology literacy a priority for public schools.
  • His administration would aim to use technology—specifically, a nationwide switch to electronic medical records—to make health care more affordable.
  • Obama has proposed a "Clean Technologies Deployment Venture Capital Fund," funded by $10 billion annually, that would make sure new renewable energy ideas make it to market.
  • He supports increasing federal funding for research in the sciences, and would emphasize math and science at K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels.

Obama also calls for using technology to increase the transparency and effectiveness of the federal government. He has called for creating a single government website to track grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contracts. He'd like to see the business of federal agencies conducted over live feeds that can be watched by anyone with an Internet connection. He calls for the federal government to "employ all the technological tools available to allow citizens not just to observe, but also to participate" in these meetings. And there's more: Cabinet officials hosting national town halls on the Internet; permitting members of the public to post comments on pending bills on the White House website; federal agencies employing blogs, wikis, and social networking tools. He'd like to see the US government as connected—and interconnected—with itself and the citizenry as technologically feasible.

The plan has won over techies. Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a demigod of the tech community, endorsed the Democrat, saying, "Obama has committed himself to a technology policy for government that could radically change how government works." Eric Schmidt, the chairman and CEO of Google, has said, "Senator Obama's plan would help make sure that the Internet remains a free and open platform, and that America maintains an atmosphere of high-tech growth and innovation."

John McCain, as of yet, has few such fans in the tech sector. His campaign website does not have a section about technology. Sprinkled throughout the site are a handful of references to tech issues. He promises to keep the Internet free of taxes, so "this engine of economic growth and prosperity" will not be threatened. He advocates the "rapid deployment of 21st century information systems and technology" that would allow "doctors to practice across state lines." He would set up a $300 million prize for the developer of a "battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars."

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