Democrats, tech leaders: Can we talk?

Education and privacy rate highly at a TechNet forum. But Democratic endorsements are few.

LOS ANGELES -- The high profile of high-tech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention is no accident. According to Marimba Chairman Kim Polese, it underlines the impact of the technological revolution.

"It's a symptom of the fact that technology is a fabric of American life now. This issue will affect how Americans will live their lives," she said.

Speaking Wednesday at a New Economy forum co-hosted by the New Democrat Network (NDN) and TechNet, Polese said that, although it's become a "blood sport" to track the casualty list of dotcom failures, "the new economy is not fleeting. It's not ephemeral."

Maintaining the new economy is something else. And skilled workers are the key, Polese said. "If there's one policy that the next administration has to get right it's education, K-through-12. And I think Al Gore will do that."

Calls to educate a tech-savvy workforce, bridge the digital divide and expand H-1B work visas have been constant refrains at the convention. Former Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor, News Corp. (nws) President Peter Chernin, iGeneration CEO Toby Corey and McKinsey and Co. senior adviser Reed Hundt all echoed what Polese had to say.

But few went so far as to endorse Gore and Lieberman.

"I just think Al Gore is the better candidate when it comes to understanding it (the new economy) and depth of experience," said Polese. "My support of Al Gore, that's my own belief. It's not on behalf of Marimba by any means."

Content is critical
News Corp.'s Chernin, another Gore supporter, was one of the few forum panelists to break from the ranks, emphasizing the need to safeguard personal privacy and protect copyrights.

"There's no issue that concerns consumers more than privacy," Chernin said. "Without confidence that their personal information is safe and secure we could bring this (new economy) to a crashing halt."

And Chernin was emphatic about the need for copyright protection -- a hot issue post-Napster -- saying the government was not doing enough to protect copyrighted material. "If our content can't be protected we will not be making it available," he said.

Tech issues also shared the spotlight during a meeting of Democratic leaders on the new economy. Repeating a theme from President Clinton's speech, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) took credit for a 1993 budget bill they said laid the groundwork for today's economic prosperity.

"I don't know of a decision, a vote, I'm prouder of," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Dems: We hear you
DLC members said the party has helped the tech industry by working to open markets, let more foreign workers into the country and preserve public schools.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry supports making every public school a charter school, a move he said would ensure a more skilled work force. He called private school vouchers a "depletion" of a system that's already strapped for resources.

"We as a party, I think, need to be a little more clever and a lot more daring," Kerry said.

And California Rep. Zoe Lofgren warned that if the visa problem isn't solved, the industry will lose many of its most valuable players, including the Finnish founder of the Linux kernel, who works at Silicon Valley-based Transmeta Corp.

"Who wants Linus Torvalds to go elsewhere?" Lofgren asked. "He's an H-1B visa holder."

DLC members were joined by several high-profile tech executives, including Intuit (intu) Chairman Scott Cook, and Novell (novl) CEO Eric Schmidt. Cook asked party leaders to concentrate on making public education tech-friendly and continue to pursue legislation such as the digital signatures bill, which President Clinton recently signed.

"There's much work to be done there," Cook said.

Lisa M. Bowman, ZDNet News, contributed to this report.