Five tech themes disturbingly absent from the presidential election

Technology and IT infrastructure policy discussion has been virtually absent from two campaigns that have relied heavily on technology and IT infrastructure to run their campaigns.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

If you've been watching the presidential debates recently, you may have noticed that some key issues were absent from discussion.

No questions were asked by any debate moderator about technology or the Internet. Vrtually no mention was made by either candidate about technology issues (although President Obama did toss out the phrase "cybersecurity" near the end of the last debate).

These issues are also disturbingly absent from the candidates Web sites as well. If you visit Barack Obama's site, you'll see the following issues grid:


Likewise, if you visit Mitt Romney's site, you'll see the following list of issues:

2012-10-24-romney issues

Here are five themes that were absent from the debates, and barely discussed during the election by the candidates or press.

Tech Theme #1: Net neutrality

I am a strong proponent of net neutrality. I believe that all traffic on the Internet needs to be treated equally, and if carriers and ISPs can begin sculpting content, all the wonderful voices we now get to hear might be squelched in favor of a few big-money-backed Web sites and perspectives.

There is exactly one mention of net neutrality on the MittRomney.com Web site, found in his Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth. The only real mention is the following quote:

The Federal Communications Commission imposed network neutrality regulations (defying both the legislature and judiciary) that restrict how Internet service providers manage the digital transmissions flowing through their networks.

The BarackObama.com site lists 679 mentions of net neutrality, but many of them appear to be forum posts. What we know is that the Obama Administration FCC has passed partial net neutrality, essentially protecting hard-wired lines, but leaving mobile open to unrestricted traffic sculpting.

Since mobile traffic is clearly the way of the future, it's not clear that the current FCC limited protections for network traffic will serve us into the future.

I give both candidates a low-to-failing grade.

Tech Theme #2: Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity gets four Google results on MittRomney.com, and 459 on BarackObama.com. Again, many of the Obama results appear to be discussion boards.

In Fact Sheet: The Romney Plan for an American Century, Romney has two strong mentions of cybersecurity. He recommends an initiative to develop a unified cybersecurity strategy to defend against cyberattacks.

During the Obama administration, President Obama has taken similar measures. Unfortunately, the various cybersecurity bills that would unify America's cyberdefense strategy have gotten mired in politics and the very real problems of privacy vs. security and mandates vs. security.

Both candidates are clearly aware of the problem, both clearly understand something has to be done, and both clearly have to contend with Congress.

I give both candidates a passing grade, but only provisionally. I give Congress its usual failing grade.

Next up... Privacy, Patriot Act, and IT infrastructure...


Tech Theme #3: Privacy

Privacy comes up again and again in legislation. The SOPA legislation was narrowly defeated. Both candidates came out against it -- belatedly -- once they found out that pretty much the entire Internet wanted the bill killed.

Neither party has gone out of its way to protect online privacy, both have regularly fielded bills that assault it, and both can be counted on to continue to do so as long as there are lobbyists.

Interestingly "privacy" comes up more than 22,000 times in a Google search of the Mitt Romney official site, and more than 238,000 times on the Obama site. This shouldn't be attributed to more support on Obama's side. Once you hit numbers of this scale, what you're really looking at is simply the size of the sites. Obama's site, with more user participation, has more results.

Further exploration of the Obama site shows that BarackObama.com is, essentially, a special-purpose social network, where many individuals can host their own blogs and make posts. This increases search results considerably and might have been pretty smart SEO on the part of the Obama Web developers.

In any case, it's virtually impossible to find network privacy statements (other than the normal Web site privacy policies) for either candidate on their Web site.

However, according to Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the Obama-Biden campaign supports the consumer bill of rights, encourages adoption of Do Not Track legislation (which hopefully won't be corrupted as Ed Bott has reported), and develop industry codes of conduct for online privacy (which, in my opinion, means absolutely nothing).

By contrast, ITIF reports that the Republican party platform wants to guarantee that online data gets "full Constitutional protection".

Both parties have supported the RIAA and regressive bills that benefit over-reaching content owners. I give both candidates a C- on privacy. Neither party has gone out of its way to protect online privacy, both have regularly fielded bills that assault it, and both can be counted on to continue to do so as long as there are lobbyists.

Tech Theme #4: The future of the Patriot Act

Our own Zack Whittaker has written extensively about the Patriot Act. If you haven't read his stuff, you should. It's exceptional journalism. Do be aware that Zack is from England, so he has a British perspective about USA PATRIOT and how our legislation impacts Europeans.

But what about our candidates? In 2011, President Obama extended key provisions of USA PATRIOT for another four years, so he clearly supports it to some degree.

The term "patriot act" does not exist -- at all -- on the Mitt Romney Web site. There is no description or explanation whatsoever of Romney's policies with regard to extending PATRIOT into the future. Patriot Act is mentioned 145 times on the Barack Obama site, but not officially. The mentions are social posts.

Zack and I did a webcast (which, sadly, doesn't appear to be online anymore) where we discussed our two perspectives. I believe that we need certain counterterrorist protections, and while the Patriot Act is terribly flawed, it (or something like it) is needed. Zack disagreed, mostly because those outside the U.S. are finding themselves impacted by a law that's not of their jurisdiction.

I believe PATRIOT needs to be repealed and safeguards that don't sacrifice Constitutional protections need to be put in its place.

I give both candidates a failing grade, Obama for renewing USA PATRIOT for another four years and Romney for ignoring it completely.

Tech Theme #5: IT infrastructure

The U.S. government is one of the world's largest technology consumers, and also one of the world's largest data creators and consumers. As such, how we manage our IT infrastructure is important, both from a national governance perspective as well as how it fuels the IT industry as a whole.

In addition, with the passage of what both parties now call Obamacare, electronic health records and medical IT is becoming a very big thing.

One area that Romney has been clear about is his desire to repeal Obamacare. Now, to be fair, I have my doubts whether he'd be able to pull it off, because if he becomes President, he'd also have to contend with this little thing we all politely call "Congress". Even so, I think the writing is on the wall about electronic medical records and whether or not Obamacare continues in its current form, EHR is here to stay.

But what about the rest of the U.S. government's IT infrastructure? The only mention of "cloud computing" on the Romney site is for a job posting, to work on the Romney site. No mention is found of "data center" or "datacenter".

The Obama administration has a relatively good track record here, consolidating data centers, encouraging adoption of the public cloud where possible, and creating large public data sets.

When it comes to IT infrastructure, we can give Obama a B and Romney an "I" (for incomplete, because we just don't know).

Bottom line

The bottom line is I'm deeply disappointed with both candidates when it comes to tech issues. Technology and IT infrastructure policy discussion has been virtually absent from two campaigns that have relied heavily on technology and IT infrastructure to run their campaigns. These campaigns have relied on the Internet more than any others in history.

And yet, IT seems to be a far lower priority in the minds of the candidates than it should be. Either that, or they just don't think a discussion of IT would play in Peoria. Either way, we're getting short shrift for a very important topic.

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