Grading Bush on tech

Give the president an "incomplete" and Kerry's stances on everything from VoIP wiretaps to file swapping differ very little.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor
Declan McCullagh--No matter how hard you look, you won't find much regarding technology mentioned in President Bush's recent convention speech.

Bush didn't bring up Internet taxes, cheaper broadband, tax credits or a host of other topics he could have squeezed into his 62-minute speech in Madison Square Garden. The closest he came was a mention of his campaign Web site.

So have the last four years been good or bad when viewed through the lens of what's best for tech? I evaluated John Kerry after his speech in Boston last month. Now it's time to grade the president.

There's not much that distinguishes Bush from Kerry on high-speed Internet access. Both have called for universal broadband for all Americans, coupled with freeing up radio spectrum through auctions.

About the only point that differentiates Bush on broadband is his support for FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
About the only point that does differentiate Bush is his support for Michael Powell, who Bush named as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in January 2001. With the exception of his sudden support for "indecency" fines and wiretapping requirements, Powell has been a champion of the free market.

Powell, a Republican, has talked about voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) being a "killer app for legal policy change" and has recommended that Congress fix outdated telecommunications laws. The two Democratic commissioners, on the other hand, incomprehensibly dissented from a February 2004 vote on VoIP by insisting that voice communications flowing entirely over the Internet must be subject to onerous government regulations.

Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps has been complaining that the FCC needs to get involved in regulating Internet providers--on the theory that at some point in the future, companies may favor some Web sites over others. Powell has taken the more sensible approach of saying the "case for government-imposed regulations" remains "unconvincing and speculative."

If elected president, Kerry could choose to nominate Copps, a former Senate staffer, as FCC chairman. "A Copps FCC would represent a major step backward, as he would undoubtedly seek to undo any and all of the limited reforms pushed through over the past two decades," says Adam Thierer, a policy analyst at the free-market advocate Cato Institute. "He is the Darth Vader of communications policy, and he will make the FCC his Death Star, should Kerry appoint him."

Patriot Act
Bush rarely misses an opportunity to tout his administration's commitment to smaller government. "We seek to provide not just a government program, but a path, a path to greater opportunity, more freedom and more control over your own life," he told convention delegates.

Yet that purported commitment evaporates whenever his administration has a chance to expand surveillance of Americans.

Bush's purported commitment to smaller government evaporates whenever his administration has a chance to expand the surveillance of Americans.
Bush asked Congress to rush the Patriot Act into law with minimal debate, and he's spent a good part of this year stumping for it to be made permanent. Unless Congress votes to renew the law, some portions--including ones dealing with Internet surveillance and search warrants for electronic evidence--expire Dec. 31, 2005.

His Department of Justice has gone even further than that. It drafted a proposal called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act that would target some uses of encryption and permit broader electronic surveillance without court orders. It also engaged in the dubious practice of scaremongering about terrorists using VoIP networks.

"The Bush administration has consistently opposed reasonable, common-sense oversight provisions for new surveillance powers in the Patriot Act, even though they can't explain why," says Lara Flint, CDT staff counsel. (For his part, Kerry says he "stands by his vote for the Patriot Act" and "even wants to strengthen some aspects of it.")

Under the Bush administration, the FBI and the Justice Department have pressed for a radical interpretation of wiretapping laws that would effectively prohibit companies from offering broadband, Internet telephony and instant-messaging services--unless back doors were built in for easy wiretapping.

A host of industry groups, including MCI, the National Association of Manufacturers, Sun Microsystems, 8x8, Covad and the Information Technology Association of America, opposed the request, calling it unwise, unlawful and unncessary. "Granting the petition would create substantial uncertainty and produce a chilling effect on the development of new technologies and services," the groups wrote.

It didn't work. Last month, the FCC handed the police agencies much of what they wanted.

Taxes are one area where it is possible to discern minor differences between the two major party candidates. To put it bluntly: George W. Bush tends to criticize taxes more than John Kerry does.

In April, Bush made a rare venture into the technology arena to talk about broadband and, moreover, taxes on it. "Broadband technology must be affordable," Bush said in a speech. "We must not tax broadband access. If you want broadband access throughout the society, Congress must ban taxes on access."

A federal moratorium preventing states from imposing taxes on Internet access expired last fall. Bush wants to make it permanent, but Kerry prefers a four-year extension.

Bush also wants to make the research and development tax credit permanent. Kerry would extend it, with a "goal of making it permanent."

The Bush administration has moved aggressively to export the most controversial sections of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)--the parts that say "circumventing" copy protection technology is unlawful.

The U.S. Trade Representative forced Australia to agree to anticircumvention rules and software patents as a condition of signing a free-trade deal last month. Similar requirements were added to trade agreements in Singapore and Chile.

Software firms like Microsoft tend to applaud anticircumvention laws, while hardware makers and open-source programmers tend to be critics. Note that a Kerry administration might also support anticircumvention efforts; the DMCA sailed through the Senate in 1998 ="http: thomas.loc.gov="" cgi-bin="" bdquery="" z?d105:hr02281:@@@l&summ2="m&"">by unanimous consent, without objection from the Massachusetts Democrat.

While Bush's Justice Department has prosecuted commercial copyright infringers, it also has said it doesn't really want new powers to file civil suits against file swappers who aren't making a profit.

Kerry was asked what he thought about online piracy in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. His emphatic reply: "I think any kind of mass file sharing that goes beyond the normal college dorm, room-to-room, person-to-person, friend-to-friend kind of sharing is a violation of the law. I believe in copyright."

The reality, of course, is that Americans don't pick presidents based on their views of the DMCA or obscure telecommunications rules. Because the public doesn't care, both the Republicans and Democrats have concocted surprisingly similar positions on many tech policy topics (though the GOP still tends to be more tech-friendly).

So what grade to give Bush? Probably an "incomplete."

Bush didn't give a major speech on broadband until this spring. He missed plenty of opportunities to get the federal government out of the way so that companies could deliver cheap, high-speed Internet connections to American homes. A Verizon executive noted last month that daunting obstacles remain.

And whether Kerry would do any better is still up for debate.

Declan McCullagh is CNET News.com's Washington, D.C., correspondent. He chronicles the busy intersection between technology and politics. Before that, he worked for several years as Washington bureau chief for Wired News. He has also worked as a reporter for The Netly News, Time magazine and HotWired.

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