Political paradox: Technology is everywhere, except in voters' hearts

Computer technology and the Internet have become so ubiquitous that without them, most businesses would grind to a halt. If e-mail were suddenly outlawed, some might lose touch with far-flung relatives and friends, so inured are we to its cheapness compared to long-distance phone calls.

Computer technology and the Internet have become so ubiquitous that without them, most businesses would grind to a halt. If e-mail were suddenly outlawed, some might lose touch with far-flung relatives and friends, so inured are we to its cheapness compared to long-distance phone calls. All eyes are on California. But influential lawmakers up for re-election in Congress this year say technology issues make up only a small piece of campaign platforms.

While tech execs fret over online privacy, Internet content controls, and e-commerce taxes, to take just a few examples, none of the candidates interviewed said tech issues had even been mentioned to them as priorities by voters - not even in Silicon Valley.

Behind this seeming apathy, most voters don't consider these issues overtly 'political' - at least not yet, according to lawmakers and political observers. "It's very important for me, but more as a matter of policy than a matter of politics," Republican Rick White of Washington, said in an interview. "Technology is not so much on voters' radar screens at the moment."

While Congress and the White House are under increasing pressure to spearhead policies that will limit regulation and help the Internet industry grow, appeals for such policies are coming from within technology companies, not from voters themselves, said White. Microsoft is headquartered in White's district.

Republican Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat whose district includes Silicon Valley, said in an interview that during her campaigning, voters tend to express opinions about technology only when the subject comes up in conversations about other issues. "Voters do want more money spent on putting the best technology in the schools," Lofgren said, explaining that even in the high-tech centre of the country, education, taxes, the environment and public safety issues are closest to the hearts of her constituents.

Internet pornography, cable TV rates and telephone industry competition do concern constituents in Republican Mike Oxley's Ohio district, a spokeswoman said. But Oxley, the Ohio Republican who sponsored the controversial Child Online Protection Act (COPA) measure, must address those issues as part of a wider campaign agenda that includes crime control and consumer anti-fraud protections, she said.

In a political year as bizarre as 1998, Capitol Hill-watchers said it's not surprising that voters have moved technology issues to the back burner -- even though, ironically, several tech-related measures proved crucial to last-minute budget talks.

"Is anybody going to make technology the lead of their platform? I don't think so," said Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns LLC, a consulting firm that helps non-profits and other interest groups use the Internet as a lobbying tool. "Social security, tax cuts, and impeaching the President will come first."

It's not that voters aren't concerned about issues such as online privacy, but they aren't as worrysome to voters as bottom-line concerns such as taxes, said Jody Westby, the director for information technology studies at the Progress & Freedom Foundation think tank. "I don't see information technology as a driving issue in any election this year," Westby said, noting that even in the high-profile Senate races being waged by Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington, the incumbent Democrats have not campaigned on technology issues. (Neither Boxer nor Murray could be reached for comment.)

"We're just too distracted right now" by the looming possibility of impeachment hearings against President Clinton, Westby said. "If anything, candidates will talk about Y2K (the Year 2000 computer problem). But since we really don't know the extent of the problem yet, they won't set sweeping policy goals." It's only recently that technology companies have even established significant Washington lobbying efforts, she said, so for tech issues to get on voters' political radar screens will take time.

Substantial amounts of corporate capital are spent on information technology, "but a lot of corporations still don't get its importance," Westby said. But the economic roller-coaster ride of the last few months could help convince more executives of the need to lobby for industry-friendly policies, and that, in turn, could help make the public aware of the political implications of issues like privacy, she said.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly convinced of the importance of issues such as online content controls, said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT). "Obviously, Congress feels these issues are important to voters because they are coming up at the end of the session like this, when so much else has been left undone," Schwartz said.

The inclusion of a content control measure and a bill to increase immigration opportunities for foreign high-tech workers were among the controversies holding up the final fiscal 1999 budget agreement, he noted.

If online content control measures such as Oxley's COPA bill (included in the omnibus budget bill that will be voted on Tuesday) -- the companion to Senator Dan Coats' "CDA II" bill -- are ruled unconstitutional, many voters will be angry, Schwartz said. "There's definitely a large degree of discomfort on the pornography issue," particularly among parents who are anxious to shield their children from porn sites, he said.

Eventually, voters are likely to become more organised about demanding solutions to the online pornography problem from the technology industry, he said, possibly including stronger filtering software.