The (Non-) Impact of the Coming Elections on Tech Policy

by on August 14, 2004

In a recent column, Declan McCullagh discussed John Kerry’s tech policy agenda and what it might tell us about how a Kerry Administration would impact the Internet, communications and media policy.

Quite honestly, I have always felt that the two major political parties–neither of which I have ever voted for in my life–offer us a distinction without a difference on technology related public policy issues. Most politicians, especially those seeking the presidency, just don’t give a hoot about these issues.

There are three simple and closely related explanations for this: (1) Technology policy issues are too complicated, arcane, or boring relative to other public policy issues; (2) Other issues make better stump speeches because they can be easily simplified into bumper sticker slogans or silly soundbites; (3) Tech policy issues just don’t get the political juices flowing for the average American voter. Stated differently, these issues just don’t make the cut in terms of “dinner table talk.” Seriously, how often do you think someone turns to their spouse of kids at the dinner table and asks, “So junior, what do you think about the FCC’s new UNE-P and TELRIC regulations?” or “Boy, these new DMCA anti-circumvention provisions are really worrisome, don’t ya think honey?” Hell, I cover these issues for a living and I know I’ve never had that conversation with my wife or kids.

For these reasons, technology-related policy matters are far, far down the pecking order of public policy priorities for most politicians. We’re lucky if we even get them to utter a peep about tech policy in passing during a speech on some other economic issue, which is exactly what Bush and Kerry have done during this campaign season. [See this short piece I wrote for Cato about Bush and Kerry on broadband policy.]

And because politicians care so little about technology policy issues, it means that the two parties often produce remarkably similar tech platforms or legislative proposals on the issues. Moreover, because of the lack of vision, tech policy is remarkably parochial in character. Many legislators tend to support measures pushed on them by well-heeled interests in their districts. For example, southern California Democrats generally side with Hollywood interests or the content industry on copyright matters while northern California Democrats generally side with computer industry. This also makes if easier for non-partisan alliances to be struck on some major tech or telecom initiatives. Consider the Tauzin-Dingell broadband bill and the Cox-Wyden Internet Tax Freedom Act. Let’s face it, these guys would probably never join forces on any other issue under the sun.

So, you might ask, are there no differences between the two parties whatsoever? It’s tempting to say that censorship is one area where there is a major difference between conservatives and liberals since it’s long been assumed that liberal policymakers are more tolerant of freedom of speech and expression. While I used to believe this to be true, I’ve now come to believe that this is myth, and indeed I’m not sure there was ever much truth to this assumption. Indeed, Democrats are just as bad on free speech issues as Republicans these days. Lefties like Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman are screaming just as loudly as conservatives like Sam Brownback for government action to limit “indecent” speech and “excessively violent” programming. And do I need to remind everyone of the cast of characters behind the CDA, COPA and all those other ‘let’s-sanitize-the-Net’ bills? In sum, it is almost impossible to find a consistent defender of freedom of speech and expression in either party today. Sen. Ron Paul (R-TX) made a nice speech on the House floor back in March defending free speech, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) typically stands up for the First Amendment, but these are lone voice in the wilderness. Fewer and fewer lawmakers are willing to stand in defense of the First Amendment.

One area where I do think there is a small difference between the two parties relates to technology spending or subsidy initiatives. There’s been a lot of talk about the so-called “digital divide” in recent years and here’s where we have seen two very different policy responses. Dems are generally more open to the idea of spending federal tax dollars to expand education and technology entitlements. Consider the E-Rate or “Gore Tax” program as Republicans labeled it. The GOP mounted a short-lived effort to eliminate the program, but the Dems fought them off. But Republicans appear to have come to accept the program and now the parties just fight over funding levels. And other new tech entitlement and spending programs have gained acceptance in the GOP, especially broadband tax credits. So maybe there isn’t as much of a difference here as I originally thought. [I wrote a big study with Thomas Pearson and Wayne Crews two years ago listing all the new high-tech pork out there. We called it “Birth of the Digital New Deal.”]

But, in conclusion, I can think of one way in which a Kerry Administration would be very different from a Bush Administration: who they pick to run the FCC. Bush’s man Michael Powell has been a champion of free markets and deregulation almost across the board. Although Powell won’t likely stick around for another term should Bush be reelected, it is likely that whomever Bush picks would be more friendly to the free market than Kerry’s likely choices: former FCC commissioners Susan Ness or Gloria Tristani, former Florida PUC commissioner Julia Johnson, or the abominable current FCC commissioner Michael Copps.

These folks would be much more aggressive regulators than anyone Bush would pick, and if Michael Copps gets the nod, we might as well all pack up shop and find new jobs because the technological dark ages will be upon us. Copps – – a former staffer for Fritz Hollings, which should tell you all you need to know! – – is stuck in a regulatory time warp and speaks as if we’re still living in the 1930s. A Copps FCC would represent a major step backwards as he would undoubtedly seek to undo any and all of the limited reforms pushed through over the past two decades. He worships at the alter of mythical “public interest” regulatory regime and claims he knows what’s in the best interest of all consumers and citizens when it comes to economic and social regulation of communications, media, and technology. He openly embraces extensive speech controls and economic command-and-control regulations for television, radio, cable and the Internet. He is the Darth Vader of Communications Policy and he will make the FCC his Death Star should Kerry appoint him.

So, will any of this have any bearing on how I vote this Fall? Not a chance. I wouldn’t vote for either candidate or party if they were standing at the polls handing out bribe money. Although a Kerry presidency carries the risk of a Michael Copps-led FCC, it would at least give me plenty to blog about for the next 4 years!

Anyway, please let me know what you think about Bush vs. Kerry and its impact on tech policy.

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