Net neutrality, broadband deployment among top tech issues for campaign 08

by Chloe Albanesius, PC Magazine

The economy, the war in Iraq, healthcare, and … Net neutrality?

When the dust settles in November, the next president will have his or her hands full with the usual issues. But the tech industry will also be watching with great interest to see if a McCain or Obama presidency will tackle key issues like Net neutrality, patent protection and piracy, broadband availability, privacy, and the availability of H1B visas.

Many argue that our 44th president cannot afford to ignore these issues, as access to broadband, cutting down on copyright infringement, and opening our doors to talented minds from abroad can only help the economy. Meanwhile, keeping these technological advances available to everyone will ensure that innovation is not stifled, and that one company does not dominate an essential industry.


Sen. John McCain: Net neutrality legislation could be counterproductive and actually harm the openness of the Internet.
Obama: Co-sponsored the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, will "take a backseat to no one in my commitment to Net neutrality."

Should a major company be able to give Comcast or AT&T a few extra (million) dollars so their Web site loads faster than a competitor's? Should Best Buy have a better Internet experience than a local electronics store simply because they can pay for it?

That's the question facing members of Congress, leading ISPs, and the interest groups that love them. The term, coined by Columbia law professor Tim Wu, is the idea that everyone, regardless of prowess or financial standing, should have equal access to the Internet.

With the exception of Internet companies that stand to gain from a tiered system, most are in agreement that a free and open Internet is the best way to go. Republicans and Democrats, however, are divided about how best to preserve that openness— government regulation or marketplace competition?

Not surprisingly, Obama has thrown his support behind federal legislation that would preserve Net neutrality, while McCain has advocated for a more market-based approach.

Obama was an original co-sponsor of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which would mandate Net neutrality. The bill, which was introduced in January 2007 by Sen. Byron Dorgan, has yet to see any major action, though the House has been quite active on Net neutrality issues lately.

In a June 2006 podcast, Obama called for an Internet that is free from "corporate media middleman." He reiterated his stance at an October, MTV-sponsored town hall meeting, where he railed against getting "much better quality from the Fox News site [while] getting rotten service from some Mom and Pop site."

During a November appearance at Google's Mountain View headquarters, meanwhile, Obama pledged that "I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to Net neutrality, because once providers start to privilege some applications or Web sites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose."

McCain has pushed for a more hands-off approach.

"I think that Net neutrality is something that we have to look at from time to time, but I don't want to see the wealthiest and most powerful [companies] crowd out the independents, which has really given [the Internet] its strength and vitality," McCain said in an interview with WNYC last year. "It's a very tough issue."

"When you control the pipe you should be able to get profit from your investment," McCain said at the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital D5 conference.

"The road to overregulated markets is paved with [good] intentions but terribly misguided legislation," McCain special counsel Chuck Fish said recently at the annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in New Haven, Conn.

The issue shows no signs of slowing down.

In addition to the bills introduced in the House and Senate, interest groups like Free Press,, Public Knowledge, the ACLU, the Center for Digital Democracy, as well as individuals like Wu, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark have joined forces with the Save the Internet Coalition, which is working "to ensure that Congress passes no telecommunications legislation without meaningful and enforceable Network neutrality protections."

More conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF) are less enthused.

"Not only is this [Net neutrality legislation] unnecessary, but it also would be counterproductive by harming consumers, discouraging investment, and even reducing competition," according to the Heritage Foundation.

"Net neutrality regulation is more than just the camel's nose on the Internet tent; it is an open invitation for unelected FCC bureaucrats to comprehensively regulate the entire super-structure of the Internet and the modern digital economy," PFF senior fellow Adam Thierer wrote in an April blog post. "Shame on those who hold the door open and invite the government in to do so."


McCain: Supports increased broadband access via competition rather than government regulation.
< >Obama: Supports re-defining broadband definition, reforming universal service, increased resources to bring broadband to schools and libraries.

The days of dial-up and waiting eons for a single image to load on your computer screen are long gone. Right? In actuality, there are large swaths of mostly rural areas in the United States that still do not have access to high-speed Internet service – an issue many claim is hurting Americans' chances for advancement.

Much of the concern centers on reports issued by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to the group's data, the United States saw its broadband deployment status slip from fourth place in 2001 to fifteenth in 2007, out of 30 countries.

A major impediment to nationwide broadband is concrete data on where broadband is and isn't available in the country. Current FCC broadband maps are "a disgrace," Democratic FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said at a September Senate Small Business Committee hearing. Legislation that would improve broadband data collection is currently pending in the Senate.

Obama has proposed re-defining broadband, which the FCC currently defines as data transferred at 200 kilobits per second. That is "astonishingly low," Obama said.

Obama also pledged to: reform the universal service fund, which provides money for telecommunications services at schools and libraries; make better use of wireless spectrum; provide resources and training to bring broadband to schools, libraries, households and hospitals; and encourage federally funded public-private partnerships to bring broadband to underserved areas.

"As president, I will set a goal of ensuring that every American has broadband access, no matter where you live, no matter how much money you have or don't have," Obama said during his visit to Google. "We will raise the standards for broadband speed, we will connect schools and libraries and hospitals, and we will take on the special interests so we can finally unleash the power of wireless spectrum for our safety, our security and our connectivity."

McCain has also voiced support for increasing the current definition of broadband, but has promoted a more hands-off approach to broadband deployment that would rely more on market forces than government regulation.

McCain was one of five senators, and the only Republican, to vote against the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which further deregulated the telecom industry. He did so not because he was opposed to deregulation, but because he believed the bill included far too many handouts for special interests.

McCain later served as chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, which governs many tech-related issues from 1997 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2005.



McCain: Government should handle blatant IP abuses, but warned against protectionism.
Obama: Pledged to promote greater cooperation on international standards that allow U.S. technologies to compete everywhere.

The government has taken steps to crack down on piracy in recent years, from stepping up the penalties for videotaping movies in theaters to exerting greater pressure on countries like China to police intellectual property violations. But anyone wandering past the rows of pirated DVDs, CDs and software in Times Square can see that the problem is hardly under control.

Obama promised in his technology white paper to "ensure intellectual property is protected in foreign markets, and promote greater cooperation on international standards that allow our technologies to compete everywhere."

To do that, the U.S. needs to update and reform its copyright and patent system "to promote civic discourse, innovation and investment while ensuring that intellectual property owners are fairly treated," he said.

"Washington must keep pace with this change and develop new approaches to ensure that our ideas are protected, our intellectual property rights are respected, and our economic outreach serves the American workers today and in the future," according to McCain's policy statement.

McCain promoted himself as a free trader during his visit to Google. The government should step in if "someone is blatantly abusing patents, [or] blatantly abusing intellectually property rights … but I think the worst thing that could happen to the United States of America is for us to go into protectionism," he said.

Patent reform legislation has been approved by the House, but thus far, only the Senate Judiciary Committee has acted on the legislation—a committee on which Obama and McCain do not preside. Though the committee approved the bill in January, major action on the bill is not expected in the near future.

"Patent reform is one of the most crucial issues before Congress today," according to the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA). "The future of American innovation depends upon comprehensive reform that restores balance to our intellectual property system."


McCain: Support immunity for telecom companies that cooperated with warrantless wiretapping program.
Obama: Increase the Federal Trade Commission's enforcement budget i order to increase cooperation with international agencies to track down cyber-criminals.

The openness and ease with which we can access information on the Internet also makes the Web a breeding ground for privacy violations. Lawmakers have tackled issues like spam, spyware, phishing, and identity theft in recent years, but lately the focus has also been how companies are using the information you provided to them for targeted advertising, marketing, or tracking purposes.

Obama pledged to increase the Federal Trade Commission's enforcement budget and to increase cooperation with international agencies to track down cyber-criminals and punish those pushing spam, spyware, telemarketing, and phishing scams.

He also called for restrictions on how much information can be included in company databases, and a system that can verify how that information is actually used.

"The open information platforms of the 21st century can also tempt institutions to violate the privacy of citizens," Obama said. "We need sensible safeguards that protect privacy in this dynamic new world."

One of the more recent privacy issues faced by the candidates was the subject of telecom immunity, after major telcos like AT&T cooperated with federal requests and allowed the National Security Agency access to their networks without any court intervention. The Senate passed a bill that would grant telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for participating in the program, but the House passed a version that requires those companies to face the music in the courtroom.

Obama voted against the Senate version with telecom immunity, while McCain voted in favor of it.

McCain special counsel Chuck Fish suggested recently that McCain would not support telecom immunity unless there were congressional hearings on the subject at which telecom companies expressed their regret, but McCain's camp later said the senator still supports retroactive immunity.


The candidates are using the Internet to help them campaign, but what happens after the election? Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research, believes the next president should use social applications like MySpace and Facebook to get input from voters throughout his or her term.

"What would happen if Obama said, 'Listen, I have this idea that we should be getting the troops out of Iraq, what is the best way for me to communicate that,'" Bernoff asked.

On the whole, Democrats use the Internet more actively than Republicans because the Democratic base is generally younger than the average Republican voter, Bernoff said.

Howard Dean, former Democratic presidential candidate and current head of the Democratic National Committee, was also "one of the first people to understand the power of the Internet, and there's a certain trickle down among those who used to work for him and are now helping out various Democrats on the election," he said.

Nonetheless, "there's not a single one of them that's really good at listening to what their backers are actually desiring," Bernoff said. "They see the social Internet as another form of broadcast media, and I think this is the last election that this kind of thinking will be supported."

Corporations take suggestions from their customers, so why can't the government harness the power of the Web and do the same, Bernoff asked.

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