Tech Policy 2012: Comparing the Democrats' and Republicans' platforms
In the presidential campaign, cybersecurity and Internet freedom won't get top billing as the candidates spar over their plans for creating jobs and cutting deficits, but the two major parties have included positions on several technology policy issues in the platforms ratified at their recent conventions.
To be sure, candidates at times differ from the positions articulated in the party platform, but there is considerable overlap, particularly on tech issues, and the documents serve as a useful primer on the prevailing sentiment of the parties.
There will be plenty more to learn as the candidates elaborate on the specifics of their positions in the debates and on the campaign trail, but in the meantime, here is an overview of the party platforms' treatment of key issues in the tech sector.
Cybersecurity Threatens National Security
In keeping with the spirit of the long-running debate in Washington over what policies should be implemented to strengthen the nation's defenses against a cyber attack, both party platforms acknowledge that the threats are very real and imminent, invoking at times dire language to frame the issue. The Democrats warn: "Cybersecurity threats represent one of the most serious potential national security, public safety and economic challenges we face," while the Republicans caution that the country "cannot afford to risk the cyber-equivalent of Pearl Harbor."
And both parties have been supportive of cybersecurity reform efforts, but the legislation the White House has backed, endorsed in the party platform, would give new oversight authorities to the federal government over critical digital infrastructure in the private sector, a key provision in a comprehensive bill that Republicans blocked in the Senate earlier this year.
The GOP platform, by contrast, calls for an overhaul of the 10-year-old statute that provided security standards for IT systems used by the federal government, the Federal Information Security Management Act, to tighten the government's defenses.
But information sharing was the main focus of the Republicans' policy statement, echoing the alternative legislation that GOP members of the Senate introduced this year to clear away barriers preventing network operators in the private and public sectors from exchanging information about potential threats.
"The government collects valuable information about potential threats that can and should be shared with private entities without compromising national security," the Republican platform reads. "We believe that companies should be free from legal and regulatory barriers that prevent or deter them from voluntarily sharing cyber-threat information with their government partners."
The Republicans also a take a more hawkish, if somewhat vague, tone in their vision of an international posture for the United States on cyber threats. They charge Obama with having been "overly reliant" on defensive capabilities, leaving implied that they would pursue more offensive options, and suggest that the administration has failed to articulate a deterrence protocol.
"The frequency, sophistication and intensity of cyber-related incidents within the United States have increased steadily over the past decade and will continue to do so until it is made clear that a cyber attack against the United States will not be tolerated," they write.
For their part, the Democrats counter that Obama has been highly attentive to the mounting threats, and has ordered a top-to-bottom review of agencies' security postures and formed U.S. Cyber Command, a dedicated military operation for cybersecurity co-located with the National Security Agency.
Privacy, Net Neutrality, and Internet Regulation
The GOP has a lot more to say on the subject of Internet regulation and infrastructure development than the Democratic platform, and most of it is critical of the administration's policies. While the Democrats write of Obama's support for "a simpler, smarter and more cost-effective approach to regulation, rather than one riddled with special rules written by lobbyists," the Republicans counter that the regulations and governance structure overseeing the tech sector are hopelessly outdated and have served as a drag on an otherwise vibrant segment of the economy.
The Republican platform blasts the Federal Communications Commission for its net neutrality rule, a move that Republicans see as an overstep of the agency's powers and hope to see overturned on a legal challenge brought by Verizon Wireless and MetroPCS. The platform also criticizes the administration for moving slowly on freeing up wireless spectrum and alleges that the $7.2 billion allocated in the economic stimulus package for broadband deployment has made "no progress toward the goal of universal coverage."
The Republicans vow to conduct an inventory of government spectrum with the goal of implementing new auctions, as the FCC is currently planning for the reallocation of private-sector spectrum, and to focus on public-private partnerships to expand broadband coverage.
The Democratic platform reiterates Obama's goal of delivering high-speed Internet service to 98 percent of the population, and reaffirms the importance of freeing up new spectrum.
In their address of regulations, the Democrats do not offer an explicit defense of the FCC's net neutrality rule, but instead cite "common-sense safeguards" like the Internet privacy bill of rights the White House has endorsed and the administration's support for do-not-track tools that would give Internet users the chance to opt of online profiling and behavioral targeting.
Perhaps recognizing that the term "net neutrality," or the prohibition against service providers slowing or blocking the transmission of legal content on their networks, has become politically toxic, the Democrats instead endorse the guiding principal.
"President Obama is strongly committed to protecting an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, creativity, consumer choice, and free speech, unfettered by censorship or undue violations of privacy," the platform reads.
Both parties include sections in their platforms addressing Internet freedom, though the Republicans couch theirs in language emphasizing the need to keep the Internet free from overreaching government regulation.
"Its independence is its power," the GOP wrote of the Internet. "The Internet offers a communications system uniquely free from government intervention. We will remove regulatory barriers that protect outdated technologies and business plans from innovation and competition, while preventing legacy regulation from interfering with new and disruptive technologies such as mobile delivery of voice video data as they become crucial components of the Internet ecosystem."
The Democrats speak more broadly about the Obama administration's support for "the freedom of expression, assembly and association online for people everywhere." During Obama's first term, the State Department has elevated Internet freedom to a high priority in its diplomatic relationships, coming under the umbrella of what the department calls it 21st Century Statecraft initiative. Secretary Hillary Clinton has helped raise the profile of the issue in a series of public speeches on the importance of a free and open Internet.
Both parties cite their support for the current "multi-stakeholder approach" to Internet governance, vowing opposition to any attempt to empower a single international group, such as the United Nations, with greater authority over the Internet. At a December meeting in Dubai, member nations will gather to discuss a proposal that would do just that -- a controversial plan that would vest new authorities over the Internet with the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union, and has been roundly condemned by the Obama administration and lawmakers from both parties.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.