Candidates unclear on tech issues

Bush, Kerry jab over outsourcing, quiet on other tech fronts

a heated debate over offshore outsourcing has already begun, but other technology-related issues are not expected to be major factors in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

Unlike the 2000 election, when Democrat Al Gore trumpeted his role in the development of the Internet, the 2004 candidates are focusing on issues not directly tied to technology. President George Bush, the Republican, and Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, have debated the war in Iraq, unemployment, the economy, and domestic security, all overshadowing technology.

But the candidates have already traded barbs about offshore outsourcing, with technology companies and workers entering the fray while testifying at congressional hearings recently.

Kerry and other Democrats criticized Bush when the president’s chief economic adviser, Greg Mankiw, defended offshore outsourcing as a “plus for the economy in the long run” in mid-February. Kerry criticized Bush for promoting offshore outsourcing while not standing up for workers.

In mid-March, Bush blasted Democrats for preaching a policy of “economic isolationism.” He criticized Democrats for promoting policies that are “raising up barriers and closing off markets.”

But the outsourcing debate may be more about rhetoric than actual policy, said David Holtzman, an advisor to Wesley Clark’s failed Democratic presidential campaign and former CTO of Network Solutions.

“I suspect there will be a lot of rhetoric in the campaign,” said Holtzman, now adjunct professor at American University. “I don’t know if it’ll go beyond the rhetoric.”

Bruce Mehlman, executive director of the Computer Systems Policy Project and former assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy in the Bush administration, agreed but said the issue is more complicated than simply saying, “Offshore outsourcing is bad.” Those in the Bush camp who see long-term economic benefits from some outsourcing, including lower prices for consumers, are having difficulty explaining a nuanced position to the public.

Beyond outsourcing and its impact on jobs, other tech-related issues so far have not risen to the level of presidential debate, Mehlman noted. Issues such as Internet taxes and the regulation of VoIP (voice over IP) are hot in Washington but are not hot-button issues for voters, he said.

Because much of the presidential campaign is conducted on bumper stickers and through sound bites, complicated technology issues do not make for great debate, added Rich DeMillo, dean of the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Just as technology issues can prove difficult to debate in a boardroom, they are also complicated to explain on the TV news.

“[Technology issues] are hard to fit in a headline,” said DeMillo, former CTO of Hewlett-Packard. “Sometimes you can bring it down to a safety issue or a bottom-line economic issue, but usually not.”

Kerry’s campaign outlines its technology-related policies at the Kerry for president Web site. The page of tech policy initiatives does not contain a lot of specifics but does outline broad policy objectives, including the strengthening of math and science instruction, enforcing trade laws against nations manipulating the rules, and making Internet access universally available.

The Bush campaign’s Web site does not include a similar page on tech policy, and the Bush campaign did not return a request for an interview on the topic. But the president has taken several IT-related initiatives in his three-plus years in office; most recently, he signed CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) into law, and in February 2003, the White House released a set of cybersecurity recommendations, although the document included no mandates for private companies.

Bush has also increased the government’s spending on IT, from $45 billion in fiscal year 2002 to a 2005 budget request of $59.8 billion.

Other technology-related issues have the potential to rise to the presidential level, depending on the events of the next seven-plus months. A major attack on the Internet could push cybersecurity onto the presidential debate radar, especially if there is any connection to terrorists, American University’s Holtzman said. “I don’t think any of these [candidates] react until what I call a watershed event,” he added.

The USA Patriot Act, which gives law enforcement officials easier access to private information on the Web, could also become a major issue. Kerry has criticized the Patriot Act for too broadly allowing access to private information, and if any evidence of abuse happens before the November election, expect more debate, Holtzman said.

Georgia Tech’s DeMillo noted that support for math and science education remains an important issue among technology companies and universities, but the presidential candidates have not yet distinguished themselves on the topic. “The discussion right now is at such a high level of abstraction; it’s hard to tell what the issues are,” he said.

Beyond outsourcing, technology will be woven into the presidential debate over the economy, added Craig Ullman, partner at NetworkedPolitics.com, which has developed Web sites for the Kerry campaign. “Any government plan that involves stimulating the economy is going to involve the tech sector,” he said.

Other issues, including access to broadband and e-voting, may not make it to the level of presidential debate this year but could become major political issues as soon as 2006, Ullman predicted. “Although tech issues are supporting issues in this election, four to eight years ago they weren’t even on the map,” he said. “Four to eight years from now, they will be extremely important.”

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