Popular tech got a moment in the spotlight in the townhall debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, when moderator Candy Crowley sneaked Apple into an economic policy question. But let’s be real: this election won’t hinge on technology issues. Just look at prevailing discussions this year at the national level: major candidates have sparred over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the role of government, inane comments on the female body, and to nobody’s surprise, the economy. Despite that fact, many decisions will be taken up by the next US president and those in Congress that will affect the world of tech, and by consequence, the real lives of citizens and human beings around the world — from alternative energy, to the use of killer drones, the regulation of wireless spectrum, and policies that aim to control content on the internet.
Your chance to vote is just around the corner. Here’s what’s at stake in tech this election, and how the major candidates could influence our future.
First, there’s the place we know and love: the internet. The internet, as a vast, multi-faceted network involving individuals, businesses, and governments at various levels, is subject to increasing regulation — especially as it becomes more ubiquitous in every facet of daily life. The next president is likely to sign into law or receive bills from Congress that affect the internet, and as the head of federal agencies, will determine regulatory priorities in key areas like wireless broadband access and competition.
Broadband adoption has risen dramatically in the US, but there are still some gaps: the FCC found in its latest report that broadband adoption correlates with income, and that monthly bills are a barrier to many households. In terms of quality, the US lags behind the competition: a 2012 Akamai study pegs the US in 12th place for average broadband speeds, behind leaders South Korea and Japan.
The wireless broadband market in particular will continue to face challenges in the near future, as the FCC works out regulatory policies and actions in a number of areas. In recent years, the agency has worked to promote competition among wireless carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and smaller regional carriers, as they play tug-of-war over precious wireless spectrum: a finite public resource that is managed by the US government. The FCC’s aggressive action in blocking the largest US carriers has prompted some members of Congress to question the FCC's authority.
Net neutrality is also a hot issue that will likely be taken up in some form by the next administration. With the FCC’s current "Open Internet" rules under fire both from supporters and opponents, and emerging grey areas in practice (see: AT&T’s FaceTime blocking, or Comcast’s Xbox 360 Xfinity app), net neutrality policy will likely come up in the next four years.
And, of course, there’s the issue of internet freedom, which gained national prominence this year with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). SOPA and PIPA were controversial bills that would have allowed the Justice Department to take sites "dedicated" to copyright infringement out of the internet’s DNS system and search engine results — which would fundamentally alter the way the internet works. The bill was promoted (and written) by the entertainment lobby, and would have sailed through committee and potentially through Congress if not for an unprecedented internet-based protest over the proposed laws. While the bills were killed earlier this year, there’s a chance they could return in the next Congress in a different form.
In his first term, Obama launched the National Broadband Plan with a goal of increasing broadband adoption to 90% by 2020. The plan includes several regulatory efficiency measures, as well as funding programs to connect rural and low-income citizens to broadband. Obama has not met all of his broadband goals.
Obama promised in 2007 to enact net neutrality rules, which appeared in the FCC’s Open Internet regulations — which have drawn criticism both from companies that skirt the rules, and from advocates who think they haven’t gone far enough. But Obama has been a consistent supporter of net neutrality. In the Senate, he co-sponsored a bill called the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" that would have implemented net neutrality by law.
Obama opposed SOPA and PIPA, but gave a low-level veto threat in response to the bills. While the administration still believes it needs new legislation to deal with piracy it says "proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the internet." Obama says that "a free and open internet is an essential component of American society and of the modern economy."
Romney has criticized Obama’s broadband efforts, claiming that the administration made no progress towards universal access. The Republican platform promises to "encourage public-private partnerships to provide predictable support for connecting rural areas."
Mitt Romney is opposed to net neutrality regulation. Romney says such efforts would make government a "central gatekeeper in the broadband economy." More generally, Romney is opposed to FCC network regulation: he says "the government has now interjected itself in how networks will be constructed and managed," and "picked winners and losers in the marketplace." The Republican platform calls for an inventory of federal spectrum that could be auctioned "for the taxpayer’s benefit."
Romney voiced opposition to SOPA in the South Carolina 2012 GOP debate, saying that "the law as written is far too intrusive, far too expansive, far too threatening to freedom of speech and movement of information across the internet." Romney says he prefers narrow anti-piracy measures that use current laws.
Johnson and the Libertarian platform explicitly oppose government regulation of the internet. Johnson says net neutrality leads to "unwanted regulation," and that no ISPs should receive subsidies or special treatment.
The platform also opposes the FCC’s ability to regulate internet content, price, and speed.
Johnson opposes SOPA, and participated in the January, 18th web blackout on his campaign website.
Stein and the Green Party platform have a broad list of telecommunications goals. The platform aims to end privatization of spectrum, and would give spectrum to non-profit community broadcasters, and to cities, counties, and towns to operate broadband and wireless networks. The platform also calls for the repeal of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and for FCC reform.
The party also has strong language on access: it aims to provide universal broadband to all US residents, "so that access to information is a right, not a commodity." Additionally, it aims to ensure net neutrality.
Stein opposed SOPA, and said that it "would impose censorship on the internet and threatens whistle-blowers and others whose speech is vital to a healthy society." Stein participated in the January, 18th web blackout with a page asking citizens to take action to oppose the bill.
Cybersecurity and War
The US president, as commander in chief of the military, has the power to craft policy and to use US forces around the world in limited engagements. At a time when the United States is still at war abroad, and risks conflict elsewhere with aggressive rhetoric, sanctions, and acts of cyberwarfare, the next US president will make important decisions about national security matters, including foreign military intervention and domestic cybersecurity and surveillance measures.
The next president will make critical decisions on how the United States uses military technology against its enemies. Perhaps the most important and imminent questions surround the Obama administration’s explosive drone program: one it refuses to acknowledge or disclose to the public. But there’s no doubt the US is using drones: reports of the CIA and military’s extensive use of military drones to kill enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (a country the US is not at war with), are widely accessible. As drone technology improves, the administration will not only have to deal with the current ethical concerns about drone use, but also future ones: like the use of autonomous drones to hunt and kill enemies of the state.
Cyberwarfare & Cybersecurity
The United States has been at war for more than a decade, and the country’s national security policies still contain the DNA of post-9/11 anti-terrorism security measures like the Patriot Act. Recent efforts to enhance law enforcement powers include the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which would have given broad powers and immunity to government and military intelligence agencies in order to collect and share private data of customers without the use of warrants. CISPA was delayed, and probably won’t show up soon with Congress’ heavy docket of bills, but that doesn’t mean it’s over: the White House is rumored to be considering implementing cybersecurity law by executive order.
Of course, domestic surveillance doesn’t just happen on the internet. Last month, the US House of Representatives reauthorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), first passed in 2008, which greatly expanded the government’s ability to wiretap phones, emails, and other communications without the use of warrants. While CISPA and FISA will require consensus in Congress to pass, ultimately these bills, and others like them, will land on the president’s desk before becoming law.
Obama continues to support military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is responsible for the recent expansion of the government’s drone program.
There’s convincing evidence that the Obama administration is responsible for the Stuxnet attack on Iran: a cyber attack intended to destroy the country’s nuclear centrifuges. The administration has reportedly considered many more attacks than have been launched, but the full extent of the cyberwar program is unknown.
Obama spoke out against CISPA in an earlier form, but intends to pass some form of cybersecurity legislation. His administration is working on an executive order to fulfill the objectives of CISPA.
Obama supports FISA, and says "the ability to monitor and track individuals who want to attack the US is a vital counter-terrorism tool." He is likely to pass FISA if it clears the Senate.
In a recent presidential debate, Romney supported Obama’s use of drones. He is likely to maintain or expand the government’s drone program and its use internationally.
Mitt Romney has not expressed an official opinion on CISPA, but there is generally little disagreement between Republicans and Democrats on cybersecurity issues.
However, Romney’s platform suggests he may try to go further on cybersecurity than the incumbent: Obama "has not yet updated our national cyber-security strategy," the paper says, and "the multi-faceted threat we face in cyberspace requires a much more coordinated effort between the Department of defense, the intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Departments of Commerce and the Treasury to secure America."
Johnson is less hawkish than his Republican and Democratic counterparts, but he has stated that he supports waging war for humanitarian reasons, and that he would not leave the use of drones off the table. It’s unclear if Johnson would expand the drone program, but that may be difficult if he follows through with other promises: he plans to cut defense spending by 43 percent if elected.
Johnson has expressed no explicit opinion of CISPA, aside from this disapproving tweet. However, his general stance on privacy issues — he calls for the repeal of the Patriot Act — suggests he would oppose bills like CISPA and FISA.
Stein opposes the use of drones, and in a third-party debate with Gary Johnson, called for banning drone strikes altogether. She also does not believe that Iran threatens US national security, and although her position on cyberwarfare is unclear, her general anti-war stance could preclude aggressive actions like Stuxnet.
Like Johnson, Stein does not have an explicit stance on CISPA, though she also would repeal the Patriot Act, which similarly suggests that she would oppose bills like CISPA and FISA.
With Newt Gingrich out of the picture, our hopes for a moon colony are slim. But the next president will still make plenty of important directions about the future of space exploration and NASA’s post-shuttle role — including decisions on manned vs. unmanned missions, funding for projects like the International Space Station, and the balance of public vs. private investment in space exploration. For instance, during his tenure, President George W. Bush initiated the Constellation program to bring astronauts back to the moon by 2020 — but that program was terminated by the Obama administration in 2011. The next president will either maintain or disrupt long-term space exploration plans.
At the peak of the Space Race, NASA received a whopping 4.41 percent of the total federal budget. By comparison, NASA’s funding in 2012 is about 0.48 percent of the budget.
Obama’s key goals for space exploration include sending humans to asteroids by 2025 and to Mars by the 2030s — both objectives that would need to be maintained beyond his second term. Obama has promised to operate the Space Station until at least 2020.
Obama’s proposed 2013 federal budget for NASA is $17.7 billion, a $59 million decrease over 2012 funding. NASA’s planetary science funding would drop by 20 percent while funding for human exploration and space technology would receive boosts.
Romney’s stated space aspirations are romantic, but he has provided few details about how he would set priorities for NASA. First, Romney is unlikely to increase the agency’s budget: a policy paper from Romney claims that "a strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities."
The paper says that "there will be a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs." Romney has not provided details about these science and exploration missions.
Johnson’s limited government policies would dramatically reduce federal spending in many areas, including science and technology. He would cut NASA’s budget by 43 percent. It is not clear how he would re-prioritize NASA’s efforts after such severe cuts.
In an answer to an "AMA" question on Reddit, Johnson said that "I’m supportive of our space program, but we are facing an economic crisis that involves shared sacrifice."
Johnson says he would let entrepreneurs and private enterprise lead the way in space exploration.
Stein’s party supports exploration, but objects to military activities in space. In an answer to an "AMA" question on Reddit, Stein says that "as a science nerd, yes I’d love to see continued space exploration. no doubt spending on (peaceful) space exploration is far preferable to war spending." Stein says that cuts to military spending could provide "plenty of resources for research."
Stein has offered no specific vision for NASA going forward, but her party does suggest there are some limitations: it advocates for a reduction in human-staffed space flight in favor of automated technology.
Energy policy has been a major issue in presidential politics, especially since the oil crisis of 1973. Since then, several alternative energy technologies have matured — but the US still relies primarily on petroleum, natural gas, and coal, which make up 83% of the country’s energy supply. As of 2011, only 9% of the country’s energy came from renewable sources. "Energy independence" is the oft-cited goal, but how are we going to get there?
Obama has said he supports an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that utilizes existing energy sources. He wants to cut oil imports in half by 2020 and supports increased fossil fuel production to achieve this goal.
In his first term, Obama has aggressively funded energy projects — most notably as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package, which awarded $90 billion for energy projects including solar power, wind power, and electric grid improvements.
Obama has raised the average car fuel efficiency goal to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
Obama aims to maintain incentives for renewable energy. The use of renewable wind and solar sources have nearly doubled under his administration.
Romney wants "North American energy independence" by 2020, which will largely be achieved by increasing non-renewable fuel production in the US, and through agreements with Canada and Mexico.
Romney supports nuclear power, calling it a "win-win." He says it’s the single largest opportunity to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2008, Romney called for increased investment for energy research — calling for an increase of $16 billion a year. But recently, Romney has criticized spending on clean energy projects, and criticizes Obama for failed investments in "green energy," naming Solyndra, Fisker, and Tesla.
Romney would eliminate the production tax credit for wind projects. He also opposes Obama’s fuel efficiency standards.
Johnson is in favor of alternative energy, but goes further than the Republican party in decrying federal intervention. Johnson says the government should stay out of promoting or managing energy development.
However, Johnson supported federal funding for research and development in new energy technologies as part of the National Governors Association.
Stein is strongly in support of renewable energy sources, and opposes nuclear power, calling it "dirty, dangerous, and expensive." The party calls for the complete phase-out of nuclear and coal power plants.
The Green platform calls for energy efficiency standards on par with those in California. It goes much further than Obama on fuel efficiency standards, calling for a CAFE of 60 mpg for cars by 2015.
To accomplish these objectives, the platform calls for "much more than the promise of $150 billion for renewable energy over 10 years."
Congressional watch list
While the next presidential administration will set federal policy in a number of agencies, Congress will also play a huge role in tech moving forward — from investigating and debating tech issues, to writing and passing laws. One of the most obvious examples from the last year includes the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was introduced by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). Smith and other co-sponsors of SOPA drew sharp criticism from the public for proposing and supporting the bill, while other congress members stood out for their vocal opposition. Here are a few key Congressional players to watch in the coming years.
REP. LAMAR SMITH
REP. DARRELL ISSA
Representative Issa was one of the most outspoken opponents of SOPA in committee, but later co-sponsored CISPA. He’s a key member to watch in the next term — assuming he wins reelection in 2012.
REP. JARED POLIS
Representative Polis also fought fiercely against SOPA in committee. As a former web entrepreneur, he is regarded as one of the most knowledgeable members of Congress on tech issues. Polis is up for reelection in 2012.
November 6th, 2012
On November 6th, just four days from now, US voters will head to the ballot — and chances are they’ll make a decision for one of candidates listed above. While you may not be able to check a box directly for something like net neutrality, the next president and your representatives in Congress will certainly take up the issue in the future.
So what happens after you cast your ballot? How will you keep elected officials accountable for their promises in tech? As always, it’s a good idea to keep your elected officials — as some might say — "on speed dial." If you need to know what they’re up to, resources like Govtrack, Thomas, or even the newly launched CrunchGov can help you out. Check-in with them every now and then by sending them an email or giving them a call to let them know how they’re doing. And know who else is fighting over the digital world: groups like Fight for the Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, and even the American Civil Liberties Union are set to do battle in Washington over innovation, net neutrality, electronic privacy, and other issues of the digital age. But first, it's your turn — and we hope to see you at the polls.