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McCain's Technology Non-Plan

Kevin Werbach

The McCain technology plan is finally out. As expected, it's light on what most of us understand as "technology policy." There are many platitudes about the glories of lower taxes and private investment, but little understanding of just how profoundly communications and information technologies are changing our world.

The good news, I suppose, is that McCain is finally talking about technology issues which he resolutely ignored for most of the campaign, and which his advisors dismissed as not worthy of Presidential attention. McCain's well-documented lack of tech savvy is clearly making an impression on voters. Voters understand that technology is an essential and growing element of life and work for Americans of all ages and economic levels. And they understand that technology isn't just another set of interest groups; it's the mechanism for addressing all the big challenges our nation faces, from health care to energy to education.

McCain's campaign issuing a tech plan doesn't change anything about his personal level of tech sophistication. At least, it lets people know where he stands. Or does it? When you get below the headings of McCain's plan, it becomes clear that this is a document designed to say all things to all people.

A few quick examples:

Obama's plan explains the significance of an open Internet and proposes specific policies to ensure it. McCain endorses the FCC's "four freedoms" for Internet users, says he will act "when regulation is warranted," but then specifically opposes network neutrality. Huh?

Obama's plan has a powerful set of proposals to create a connected digital democracy, including a federal CTO and transparency of all government decision-making. McCain vaguely supports putting more government information online.

Obama's plan sets out a comprehensive national broadband strategy, recognizing that the US went from global leader to a laggard during the Bush Administration. McCain cobbles together tangentially related historical positions (his support for spectrum auctions), no-brainers (allowing municipalities to deploy broadband networks), and more tax cuts ("reward" companies that serve low-income customers).

See the pattern here? Where Obama has specifics and new ideas, McCain has old ideas and positions that would be taken for granted in any Administration other than the one now ending. The reason is that McCain has a problem: he's out of step with the real world.

Real businesspeople appreciate that the doctrinaire talk of keeping government from crushing private-sector innovation has little to do with the actual situation in the technology industry. It's not like the US fell behind in technology the past eight years because government was too active. Though it may sound good in the inside-the-Beltway world John McCain has inhabited the past quarter century, the reality is that the primary factor in innovation isn't the tax rate; it's the competitive, entrepreneurial, and social climate. That's why Meg Whitman, one of McCain's most visible technology advisors, personally urged all eBay users to support network neutrality, back when she was the company's CEO. Has she changed her views?

Those who drafted McCain's plan must understand this tension. So they've come up with ways to hint at the truth, while ultimately staying on message. McCain's plan declares his support for the goals of network neutrality, but unwillingness to do anything about it. It encourages greater broadband deployment, but rewards companies for doing what they were already doing, rather than pushing the envelope. It alludes to his earlier involvement in spectrum auctions, while saying nothing about current spectrum debates, where Obama has come down strongly on the side of innovation. And it highlights McCain's Senate positions, without explaining how someone who spent so much time engaged with the technology world has so little personal understanding of it.

All in all, typical political strategy. McCain is talking about technology now in order to make it a non-issue. He wants to blunt the growing perception that he isn't a 21st-century President. I think the American people are smarter than that. The contrast between the two candidates on technology issues is pretty clear, and McCain's plan does little to change that.

By Kevin Werbach, Professor at the Wharton School and Organizer of the Supernova Conference
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