Government Technology

Commentary: Obama, The Internet President?

October 29, 2008 By

Photo: John Eger, former director of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy.

In March 2004 President George W. Bush laid out a broad agenda for America in the age of the Internet. Among other priorities, he said "This country needs a national goal for broadband technology -- universal, affordable access -- by 2007." Nothing happened. At least nothing that is obvious to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the OECD or perhaps the average American.

According to the OECD, a Paris-based think tank that keeps track of broadband penetration by nation, the U.S. has slipped to about 19th in the world. Smaller countries like South Korea, Singapore and Japan are leading the world by offering faster broadband at a fraction of the cost.

Now come presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.

Both claim to have high technology plans that include broadband communications, new technology incentives and an overhaul of our education system to insure America can compete in what has become a global knowledge economy.

Obama however, was first in creating a comprehensive view of the world of technology in every aspect of our life and work in his presidential announcement speech in Springfield, Illinois as early as February 2007. He said: "Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let's set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let's recruit a new army of teachers and give them more support in exchange for more accountability. Let's make college more affordable and let's invest in scientific research and lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America."

By contrast, John McCain, who served for many years as a member of the Subcommittee on Commerce responsible for telecom issues, and for several years as chairman of the committee, has had a long and reasonably attentive interest in technology. His plan was only recently released.

In contrast to Obama it is clear he relies more on private-sector initiatives, and is not persuaded that government intervention is needed. In part, McCain says he "will provide broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America, a commitment to a skilled and educated workforce and dedication to opening markets around the globe." He's committed to streamlining burdensome regulations and effectively protecting American property in the United States and around the globe."

After two administrations in which telecommunications policy from the federal government was invisible and clearly not a high priority, both candidates are keenly aware of the pent up demand for U.S. leadership. Both candidates seem fully cognizant of the vital role technology plays in the new economy.

McCain has confessed that he gets most of his information off the Internet from his aides and that he's somewhat "computer illiterate." He 's said that his favorite high tech toy is his "razor cell phone." Obama on the other hand, like so many corporate executives and high tech literati, doesn't go anywhere without his Blackberry.

Obama also has won the hearts of the "netizens" by being in favor of "net neutrality," shorthand for preventing Internet service providers from levying taxes or tariffs on the quality or quantity of what goes over their lines. While not clear about how he plans to accomplish many of this goals, Obama has called for Internet access among rich and poor, rural and urban across America, suggesting that broadband not unlike electricity or water or telephone service, was something that every American needed to have -- that it was perhaps even a public service that ought to be provided by the government if need be. McCain's thinking would never go this far.

Both candidates seem to understand the importance of using technology as a tool for transformation. Both also are keenly aware of the importance of cyber security, not only to combat terrorism but also to protect privacy and avoid piracy as well. Unless something momentous happens in the next few days, the next President of the United States will be Barack Obama, an Internet president, to be sure.

Eger is the Van Deerlin endowed chair of communications and public policy in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University, From 1974 to 1975 he was director of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy.

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