Note to John McCain: Technology Matters

One would think that, in 2008, the significance of the Internet and information technology would be universally acknowledged. That makes the recent news from the Presidential campaign a bit shocking. After ignoring technology issues for the past year, John McCain is poised to announce his great insight: tech policy isn’t worthy of attention from the President of the United States.

This is what I draw from the announcement that former FCC Chairman Michael Powell is drafting a technology plan for McCain, to be released shortly. The McCain campaign will promote it as an overdue response to the comprehensive technology agenda that Obama unveiled eight months ago. I’m sure they will position long-standing Republican ideas like cutting the capital gains tax and promoting “market forces” to encourage broadband deployment as maverick proposals. What concerns me most is what the McCain plan apparently leaves out: strong views on the crucial issues that Obama’s plan covers. Immigration reform and free trade are worthy goals. They aren’t a technology agenda.

I like Michael Powell. I really do. He’s extremely smart and open-minded, he was a dedicated public servant, and he did some wonderful things at the FCC, especially on spectrum policy. Yet Powell always had a curious blind spot about how FCC decisions affected the world outside the agency. His infamous quip comparing the Digital Divide to the “Mercedes divide” is a good example. Even when he had the policies right (as on requiring “line sharing” for broadband access), he couldn’t always get them adopted, because the FCC doesn’t operate in a sealed box. It’s a component — an important component — of the larger policy and political apparatus of the federal government. With the McCain plan, Powell is making the same mistake.

In an interview last week, Powell asserts that issues like Network Neutrality in Obama’s agenda are “in the weeds,” because “[a] lot of the FCC’s issues aren’t ‘president of the United States’ issues.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Reasonable minds can differ over the right policies to preserve the open Internet, promote next-generation broadband, safeguard online privacy, and create a connected digital democracy. Supporters of Obama (like me) can think he made a mistake in his handling of the FISA telecom immunity legislation (as I do). The absolute worst approach is to label these as insignificant technical matters that the President need not address. That’s been the mindset, with disastrous results, the past eight years.

As chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, John McCain was exposed to a wide range of tech policy issues. On the other hand, he admits he’s “computer illiterate.” Ask yourself how you’d feel about working for a corporation where the CEO doesn’t know how to use a computer. No matter how smart, someone who can’t open a web page, type a letter on a word processor, or compose an email message, is going to be fundamentally out of touch with the daily experience of every member of the knowledge economy.

The only saving grace would be if McCain’s technology advisors could overcome his personal ignorance. As I’ve been saying for a long time, no President can oversee the details of every important issue, so the people around him or her are critical. The roster of Obama’s tech advisory group (which I’m proud to be part of) is nothing short of amazing. It includes a shockingly high percentage of the best academics, entrepreneurs, executives, and investors I’ve encountered during my 15 years in the tech world. And tech-oriented advisors are at the very heart of the campaign. McCain has supporters like Michael Powell and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina who understand these issues, but what’s the point if their message is that technology doesn’t matter? When the tech-savvy advisors reinforce the “do nothing” instincts of a tech-illiterate leader, the result is, well, what we got with the Bush Administration: the US falling behind other countries on both broadband deployment and competition, individual rights violated because the government hasn’t established rules of the road, and the Internet’s magnificent innovation engine in jeopardy.

Obama’s tech policies aren’t perfect, and McCain’s wouldn’t be all bad. Still, the choice matters. It matters a lot. The cynicism out there, even from those who agree with Obama on the issues, scares me more than anything. People think that politicians can’t be trusted to do anything other than reward their cronies and contributors, and they think government’s only effect in markets is to screw them up. Does anyone remember how eight years ago we had a trillion-dollar budget surplus, and the rest of the world looked in awe at the economic growth and innovation unleashed by our Internet industry? We can have that again, and much more, but only if we recognize how much technology matters in the global economy of the 21st century. Obama gets it; McCain doesn’t.