September 26, 2008

Linux.com's guide to the 2008 US presidential candidates

Author: Nathan Willis

As November's national election looms in the United States, voters can expect increasing coverage of the hot-button issues through the mainstream media and campaign ads. On issues important to the open source and free software communities, however, information is harder to come by. Today we take a look at what the Democratic and Republican candidates say about questions close to the FOSS voter.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have position papers on their campaign Web sites that deal with technology and other issues. In addition, both national parties have their official platforms available for download in PDF format. All of the information below comes directly from these documents.

For the most part, you can find the candidates' stances on technology issues on self-contained "Technology" pages, which cover far more topics than software and networking. I recommend that you read them in detail, but also that you check out their other position papers, since so many technology issues overlap with other areas of public policy.

Net neutrality

One clear distinction between the two camps is their stance on network neutrality. Barack Obama is openly in favor of it, and John McCain opposes it.

The Obama plan states that the historic openness of the Internet is the key to its success, and that that openness must be preserved:

Barack Obama strongly supports the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet.... Because most Americans only have a choice of only one or two broadband carriers, carriers are tempted to impose a toll charge on content and services, discriminating against websites that are unwilling to pay for equal treatment. This could create a two-tier Internet in which websites with the best relationships with network providers can get the fastest access to consumers, while all competing websites remain in a slower lane. Such a result would threaten innovation, the open tradition and architecture of the Internet, and competition among content and backbone providers.

The McCain plan cites the lightly regulated history of the Internet and software market as the source of the vibrant Internet economy, and says burdensome regulations must not be imposed by the government:

John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like "net-neutrality," but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices.

and, elsewhere:

John McCain understands that unnecessary government intrusion can harm the innovative genius of the Internet. Government should have to prove regulation is needed, rather than have entrepreneurs prove it is not.

Software patents

Less stark is the difference between the two candidates' positions on patent reform. Neither official plan mentions software patents specifically, but both include a call for reform of the patent system.

The McCain plan calls for granting additional resources to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in order to hire and train more patent examiners, and for providing "alternative approaches to resolving patent challenges."

For many important technologies, the only effective way to challenge a patent in the United States is through litigation, but litigation on patents is much too expensive. The lack of an affordable, reliable means to ensure that the Government only grants valid patents has led to overly broad, frivolous lawsuits designed to force innovative companies into big settlements.

The Obama plan also calls for providing more resources to the USPTO, but does not specify that they be used for hiring additional patent examiners.

It also recommends "opening up the patent process to citizen review" in order to "reduce the uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation," and suggests offering the option of a "rigorous and public peer review" to applicants.

Finally, it states that "where dubious patents are being asserted, the PTO could conduct low-cost, timely administrative proceedings to determine patent validity."

Copyright legislation

Both plans make brief, general mention of copyright enforcement, and tie it to black-market reproduction of entertainment products overseas.

The Obama plan says that "China fails to enforce US copyrights and trademarks" and that China is the source of 80% of the counterfeit products seized at US borders. It cites an estimate from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that more than nine out of 10 DVDs sold in China in 2005 were illegal copies, and concludes by saying that Barack Obama "will work to ensure intellectual property is protected in foreign markets, and promote greater cooperation on international standards that allow our technologies to compete everywhere."

The Obama plan also references the copyright system alongside the patent system as being in need of "update and reform" in order to "promote civic discourse, innovation and investment while ensuring that intellectual property owners are fairly treated."

John McCain's plan headlines its discussion of the topic "John McCain Will Protect The Creative Industries From Piracy" and notes that the entertainment industry is a "vital sector" of the economy and among the nation's largest exporters. The plan mentions the Internet specifically:

While the Internet has provided tremendous opportunity for the creators of copyrighted works, including music and movies, to distribute their works around the world at low cost, it has also given rise to a global epidemic of piracy. John McCain supports efforts to crack down on piracy, both on the Internet and off.

Open governance

Both candidates address making more government information available through the Internet.

The McCain plan advocates online access to government services and "placing more government information online for the benefit of all of the American people." It also states McCain's support for establishing "an Office of Electronic Government to set a strategic vision for implementation of electronic government."

Barack Obama's plan recommends using technology to create "a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens." Recommendations include making government data available online in "universally accessible formats" to enable citizen reuse, establishing a public Web site and search engine for tracking federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts, allowing the public to make comments on the White House Web site about proposed non-emergency legislation, modernizing "internal, cross-agency, and public communication and information sharing to improve goverment decision-making."

Obama also supports creating a national Chief Technology Officer, among whose duties will be "ensuring that each arm of the federal government makes its records open and accessible as the E-Government Act requires."

Antitrust law

The Obama plan includes a section specifically addressing antitrust enforcement, which it terms "Ensuring Competitive Markets." It promises an Obama administration will reinvigorate antitrust enforcement by stepping up review of mergers that might harm consumer welfare, and will look carefully at key industries to ensure that consumers benefit from competition. The plan says that Obama will "strengthen the antitrust authorities' competition advocacy programs to ensure that special interests do not use regulation to insulate themselves from the competitive process."

The McCain plan does not discuss antitrust enforcement, although like the Obama plan, it does mention ensuring competition for American business in the international marketplace.

More

You can read the McCain campaign's technology plan in full at johnmccain.com, and the Obama campaign's plan at barackobama.com. Both contain discussions of issues that -- although they do not impact free software development or deployment directly -- are historically of great interest to the free software and open source communities, such as wireless spectrum allocation policy and privacy protection.

The Democratic Party's national platform is available at democrats.org, and the Republican Party's platform at gop.com.

We have contacted both campaigns for more information on their respective positions, including unaddressed issues like reverse engineering, security vulnerability reporting, and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). If they provide us with additional info, you will read it here first.

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