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Here's how Democrats would handle tech policy in a Hillary White House


(image: REUTERS/ Jim Young)

Sorry, tech-policy nerds: People still don’t care about your issues.

That’s one of the conclusions you can draw from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech Thursday night. It also taught us that she supports hampering terrorists’ online propaganda efforts in an unspecified fashion: “We will disrupt their efforts online.” And naturally, it revealed that she doesn’t think much of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s social-media output: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Clinton set out a detailed tech-policy platform last month, but Thursday’s speech didn’t get into its contents. She did, however, nod to the 2016 Democratic platform upfront, saying, “We wrote it together, now let’s make it happen together.”

First, though, let’s unpack that 55-page document. If you were looking for a ringing defense of net neutrality, you’ll like it. If you were hoping for a little bipartisan agreement with the Republican platform posted two weeks ago, you won’t be disappointed. If you were seeking clarity on other issues, you’ll have to wait to see what Clinton says.

Broadband and net neutrality

Everybody complains about their internet connection at some point, so it’s no surprise that broadband gets a mention early on in the platform. Big surprise: The Democrats want you to have more of it and expect wireless to play a key part, including both free WiFi from “anchor institutions” and 5G technology. The document describes 5G as “the next generation wireless service that will not only bring faster internet connections to underserved areas, but will enable the Internet of Things and a host of transformative technologies.”

The Dems will also defend existing net-neutrality regulations, which forbid internet providers from blocking or slowing access to particular websites or serves. These regulations have already survived one court challenge and will likely face others, given Big Telecom’s relentless litigation on this issue. “Democrats support a free and open internet at home and abroad, and will oppose any effort by Republicans to roll back the historic net neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission enacted last year,” the platform notes.  

Unfortunately, the platform doesn’t offer a view on how the government should view further mergers among telecom and other tech companies, or whether it should seek to curb the powers of existing tech giants.

Privacy and encryption

The government’s bulk surveillance of Americans’ communication should have been a top topic in the 2012, 2008 and 2004 elections, but we didn’t learn about its extent until Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks. The 2016 Democratic platform stands against a renewal of “the type of warrantless surveillance of American citizens that flourished during the Bush Administration” (and which continued in various forms through much of the Obama administration). It also backs “recent reforms to government bulk data collection programs so the government is not collecting and holding millions of files on innocent Americans.”

Should you be able to use encryption to thwart this kind of government snooping, even if it stymies law-enforcement investigations? We already know the strongest encryption precludes having backup keys. Extra unlocking mechanisms kept by a third party outside the user’s control might help law enforcement, but they’d also represent an exceptionally attractive target to criminals and foreign intelligence agencies.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Democrats think we should talk about it more, noting they support a “national commission” on digital security and encryption.

Cybersecurity

WikiLeaks posted a trove of e-mails last month stolen from the Democratic National Committee (with personal details of party donors intact) and dumped DNC voice-mail recordings–all after the Dems had released their platform. Perhaps if the leak came earlier, cybersecurity might have received a more prominent spot in this document.

Instead, we got studied vagueness: “We will strengthen our cybersecurity, seek to establish global norms in cyberspace, and impose consequences on those who violate the rules.” What does that mean if we confirm Russian intelligence agencies hacked the DNC? You tell me.

The document then backs appointing a chief information security officer (CISO) as part of can only do so much across the sprawling federal bureaucracy — a good move, even if an assertive CISO can only do so much across the sprawling federal bureaucracy. The platform does back extending the Obama administration’s initiatives to inject some private-sector innovation into federal IT with programs like the United States Digital Service.

Before you ask: No, the platform doesn’t say anything about whether cabinet secretaries should use their own e-mail systems instead of in-house systems. I think we can assume Clinton no longer supports that.

Finally, you can find some welcome common ground with the longer Republican platform’s security provisions in the Democrats’ call for securing voting machines with voter-verified paper ballots — a key step to guard against hacking electronic voting terminals.

Barely mentioned: patents, copyright and intellectual property

The Democratic platform allots two sentences to intellectual property, neither substantive: “Democrats will fight against unfair theft of intellectual property and trade secrets. We will increase access to global markets for American intellectual property and other digital trade by opposing quotas, discriminatory measures, and data localization requirements.”

The platform should have said more (and Clinton’s own position paper does). Patent trolling threatens innocent companies with expensive litigation, while the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s overly broad protection of copyright holders’ digital locks thwarts research and innovation. Both center on abuse of power by private enterprise, which is supposed to among the Democratic Party’s core concerns.

I’m sure we’ll get a substantive, fact-based discussion of those issues in the debates. Unless we don’t.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.


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