In an era when most politicians don’t even pretend to understand much about technology and innovation, it’s at least a little refreshing to see a campaign actually treat these critical issues with respect. The one in question is Hillary Clinton’s, and its just-released “Initiative on Technology & Innovation” has a lot to recommend.
I’ll start with a disclosure: Despite some serious reservations about Clinton, I’m so freaked out by even the possibility that Donald Trump could become the next U.S. president that I plan to a) donate to the Clinton campaign and b) volunteer to help in other ways. (I’m also well aware of the all-too-normal disconnect between campaign vows and governing reality.) That said, the Clinton tech/innovation proposals offer a considerable amount of common sense. They suggest a practical worldview, though one that operates—perhaps too much—within boundaries created and controlled by the wishes of big business and government.
In the absolutely key question of internet access, the plan makes a laudable push for competition. It’s unfortunate that America has allowed telecom companies to take such overwhelming control over internet access. We’d have been vastly better off if we’d required the cable and landline phone operators to let other internet service providers use the existing lines and spectrum to offer competitive services, as has been done in other parts of the world. We didn’t, so we were left with insisting on network neutrality, the principle that we consumers at the edges of networks, not a tiny number of telecom giants, should make decisions about what data gets to our devices with what priority. Clinton strongly supports net neutrality.
One ray of hope in the competitive landscape is that in certain jurisdictions, governments, public-private partnerships or (rarely so far) for-profit companies have installed networks, in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Lafayette, Louisiana.* They’re competing with major internet service providers like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox, which in many places have been slow to provide the kind of service we all need in the 21st century. Unfortunately, many state legislatures, doing the bidding of the phone and cable companies, have restricted or banned such competition at the local and regional level, but the FCC has been working to remove those barriers. The Clinton plan endorses the competitive alternatives (however inefficient this may be from an infrastructure standpoint).
The plan pushes for more investment in computer science and science, technology, engineering, and math training, and for greater diversity in the process. Speaking of education, one of America’s nuttier policies is to educate highly skilled people from other countries and then, once they’ve gotten advanced degrees, toss them out. Clinton’s plan would give them green cards.
Given the vital role of entrepreneurship in moving the economy forward, it’s gratifying to see the Clinton campaign also proposed to defer repayment of student loans if borrowers start companies. This isn’t a magic bullet, but it’s at least a creative idea.
There’s some potential good news on the patent front, too. The plan pushes for reform to our dysfunctional system, in which the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office routinely issues poor-quality patents, giving patent trolls fertile ground in which to peddle their sleazy trade. Although the plan doesn’t address the quality issue—a significant lapse—it does aim to give the USPTO more resources so patent examiners can actually do their jobs; Congress has diverted patent fees to other programs in recent years, making the situation worse. The Clinton plan would help address the troll problem by banning forum shopping by patent holders, which brings cases to jurisdictions that are notoriously kind to plaintiffs.
A major section of the plan calls for using technology better to make government more efficient. The Obama administration has made real progress on this in the past several years, and Clinton would expand on those efforts. More, and more useful, open data would be a key part of this.
There are some disappointments here. On copyright, the Clinton proposals are, unfortunately, vague. The system’s woes include grossly unbalanced (in favor of copyright holders) rules and holders’ routine abuse of “takedown” provisions that often remove entirely legitimate content from the web. Clinton’s call for modernization is useful, but it will look like weak tea to copyright reformers.
But perhaps the biggest flaw in the Clinton initiative is her continued belief that we can compromise on encryption and other key privacy matters in the name of overall security. This is apparent in the plan’s rejection of what it calls a “false choice” between security and privacy, when in fact the choice is between more security and less security: If we insist on building government backdoors into our products and services, we guarantee that we all will have less security in our daily lives.
How much of the Clinton initiative would get through a Republican Congress? Probably not much, given today’s poisoned politics. But many of the document’s key points would make excellent policy. If they generate even a serious debate, and lead to at least some change, maybe one of these days Clinton’s most prominent technology narrative won’t be about her home email server.
*Correction, June 29, 2016: This post originally misspelled Chattanooga.