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Both sides of the Net

Assessing Obama, McCain positions on Internet, technology

In the run-up to the Nov. 4 presidential election, the News Office has asked MIT experts to weigh in on the presidential candidates, their policy ideas and aspects of the campaign. In this installment, Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT, and Harry R. Lewis, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard -- co-authors of "Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion" -- collaborated on answers to a series of questions about Internet policy and technology.

Question: Having examined the candidates' platforms as posted on their respective Web sites, can you assess whether McCain and Obama differ substantially on the issue of net neutrality (the idea that delivery of content should be treated equally regardless of source)?

Abelson/Lewis: Yes. McCain explicitly rejects net neutrality as a "prescriptive" measure; Obama explicitly supports it. Obama speaks directly to the need for competition in Internet services, an important plank missing from McCain's technology picture. McCain would regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) only to ensure consumer protection and child safety. He also offers that government may have a role as a service provider of last resort, if incentives to private industry fail to achieve universal connectivity.

Q: Obama's online platform says he will appoint the nation's first chief technology officer. What do you think of this plan?

Abelson/Lewis: Most federal agencies already have CTOs. While simply creating titles never solves problems, large organizations often suffer from inefficiencies that result from inconsistent technology solutions to related problems. For the U.S. government, there is a large opportunity to harmonize policies and practices in different agencies about such crosscutting issues as information privacy, transparent government operations, and modalities for citizen input.

Q: McCain has said he would seek a permanent ban on taxes on the Internet. What do you think of this pledge?

Abelson/Lewis: The freedom of the Internet from taxation (while allowing the states to collect sales taxes on Internet commerce) has stimulated the growth of the network to the great benefit of the American economy. We do not favor taxing the Internet immediately, but one should never use the word "never" in a technology policy. The world simply moves too quickly. Visible on the horizon are problems such as the development of Internet services toward regional monopolies. It is unwise to peremptorily declare a "correct" economic model for such unknown future business realities.

Q: What others issues should the two candidates be addressing in terms of Internet access and innovation?

Abelson/Lewis: Over the past decade, executive decisions have challenged the limits of First and Fourth Amendment protections. Measures to protect children on the Internet must be justified by data about the prevalence of actual harm to children, and balanced against the government's obligation not to limit the free flow of ideas and words among adults and children. Similarly, the effectiveness of data mining and dragnet surveillance techniques exploited in the war on terror must be assessed and balanced against the right of Americans not to have their communications and stored data searched without probable cause. Those issues will require extensive collaboration with Congress. In contrast, something the new administration can do largely on its own is to use the Internet to make government more transparent and accountable, by providing more open and consistent access to government data and creating more responsive mechanisms for citizen input.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 29, 2008 (download PDF).

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