Q&A With Senator Barack Obama On Key Technology Issues

Senator Barack Obama (official site), who’s polling a strong second in New Hampshire, is the next presidential candidate to step up and answer our technology-related policy questions.

The score card is now even, with two democrat (Obama and Edwards) and two republican (Romney and McCain) candidates.

Last week Senator Obama released a position paper on tech. Our questions take a deeper dive on some of the key issues.

The senator is continuing to take a very strong stance on net neutrality. He may understand the issue – and its importance to the tech community – better than any other candidate. But we didn’t stop there. Senator Obama also outlined a broad strategy for increasing privacy protection. Other key points below:

  • He doesn’t feel the FCC went far enough in promoting competition with the upcoming 700MHz spectrum auctions.
  • He supports Federal intervention to encourage more ubiquitous broadband Internet access and delivering technology to schools.
  • He wants to keep the Internet tax free, and he wants to “close the loophole” that allows venture capitalists to recognize investment profits as capital gains.
  • He supports temporary increases in the H1-B visa program from the current levels
    He plans to make big investments in renewable energy, and supports caps on carbon emissions.

The full transcript is below.

Q&A With Senator Barack Obama

Net Neutrality

Michael Arrington: What is your position on net neutrality? Specifically, should tiered pricing be allowed by the access providers?

Senator Barack Obama: As I stated during my visit to Google on November 14, I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality. The Internet is the most open network in history. We have to keep it that way. I will prevent network providers from discriminating in ways that limit the freedom of expression 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. It would also threaten the equality of speech through which the Internet has begun to transform American political and cultural discourse. Accordingly, network providers should not be allowed to charge fees to privilege the content or applications of some web sites and Internet applications over others. This principle will ensure that the new competitors, especially small or non-profit speakers, have the same opportunity as incumbents to innovate on the Internet and to reach large audiences. I will protect the Internet’s traditional openness to innovation and creativity and ensure that it remains a platform for free speech and innovation that will benefit consumers and our democracy.


MA: Should the government involve itself in protecting personal privacy online? Since current measures are doing little to solve the problem, what do you think can be done to address the issue?

BO: Dramatic increases in computing power, decreases in storage costs and the huge flows of information that characterize the digital age bring enormous benefits, but also create risk of abuse. We need sensible safeguards that protect privacy in this dynamic new world. As president, I will strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and will harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy.

Specifically, I will do the following:

To ensure that powerful databases containing information on Americans that are necessary tools in the fight against terrorism are not misused for other purposes, I support restrictions on how information may be used and technology safeguards to verify how the information has actually been used.

I support updating surveillance laws and ensuring that law enforcement investigations and intelligence-gathering relating to U.S. citizens are done only under the rule of law.

I will also work to provide robust protection against misuses of particularly sensitive kinds of information, such as e-health records and location data that do not fit comfortably within sector-specific privacy laws.

I will increase the Federal Trade Commission’s enforcement budget and will step up international cooperation to track down cyber-criminals so that U.S. law enforcement can better prevent and punish spam, spyware, telemarketing and phishing intrusions into the privacy of American homes and computers.

Mobile Spectrum Auctions and Rules

MA: What is your position on the mobile spectrum? Should government force open access or should it simply auction it off to the highest bidder and let the carriers decide what types of services to offer?

BO: I will confront the entrenched Washington interests that have kept our public airwaves from being maximized for the public’s interest. As president, I will demand a review of existing uses of our wireless spectrum. My bottom line is that rural America needs more and better wireless broadband service, networks should be as open to innovation as possible, and the consumer needs greater freedom and choice. We must make sure the nation’s airwaves are licensed to maximize their public benefit. Auctions have most recently been conducted without sufficient incentives to encourage full use and competition. With respect to the upcoming 700 megahertz auction, many experts believe that this spectrum in question is the last remaining available space in the airwaves for auction with the promise to get wireless broadband deployed to every community. I would have gone further than the Federal Communications Commission has done to date to make sure that this spectrum will be used and open to innovation, but I support the direction the FCC is moving in toward more competition and encouraging new entrants into this market and I will direct my administration’s FCC to continue moving in that direction.

The Digital Divide

MA: What is your opinion of the E-rate program? What else can be done to increase access to technology in our schools? What can be done outside of schools to address the digital divide more generally?

BO: I consider the E-rate program a success because it has helped make broadband nearly ubiquitous in America’s public schools and I am honored that Reed Hundt and Bill Kennard, the FCC Chairmen under President Clinton who oversaw the plan’s creation and implementation, have chosen to endorse my candidacy for President. Unfortunately, we have not made further progress under the Bush Administration and I will recommit America to ensuring that our schools, libraries, households and hospitals have access to next generation broadband networks. I will also make sure that there are adequate training and other supplementary resources to allow every school, library and hospital to take full advantage of the broadband connectivity. In terms of bridging the digital divide outside of schools, I will reform the two major programs which can drive broadband into underserved communities. I described a bold approach to reforming spectrum policies in the previous question. In addition, my administration will establish a multi-year plan with a date certain to change the Universal Service Fund program from one that supports voice communications to one that supports affordable broadband, with a specific focus on reaching previously un-served communities. Finally, I will encourage innovation at the local level through federal support of public/private partnerships that deliver broadband to communities without real broadband.


MA: How would you define “technically literate?” What technology skills should every eighth grader possess? What do you think is the best way to reach the goal?

BO: To me, technical literacy means ensuring that all public school children are equipped with the necessary science, technology and math skills to succeed in the 21st century economy. As president, I will make math and science education a national priority and provide our schools with the tools to educate 21st century learners. Access to computers and broadband connections in public schools must be coupled with qualified teachers, engaging curricula, and a commitment to developing skills in the field of technology. All children must have access to strong math and science curriculum at all grade levels, including the pre-K level. That’s why I will also invest in research and development in science education to determine what types of curriculum and instruction work best. At the college level, I will work to increase our number of science and engineering graduates, encourage undergraduates studying math and science to pursue graduate studies, and work to increase the representation of minorities and women in the science and technology pipeline, tapping the diversity of America to meet the increasing demand for a skilled workforce. If we export our best software and engineering jobs to developing countries, it is less likely that America will benefit from the next generation innovations in nanotechnology, electronics, and biotechnology. We must have a skilled workforce so that we can retain and grow jobs requiring 21st century skills rather than forcing employers to find skilled workers abroad.

Internet and Taxes

MA: What is your position on Internet-only taxes? What is your position on the capital gains tax rate? What is your position on the way venture capitalists should be taxed on carried interest?

BO: Internet-Only Taxes: I support the moratorium on Internet-only taxes and will support all efforts to keep the Internet tax free.

Capital Gains Taxes: I will promote tax fairness by adjusting the top dividends and capital gains rate to a level that would be closer to, but no higher than, the rates set during the Reagan Administration in 1986.

Carried Interest: I will close the carried interest loophole.

Immigration and H1B Visas

MA: What is your position on H1B visas in general? Do you believe the number of H1B visas should be increased?

BO: Highly skilled immigrants have contributed significantly to our domestic technology industry. But we have a skills shortage, not a worker shortage. There are plenty of Americans who could be filling tech jobs given the proper training. I am committed to investing in communities and people who have not had an opportunity to work and participate in the Internet economy as anything other than consumers. Most H-1B new arrivals, for example, have earned a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent abroad (42.5%). They are not all PhDs. We can and should produce more Americans with bachelor’s degrees that lead to jobs in technology. A report of the National Science Foundation (NSF) reveals that blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans as a whole comprise more that 25% of the population but earn, as a whole, 16% of the bachelor degrees, 11% of the master’s degrees, and 5% of the doctorate degrees in science and engineering. We can do better than that and go a long way toward meeting industry’s need for skilled workers with Americans. Until we have achieved that, I will support a temporary increase in the H-1B visa program as a stopgap measure until we can reform our immigration system comprehensively. I support comprehensive immigration reform that includes improvement in our visa programs, including our legal permanent resident visa programs and temporary programs including the H-1B program, to attract some of the world’s most talented people to America. We should allow immigrants who earn their degrees in the U.S. to stay, work, and become Americans over time. As part of our comprehensive reform, we should examine our ability to replace a stopgap increase in the number of H1B visas with an increase in the number of permanent visas we issue to foreign skilled workers. I will also work to ensure immigrant workers are less dependent on their employers for their right to stay in the country and would hold accountable employers who abuse the system and their workers.

Intellectual Property

MA: Do you think changes are needed in the way the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reviews and grants patents?

BO: I know that it is essential we have a system that produces timely, high-quality patents. By improving predictability and clarity in our patent system, we will help foster an environment that encourages innovation. Giving the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) the resources to improve patent quality and opening up the patent process to citizen review will reduce the uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation. With better informational resources, the Patent and Trademark Office could offer patent applicants who know they have significant inventions the option of a rigorous and public peer review that would produce a “gold-plated” patent much less vulnerable to court challenge. Where dubious patents are being asserted, the PTO could conduct low-cost, timely administrative proceedings to determine patent validity. As president, I will ensure that our patent laws protect legitimate rights while not stifling innovation and collaboration.

Renewable Energy

MA: Should carbon emissions be taxed? What will you do to encourage U.S. innovation into renewable/sustainable energy sources?

BO: I support implementation of a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately in my administration by establishing strong annual reduction targets, and I’ll also implement a mandate of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. I will use some of the revenue generated from the cap-and-trade permit auction to invest in climate-friendly energy development and deployment. This will transform the economy and create millions of new jobs. I will invest $150 billion over 10 years to advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, accelerate the commercialization of plug-in hybrids, promote development of commercial scale renewable energy, invest in low emissions coal plants, and begin transition to a new digital electricity grid. A principal focus of this fund will be devoted to ensuring that technologies that are developed in the U.S. are rapidly commercialized in the U.S. and deployed around the globe.