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Where do the presidential candidates stand on technology issues?

Jack Karsten and Darrell M. West

On March 1, thirteen states held their presidential primaries in what is known as “Super Tuesday,” when candidates stand to win more delates than on any other day of the primary calendar. Each candidate has addressed a number of issues over the last few months, but their stances on tech issues have not often made it onto the debate. The rapid advancement of technology and its continuous proliferation raise several matters for the next presidential administration to address. If voted into office, how does each candidate plan to address Internet sales tax, cybersecurity, smartphone encryption, and net neutrality?

At this stage, the candidates’ statements provide a general sense of direction but no detailed policy predictions. None of the candidates are technology experts, and once in office, the future president will have to consult with specialists. How policies and legislation will really turn out for Internet sales tax, cyber security, encryption, and net neutrality will depend on the administration as a whole rather than the president alone.

Internet sales tax

The Internet provides a market for good and services that never closes. Americans are estimated to spend $370 billion on direct online purchases in 2017, accounting for 10.3% of total retail. As of now, there is no federal legislation mandating a sales tax on all web sales. The current general rule is a company must collect a sales tax on web sales if the customer is in a state where the company has a physical presence. The Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013 is pending legislation that allows states to compel remote sellers to collect a sales tax, exempting companies with annual revenue below $1 million.

While Congress is debating the matter, the presidential candidates have individually taken a stance. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) strongly opposes Internet sales tax on the basis that it would burden businesses to complete each monthly or quarterly tax return of the 46 states with sales tax. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) also argues that the bill will put small and medium businesses at a disadvantage, leading to unemployment. As of this writing, Donald Trump has not taken a position on Internet sales tax.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), on the other hand, supports Internet sales tax and voted yes on the Marketplace Fairness Act. Sanders reasons that it will level the playing field since without a tax Internet retailers enjoy a price advantage over brick-and-mortar retailers. Hilary Clinton finds that states themselves should implement an Internet sales tax if they wish but does not support a federal mandate.

Cybersecurity

The term cybersecurity or cyber warfare has been mentioned in the primaries but has not been effectively addressed. Cybersecurity is a broad subject with sub-components crossing into both the public and private sector. None of the candidates have a broad cybersecurity strategy with clear objectives but speak instead to specific issues related to cybersecurity.

Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) approaches cybersecurity from a military renewal framework. He states cybersecurity should aim to defend against attacks on our government and businesses, counter terrorists’ online activity, and work with allies to identify sources of attacks. Donald Trump does not have a cybersecurity strategy in place. His only words regarding the matter have revolved around his plans for U.S.-China trade reform. Trump intends to reprimand China for intellectual property theft, claiming that China’s theft alone “costs the U.S. over $300 billion and millions of jobs each year.” Trump calls for a zero tolerance policy against Chinese hackers and forced technology transfer.

Clinton also aims to hold China accountable for cyberattacks, while recognizing the broader effect that cyberattacks have on the economy and national security. However, her opponents still criticize her use of a private email server while Secretary of State. Sanders and Rubio both focus on balancing citizen’s privacy and information sharing, though Rubio favors information sharing more than Sanders. The Vermont senator voted against the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015, while Rubio and Cruz chose not to vote on it. Sanders emphasizes the domestic and international threats of cyberattacks and he intends to address cybersecurity through more legislation.

Smartphone encryption

The ongoing case between Apple and FBI introduces a more domestic and cross-sector issue of encryption. Prior to the debate on February 25, Rubio had acknowledged a back door could lead to further security issues. He reasoned that criminals could use it against the public and other countries would take over in creating encryption software, but he also found that Apple should “voluntarily comply.” During the debate, he favored national security arguments, stating “their brand is not superior to the national security of the United States of America.” Cruz had a more narrow view, seeing this case as an order to unlock a specific phone rather than a backdoor into every phone. He stated that if the order was to allow the government a general back door “it would compromise security and safety for everyone.” Kasich believes discussions on encryption should take place behind closed doors, and that President Obama should convene a meeting between Apple and U.S. security officials to reach an agreement. Trump, on Twitter, calls for a boycott of all Apple products until “Apple gives cellphone info to authorities regarding radical Islamic terrorist couple from Cal.”

Clinton and Sanders remain neutral. Sanders has said he sees both sides of the issue. He fears increased government surveillance and another terrorist attack. Clinton is concerned about foreign governments’ abilities to abuse a back door for access to smartphones, mentioning China, Russia and Iran specifically. She believes the FBI can figure out a way to access phones without creating an automatic back door, a response that many technologists deem impossible.

Net neutrality

On February 26, 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to approve strong net neutrality rules. The power to regulate came from classifying broadband as a “common carrier” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. The rules ban broadband companies from blocking, throttling or prioritizing specific content. The main goal of the net neutrality rules is to maintain the free-flow of information on the Internet. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that “No one should control free and open access to the Internet.” While price-setting and restrictions against free speech are not part of the FCC ruling, it requires “every telecommunications company to take reasonable precautions” to address consumer privacy.

Cruz stated that “Net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet.” He opposes the ruling on the basis that government should not be in charge of the Internet. Cruz argues that net neutrality gives government control over “pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices for consumers.” Rubio is of a similar opinion, having voted in favor of the bill that would have overturned the FCC’s regulations. He said that the ruling gave an “unaccountable and unelected board an extraordinary amount of power over the Internet.” Rubio has also said that net neutrality would potentially allow foreign governments to control the Internet.

Authors

The Democrats hold a very different view. Clinton supported the FCC regulation and co-sponsored the Internet Freedom Preservation Act to preserve “open, unimpaired, and unencumbered Internet access” for both users and content providers. Sanders has shown even stronger opposition against broadband providers, calling net neutrality a fight against “an army of Comcast and Verizon lobbyists.” Sanders aims to prevent corporate control of the Internet.

Jen Zhong contributed to this post.

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