The Tech Issues You Won’t Hear About at Tonight’s Debate

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Tom Simonite

The 2020 presidential election is technological warfare. President Trump and Joe Biden are spending millions to deploy algorithms and target potential voters with their messages. The campaigns are more dependent on databases, math models, and video calls than ever, in part due to the pandemic. One thing mostly missing from this electoral techno-clash: substantive discussion of technology policy.

Thursday night’s debate seems unlikely to veer into detailed tech talk, although the Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Google has a good shot at a mention. Don’t expect to hear much about broadband or research spending or immigration policy for high-skilled workers.

That’s a shame, because technology shapes every facet of American life, and the pandemic makes tech issues even more pressing. It also may create an opportunity to reset US tech policy, if a vaccine quells the coronavirus and Congress passes a post-viral stimulus.

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One deep-rooted problem deserving more national attention is the tragic state of US internet access. Many people in rural and poor urban areas are locked out of jobs, schools, and social opportunities by the high price of broadband, says Joshua Stager, a senior policy counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute. The problem is much worse now that many schools, workplaces, and doctors have gone virtual.

Trump has recently taken an interest in the Federal Communications Commission, but only to push a nonsensical attempt to repurpose the laws regulating online platforms into a political weapon. Over the past four years, his administration has cut back the Lifeline program that offers subsidized broadband for people with low incomes, and weakened the FCC’s power to regulate internet service providers. The Democratic platform includes reinstating the agency’s teeth so as to pressure ISPs on pricing and expanding access.

Even if Trump wins, Stager is hopeful Congress will act on broadband. He says the issue is more important to voters than the presidential campaign suggests. Some congressional candidates are campaigning on the issue, particularly in rural areas. In a Virginia debate last month, Senator Mark Warner and Republican challenger Daniel Gade both endorsed federal action to improve rural broadband. Warner compared the project to electrification in the 1930s; Gade likened it to building the interstate highway system. “It seems to be one of the few issues that unites both Republican and Democratic voters,” Stager says. “Everyone hates their cable company.”

Biden and Trump’s recent speeches on midwestern stumps suggest they believe many US voters are also united in a love of factory work. Neither candidate has really acknowledged the technological and economic trends that have shrunk US manufacturing—or that future factories will require fewer people, says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The framing focuses on the nostalgic view of Rust Belt states in their heyday,” Muro says. “The discussion the country has to have is what skills are needed in the 21st century when enterprises are using more software and automation and artificial intelligence.”

Brookings research has found that the many US workers without entry-level digital skills, such as familiarity with spreadsheets, are increasingly shut out of the labor market. Government data shows that computers are more central to many jobs that were once fully analog, such as fixing trucks. Muro says it’s time to talk about big investments in retraining, particularly in places far from the coastal cities that have reaped the benefits of a more digital economy.

Whoever wins on November 3, the early years of his term will be dominated by taming and recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. That could mean economic stimulus packages like those seen after the Great Recession, and a shot at big shifts in US tech policy, particularly if the Democrats gain control of both White House and Senate.


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