The 2016 presidential campaign has seen no shortage of flashpoints — from hacked and deleted emails to taxes, hot mics, and beauty pageant contestants. Throw in a few lively Twitter spats and we have ourselves a historic campaign, albeit one lacking in the more substantive policy debates we’ve come to expect from past presidential contests.
But when we move beyond the daily back and forth, we find technology policy issues are at the center of many of the big debates of this campaign — including on issues like trade and national security.
It isn’t really surprising, and not just because tech is at the center of our everyday lives. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that the public, more than ever before, increasingly views tech with a degree of unease. In areas like data privacy, online safety and autonomous vehicles, people are concerned that tech companies do not have their best interests at heart.
So it is against that backdrop that trade is a central issue in this campaign. Hillary Clinton opposes current trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), while Donald Trump wants to defeat TPP and roll back previous trade agreements. And yet there is so much at stake for technology companies when it comes to trade.
Historically, trade has been viewed as an issue more important to the makers of airplanes and growers of apples than to the makers of software. But today, the technology industry is increasingly dependent on the open flow of technology goods, services and data. According to the United States International Trade Commission, U.S. technology firms exported more than $162 billion in technology goods and services in 2014, and as many as 2.4 million jobs have been created by trade in technology.
One of the top tech industry priorities for current and future trade agreements is data flows — the wonky term that describes the free flow of information across borders via the internet. This information includes your everyday internet activity, like your emails, family photos or online transactions. Today, it is critical that service providers like Facebook, Google and Microsoft be able to store and move that information between their data centers around the world. That open flow model is why Google can offer free email with nearly unlimited storage and why Facebook can store all your family photos at no cost to you.
Yet some governments want to stymie the flow of data in the name of privacy. These efforts include requiring companies to create data centers in each country and only store the data of their citizens in that country. Known as data localization, proposals like these undermine the very nature of internet services, which makes trade a big issue for technology companies and for consumers. The current trade agreements being negotiated and used as political fodder include provisions that prohibit the flow of data across borders.
So where does trade go from here? Not far, at least in the short-term. The current Congress is unlikely to approve TPP in a lame duck session, which makes the make-up of the next Congress so important to the tech community. And even then, ratification of TPP will be a challenge as Republicans and Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, continue to oppose the agreement.
Another thorny subject for candidates and policymakers has been encryption. Much of the technology industry, led by Apple, are pushing to fully encrypt the content of emails, text and instant messages and other personal information housed on phones or devices. Law enforcement organizations, led by the National Security Administration, have sought to gain access to that encrypted content in an effort to fight terrorism and other threats to national security.
Trump has been vocal in his support for law enforcement and his criticism of Apple’s unwillingness to provide access to an iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooters. In the wake of Apple’s rejections of the FBI’s request to unlock the phone, Trump called for a boycott of Apple products. Not many took him up on his boycott, and he has not said much about it since. In contrast, Clinton is aligned with the technology community, suggesting that privacy does not need to be compromised to safeguard Americans from terrorist activity. Clinton has endorsed efforts by Republican Congressman Mike McCaul and Democratic Senator Mark Warner to create a national commission on digital security and encryption. Yet much like trade, expect nothing to happen until a new Congress and president are sworn in. Even then, this very complex and challenging issue has no easy fix.
While Congress shows no signs of moving legislation important to the technology industry, the Obama Administration and its political appointees have shown a willingness to act across an array of topics. Most notable is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its net neutrality and broadband policies. Led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC has pursued an aggressive agenda, seeking to regulate internet pricing and establish more competition in the broadband and cable markets. Not surprisingly, Trump and many Republican candidates for the House and Senate have opposed federal attempts to regulate the internet. Meanwhile Clinton has vocally supported the Commission’s net neutrality and broadband rules. These are areas where an active FCC may continue these policy initiatives in a Clinton White House, though that does not figure to be the case should Trump take the Oval this November.
The list of technology policy issues does not end there. Issues like taxes, privacy, education, and the rollout of 5G networks are also priorities for tech. But for the industry to continue to thrive, the tech industry will need to cultivate pragmatic political partnerships to move legislation and initiatives through a divided and divisive political atmosphere in 2017.
Pearson Cummings, senior vice president, Technology, Washington, D.C.