D.C., Maryland and Virginia candidates make the final turn and head down the home stretch toward Election Day.
People in the technology business have a lot riding on this year’s elections. A new administration could mean different policies on antitrust issues, copyright protections and the management of wireless networks. We connect with a technology reporter to learn more about the technology issues shaping elections this fall.
- Cecilia Kang Washington Post Technology Reporter
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe move on. The fallout of the 2012 elections will be felt far and wide in America's technology sector. A new administration could bring a different approach to major antitrust and copyright issues that dictate how technology companies do business in both the online and the offline worlds and how we can use the Web or how we can use the explosion of devices that connect us to the Web and consume an ever growing ocean of online content.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore what's at stake for the technology sector in the 2012 elections is Cecilia Kang, a reporter at The Washington Post. Cecilia, good to talk to you again.
MS. CECILIA KANGGood to talk to you, too, Kojo.
NNAMDICecilia, the presidential candidates are talking a lot about economic issues, even if we're not hearing them speak as explicitly about a lot of wonky tech issues. But this is the area of the economy where innovation is happening and where growth is happening. Apple recently became the most valuable company in American history. For those in the technology sector, what would you say are the issues where they have the most at stake in this year's elections?
KANGWell, that's right, Kojo. The technology sector, Silicon Valley, is a bright spot, a rare bright spot in the economy. So the Republican Party and the Romney campaign will really push the idea that the Obama administration has been too heavy-handed and that the market should work its way, sort itself out in terms of any concerns about competition, privacy, copyright, and that the government should have a limited role.
KANGAnd they will point to Silicon Valley as an example of an industry, the high-tech industry, that has been able to, as businesses, continue to grow and that the administration should not do too much. That said, there are several unresolved policy issues and business disputes that can be and will be focused on Washington over the next few years. Copyright is one of them. The availability of wireless spectrum to really bolster and beef up and make the wireless networks that run your Android and your iPhones more robust and faster, to get more spectrum out there, to improve the Internet networks.
KANGAnd also concerns over issues such as privacy, online privacy, as well as antitrust. You're seeing some of the biggest companies from Silicon Valley become even stronger. Apple certainly did so with its -- with a jury decision last week to grant it copyright -- excuse me, patent protection. So there's lots of different issues at stakes -- at stake. But both parties will be concerned about looking too heavily-handed in this.
KANGThe Republicans, again, will try to urge for less regulation and enforcement being the real -- the tool to keep this industry in check. The Democrats have sort of a tricky wire act to balance in that they come in with some strong proposals over the last four years, and they've really received some pushback from critics, particularly from the Republican Party, that they were too heavy-handed. They created more uncertainty for the high-tech industry than they did help it.
NNAMDIWell, let's focus on antitrust for a minute because we're used to hearing the phrase too big to fail when people are talking about banks. But now a company like Apple is not only making record profits, it's also coming off a massive legal victory over Samsung that could drastically alter the market for mobile devices. What are you looking at on this front?
KANGThat's right. The -- what's happening among this tech company is that a few companies -- namely Apple, Google, Amazon -- are becoming even stronger and even more powerful. And the job of federal regulators is to ensure that consumers don't get left out in the cold, that they have the choices they want, that the prices don't go up, that they aren't, in some ways, locked into certain networks unfairly.
KANGBut you're seeing the market move that way with Apple's victory last week, as you mentioned, Kojo. What it essentially has done is it's created -- it's really locked down a few key features in smartphone technology, for example. If it doesn't -- it controls the licensing fees of it. It controls that sort of technology. And the question really for federal regulators is at what point does that sort of power go beyond just a business growing and doing well to a point where it's too powerful and potentially harming consumers?
KANGYou're seeing the FTC and other federal regulatory agencies such as the Justice Department look at these companies more closely and seek and investigate whether there are abuses of power. The FTC is investigating Google as we speak.
NNAMDICould the continued growth of Apple and Google force either Obama or Romney to make tough decisions on antitrust matters?
KANGI think you will continue to see more attention to these companies particularly by either administration, but particularly the Obama administration, which has really focused more on technology companies than any other administration. At this point, Mitt Romney, Republican candidate, is -- would -- if he were to win, he would be picking up what has been a few years of more interest and more focus on the technology industry.
KANGAnd it'd be difficult for him to step back from that in that technology has become so pervasive and such an important part of our lives. If more than half the population has a smartphone, it's hard to ignore the ramifications of how big companies that are becoming even bigger and more powerful, how that sort of -- those trends trickle down to consumers.
NNAMDIWe're coming to you live from Tampa, Fla., where the Republican National Convention is taking place. Our guest is Cecilia Kang. She's a reporter at The Washington Post. It's Tech Tuesday. We're discussing some of the policy issues that whoever wins this presidential election is likely to face. Cecilia, regardless of who is president, more and more people are going to be using mobile devices in the coming years to access online contact -- online data.
NNAMDIBut there's only so much wireless spectrum around for people to consume this stuff. What regulatory challenges are we going to run into when it comes to the management of spectrum?
KANGThat's right. That's probably one of the big issues going for -- probably the top of the agenda -- for both parties is to get more wireless spectrum to companies like the AT&Ts and the Sprints of the world, whom you just spoke to, to make sure that their customers have smartphones and tablets and other mobile devices that work well and fast. If you talk to the companies and the Internet companies in Silicon Valley, they're saying that there just simply isn't enough and that people are adopting and using mobile technology way too fast and not -- and that the supply of spectrum isn't keeping up.
KANGSo what the Federal Communications Commission and Congress has done has -- they have approved an auction of wireless spectrum that broadcasters right now hold that they can voluntarily give up to convert into wireless network spectrum for high-speed Internet connections mobily. (sp?) That won't happen. The availability of that spectrum won't come in the next year, maybe not even two years.
KANGSo that concerns companies in Silicon Valley. That concerns consumers. As they look as their smartphones, they see how much more they're depending in them in businesses as well. And what -- the last thing they want is sort of a screeching halt on their mobile devices. And so the real push in -- for Congress and for regulators is to make sure that that auction works and that broadcasters give up enough spectrum and that an auction of that spectrum is done quickly and that the companies buy up the spectrum and then they convert it into networks within the next few years.
NNAMDIWhat kind of an approach has the Obama administration taking to spectrum so far? The Justice Department just cleared a pretty huge deal to allow Verizon to buy unused airwaves.
KANGRight. So that was one deal of -- that was one example of a merger that was approved to get more unused spectrum to market and in use faster by Verizon. The other way are the spectrum auctions that we just talked about. The Obama administration architected this plan to create an auction, the first auction since 2008, of new wireless spectrum that broadcasters used. This is a really, really scarce -- this is a really scarce commodity spectrum, and most of it is held by the government.
KANGSo whenever there is the availability of new spectrum, there's huge demand for it. So there's quite a bit of interest, but getting that out -- that spectrum out and getting auctions in place take a lot of work. And the bureaucracy of Washington really slows it down. So the Obama administration really should be credited for architecting, conceiving this plan, architecting it and hopefully being able to implement quickly.
NNAMDIFour years ago, we were talking a lot about network neutrality during the presidential race then. What has happened in that fight since, and are those issues still a relevant part of the discussion in this year's presidential race?
KANGYes. We still are talking about it. Kojo, it seems like the issue that never really gets resolved is caught up in court right now. Verizon and other companies are appealing a policy that was introduced by the FCC to create net neutrality rules that will -- just as a reminder -- allow consumers to access any website, any service of their choice.
KANGWhat you're seeing now is the markets move forward, and you're seeing examples of how companies are not -- are implementing interesting new ways of prioritizing their own content. You're seeing, for example, some content from Comcast get priority over the Xbox. You're seeing -- these are things that public interest groups say is unfair, that, you know, should be in a violation of the net neutrality rule.
KANGBut, really, the big question right now is whether the FCC has the ability to carry out the rules if they introduce them, which -- already two years ago. Like a lot of policies in Washington, again, it's being caught up in -- it's being caught in legal limbo with appeals in the court system.
KANGAnd it's really unclear as to what -- whether the FCC, given its jurisdiction and its questionable jurisdiction over Internet service companies, what they can do to prevent an Internet service provider, like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, et cetera, from picking and choosing what services get faster access, what Internet services get maybe cheaper access for consumers. So these are all a lot of questions in place. So this still -- this debate still very much is in play.
KANGAnd companies like Netflix and other firms are really arguing that the FCC needs to take a stronger stance on this issue, the net neutrality. And you're going to see -- and you see a lot of Silicon Valley companies that still say that this is a burning issue that they're really concerned about.
NNAMDIOne of the most high-profile legislative battles of recent years, when it comes to tech, was the battle over the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA. That essentially would have punished online companies that host pirated content. The debate pitted the entertainment industry and those looking to protect their content against many Silicon Valley companies. Where are these battles likely to go next?
KANGThis step -- this is an issue that both parties are going to have to confront. No matter who is elected, this is going to be a big issue going forward. Piracy is a huge costly issue. Hollywood says that they have been lobbying -- this is the number one issue for entertainment companies. They've been very active about lobbying to White House and Congress members and regulatory agency to create laws and rules that, as you mentioned, would protect their content.
KANGSilicon Valley company meanwhile say that this is -- these are -- that the rules that have been proposed are overly burdensome for them, that they just -- they could lead to really an infringement of freedom of speech. The interesting thing about this particular issue, the copyright issue, online content and piracy is that it's not really clear -- it's not really clearly a partisan issue.
KANGThere are Democrats and Republicans that are for laws that would stop piracy, like the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act. There are Republicans and Democrats that were against it. So it's not necessarily a partisan issue. It's definitely an issue and a debate that would be front and center with whomever is elected.
NNAMDIWell, Democrats have a lot of allies in Hollywood and in Silicon Valley. Has the political fallout of this SOPA fight had any repercussions for the president or for the Democratic Party?
KANGI think the handling of this issue was a little rough. I don't -- the -- you're certainly right that the White House and Democrats today have friends in Hollywood and friends in Silicon Valley. I don't think that the blame is necessarily on a party per se. Well, the blame really is on the idea that Congress came up with rules that seemed so outdated or seemed so -- it seem to misunderstand how technology is used, at least that's the argument from Silicon Valley companies.
KANGThere's not necessarily so much of a fallout for the Obama administration. What you will see, though, is more intense lobbying on -- from those Silicon Valley and Hollywood companies to both parties to really take up this issue on each of their sides and to come up with new laws from Hollywood or laws that would prevent piracy acts that are too overly cumbersome for Silicon Valley companies.
KANGSo you're going to -- so, you know, they're not -- there is not necessarily blame on the Obama administration, but there is blame on individual members of Congress. There is blame towards Washington, in general, in not getting it right or moving too slow or et cetera, but not a partisan blame.
NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly. But have even Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan given any signs about where their administration might come down on some of these issues, like piracy or Internet freedom?
KANGNo, not specifically on those issues because they are such hot-button issues. But what they have done is definitely push the message that the Obama administration has gone too far in trying to regulate portions of the Internet and portions of the Silicon Valley economy. And so you will see them continue to sort of rattle that to continue to articulate the message that the Obama administration has gone too far that -- and that their administration, if elected, would try to protect the market and protect competition within Silicon Valley, a big bright spot in the economy.
NNAMDICecilia Kang is a reporter for The Washington Post. She joined us by telephone to discuss what is at stake in terms of tech policy issues for the 2012 Election and the future. Cecilia, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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