The Republican Candidates' Muted Positions on Technology

Free market principles helped spur the development of both the Internet and the American tech sector. The notion of "permissionless innovation," embraced by the Clinton administration when addressing the rising Internet in the mid-1990s, is the foundational ethos of software engineers, technology entrepreneurs, and Silicon Valley's titans of innovation. Unfortunately, Republicans -- the party most ideally poised to capitalize on this cultural environment -- have failed to win over the Valley's techies. This is something that needs to change if the party ever hopes to catch up with Democrats in the increasingly important technology space.

As I have previously pointed out, Republican presidential contenders have been woefully uninspired in their approaches to technology and innovation policy. This does not boil down to a fundamental disagreement with the tech sector. Rather, the root of the problem is twofold: poor messaging and lackluster outreach have rendered the Republicans second class players in the tech arena.

A recent Los Angeles Times article examined this conundrum. As technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa noted in the piece, the candidates "are clueless about what Silicon Valley needs. ... A lot of them are trying to connect here. None of them is succeeding. No one is even close."

Part of the problem is that Republicans don't speak the language of the Valley, and cannot connect with its residents in an emotional way. As Politico recently reported: "For all the region's libertarian tendencies, it is resolutely socially liberal -- and on some of the most prominent national issues, such as same-sex marriage, Bay Area donors find themselves in total alignment with Clinton."

If the GOP field had a resolutely libertarian candidate, that person could have been poised to rake in support from the many socially conscious -- and free market-minded -- Silicon Valley techies. Unfortunately, Sen. Rand Paul, the one Republican in the race who could be capitalizing on the libertarian moniker, has largely failed to attract big donations and a strong support base from one of the most libertarian regions in the country.

Paul has actually gone so far as to significantly withdraw his campaign's efforts in the Valley and on tech issues as a whole. For someone who had committed to robust outreach efforts on the West Coast in the past, and who claims to run on a libertarian-minded platform, this move is shocking and dismaying.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, when invited to speak at a gathering of major venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs, Paul "couldn't muster 15 minutes out of his day for a Skype chat, so he sent along a three-minute canned video that could have been designed for an audience in Dubuque. It was met with stony silence from the audience."

In the address, the senator did not articulate a clear policy platform on the need for regulatory forbearance regarding emerging technologies. Nor did he offer a path forward on ending the NSA's bulk data collection programs -- after all, the PATRIOT Act was not enacted by executive fiat and can only be reformed through legislation.

While "End NSA Spying" serves as an excellent rallying cry for the civil libertarian vote, how Paul plans to actually do that remains an unanswered question. In fact, Paul offers no substantive policy approach to dealing with technology and civil liberties issues.

While Paul's libertarian rhetoric is a boon to the debates, his failure to illuminate a clear, articulable policy agenda for protecting online civil liberties and reigning in the surveillance apparatus leaves both the public and the tech sector wanting. And failing to address one of the Valley's major concerns only further reinforces his image as a technology neophyte.

And what about the other contenders in the GOP's political thunderdome?

Jeb Bush recently released a broad statement of principles related to cybersecurity, making him the first Republican candidate to do so. Unfortunately, his primary message seems to be a call for "leadership" on these issues, with policy prescriptions to these problems that are either vague or nonexistent.

While a few of his solutions merit consideration (such as advocating for reforming the intelligence and defense communities' "convoluted acquisition process that imposes years of delays and inefficiencies"), the broad swaths of his proposals do little to address the fundamental problems associated with cybersecurity (such as his support for more "public-private partnerships" and "information-sharing" regimes). Additionally, the word encryption -- arguably among the most important, low-cost, high-impact strategies for deterring cyber crime -- is not mentioned anywhere in his proposals.

Marco Rubio devotes an issue space on his website to the topic of net neutrality -- or "Internet Independence" -- but fails to touch on any other technology-related issues. Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, John Kasich, Donald Trump and Chris Christie make no mention of technology in any context on their respective presidential websites.

Technology and innovation policy are quickly becoming a major issues in Washington, but the Republican contenders have been distressingly slow in adopting any position on these issues. That failure is likely to continue driving big donor dollars into the pockets of Democratic contenders, and sets a troubling precedent for future Republicans looking to court Silicon Valley's many conservative- and libertarian-leaning residents.

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