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In '08 presidential race, who's the most tech-friendly?

If you're voting on Super Tuesday, you might want to check out our summary of the presidential candidates' positions on technology topics ranging from illegal wiretapping to Net neutrality.

Who would be the most tech-friendly president?

The short answer: it depends. Do you like the idea of Net neutrality so much that you'd hand the Federal Communications Commission the authority to levy open-ended Internet regulations? Do you support pro-fair use changes to copyright law, which many programmers and computer scientists do--but which practically all software and video game companies oppose?

To help clear things up for our readers living in the 24 states that are holding primaries or caucuses on Tuesday, we've assembled a sketch of the leading contenders' technology-related positions in the following chart.

And to stave off the usual objections in advance, we know that the economy, the occupation of Iraq, and so on are more pressing topics than these. We know that there are many methods of evaluating candidates. But this chart provides a useful glimpse of a politician's core beliefs, including what the role of the federal government should be, and those are important beyond what we write about here at

Net neutrality legislation Telecom spying immunity DMCA fair use reform Supports Real ID Act ISP data retention required Permanent Net-tax ban Increased H1-B visas
Clinton Strong yes No Ducked question Maybe Ducked question Ducked question Probably yes
Huckabee Maybe* Ducked question Ducked question Ducked question Ducked question Probably not* Ducked question
McCain No Probably yes Ducked question Strong yes Ducked question Yes Strong yes
Obama Strong yes No Probably yes No No Yes Probably yes
Paul No Strong no Probably yes Strong no No Yes Yes
Romney Ducked question Ducked question Ducked question Yes* Ducked question Yes* Yes*

The source for this chart is the 2008 Voters' Guide we published last month. To create it, we contacted all the leading candidates and reproduced their replies verbatim. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, by the way, refused to respond even though we gave them more than a month, so their positions are gleaned where possible from other news coverage. Because those are our interpretations of their positions, they're marked with an asterisk.

Anyway, the first thing you probably noticed in the chart is that even candidates who answered some questions ducked others, which is deeply disappointing. Any would-be president should be able to answer without equivocation. Only Barack Obama and Ron Paul gave us forthright replies, and they deserve credit for their directness.

We asked Hillary Clinton whether she supported a permanent ban on Internet taxes, but she evaded the question. (Clinton said only that she supported a temporary moratorium, which is an answer to a different question.) We asked John McCain whether he supported forcing Internet service providers to retain data on their users' activities. He replied only that he wants to find the "best path forward"--which might be forgivable obfuscation from a neophyte, but not from the former chairman of the Senate committee overseeing this area of Internet law.

Even with the missing answers, these positions seem to reflect the candidates' broader philosophies. Obama appears more liberal than Clinton, flatly opposing the Real ID Act while she's less forceful, saying it needs to be reviewed. Both engage in a careful lapse in memory: unlike Paul, Clinton and Obama voted for Real ID as part of a broader "Global War on Terror" spending bill three years ago before turning around and criticizing it.

On the Republican side, Paul is definitely libertarian-leaning: He doesn't want the government involved in Internet taxation or regulation -- even if it's supposedly done to protect children. If something is pro-law enforcement, like Real ID or retroactive immunity for telephone companies, McCain's a fan.

In Romney's case, his major Internet platform seems to be pledging to "fight the modern plague of Internet pornography." Huckabee seems to be sympathetic to Internet taxes (his counter-argument is here). He also appears to endorse Net neutrality on "fairness" grounds -- though his answer was vague -- and has criticized warrantless wiretapping.

The questions we asked the candidates that are summarized in the chart's columns are these:

Q: Congress has considered Net neutrality legislation, but it never became law. Do you support the legislation that was re-introduced in 2007 (S 215), which gives the FCC the power to punish "discriminatory" conduct by broadband providers?

Q: Telecommunications companies such as AT&T have been accused in court of opening their networks to the government in violation of federal privacy law. Do you support giving them retroactive immunity for any illicit cooperation with intelligence agencies or law enforcement, which was proposed by the Senate Intelligence Committee this fall (S 2248)?

Q: The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act's section restricting the "circumvention" of copy protection measures is supported by many copyright holders but has been criticized by some technologists as hindering innovation. Would you support changing the DMCA to permit Americans to make a single backup copy of a DVD, Blu-ray Disc DVD, HD DVD, or video game disc they have legally purchased?

Q: The Department of Homeland Security has proposed extensive Real ID requirements restricting which state ID cards can be accepted at federal buildings and airports. Do you support those regulations as written, would you want to repeal Real ID, or would you prefer something in between?

Q: The Bush administration has supported legally requiring Internet service providers, and perhaps search engines and social-networking Web sites as well, to keep logs on who their users are and what they do. Do you support federal legislation, such as HR 837, to mandate data retention?

Q: Do you support enacting federal laws providing for a permanent moratorium on Internet access taxes?

Q: Do you support enacting federal laws providing for an increase in the current limits on H-1B visas?

It's true that the questions we asked the candidates were limited; we didn't include some that we could have (and maybe, in retrospect, should have) on topics like Internet service providers detecting copyrighted material, the problems of doing business in China, and so on. But even with their limitations, we hope our 2008 Voters' Guide and the above chart will help you out if you're voting on Tuesday--assuming, that is, that you bother voting at all.