John Kerry's real tech agenda

CNET News.com's Washington watcher, Declan McCullagh, examines what Kerry was doing and saying about tech before he announced his bid for the White House.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
The Democratic National Convention is over, some $65 million has been spent on a week-long party in Boston, and what do we now know about John Kerry?

The Massachusetts senator barely mentioned technology in his convention speech, except to marvel at ever-shrinking microchips and implore everyone to visit JohnKerry.com. That's not much to work with.

So let's take a look at what Kerry was doing before he announced his bid for the White House--long before the usual phalanx of speech writers and marketing consultants began filtering his public statements into something that resembles the texture and flavor of Velveeta.

A careful review of Kerry's history in the Senate shows that his record on technology is mixed. The Massachusetts Democrat frequently sought to levy intrusive new restrictions on technology businesses that could harm the U.S. economy. He was no friend of privacy and sided with Hollywood over Silicon Valley in the copyright wars.

But his votes in favor of free trade won him a rating of 87 percent in the 106th Congress and 71 percent in the 107th, according to a scorecard compiled by the Information Technology Industry Council. A Wired News technology scorecard in 2000 was less flattering, giving Kerry a mere 50 percent.

Kerry never was a steadfast foe of the tech industry, as were politicians like Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C. But Kerry did veer in that direction a few times.

At one hearing I wrote about in 2002, members of the Senate Commerce committee were trying to figure out what to do with a Hollings bill that would have required copy protection controls to be embedded in all consumer electronic devices. Intel Executive Vice President Leslie Vadasz told the committee that Hollings' idea was a brain-dead approach that ignored Silicon Valley's concerns in favor of those raised by Hollywood lobbyists.

Kerry's advice? "We might need to legislate," he said, ignoring Vadasz's objections.

Internet regulation
Then there's Kerry's support for a second piece of worrisome legislation backed by Hollings that would have imposed stricter data collection requirements on Internet firms than apply to the rest of the U.S. economy.

Tech firms and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sensibly cried foul, predicting the proposal would lead to higher prices and would "hinder the growth of electronic commerce." Kerry also co-sponsored a similarly intrusive bill in 2000; all of these proposals died in the Senate.

Kerry never was a steadfast foe of the tech industry, as were politicians like Sen. Fritz Hollings. But Kerry did veer in that direction a few times.
Kerry made enemies of tech firms by rallying support for a Democratic-supported measure dealing with liability in lawsuits arising from the Y2K bug problem. A competing Republican measure preferred by businesses prevailed, and the Kerry-backed plan was rejected by a vote of 57 to 41.

Telecom, taxes and offshoring
On the other hand, Kerry did stand on principle in 1996 when he and other pro-choice senators announced they would seek to repeal sections of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that made it a crime to distribute information about abortion over the Internet. (Unfortunately, Kerry had voted for the law a month earlier, presumably without reading it first.)

Kerry can properly claim credit for being one of 11 senators to sponsor the Internet Tax Freedom Act as far back as March 1997. It temporarily banned state and local governments from imposing taxes on Internet access, and Kerry now says he'd like to see the moratorium renewed.

Last fall, Kerry introduced legislation requiring call center representatives to divulge their physical location at the beginning of the call. On the campaign trail, he's complained about "Benedict Arnold" CEOs moving jobs overseas, though as a senator he's voted for free trade with China.

In the mid-1990s, when the U.S. eavesdropping establishment was trying to ban encryption products by arguing that drug smugglers, terrorists, child pornographers and other random miscreants could cloak their communications, Kerry leaped into the debate on the wrong side.

Kerry, who served on a key intelligence committee, became something of a go-to guy for the FBI. At a hearing before that committee in 1996, Kerry lobbed softball questions at FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Internet and advances in encryption technology. "Has all of this really left you, in the law enforcement community, kind of grappling to catch up, and frankly behind the curve?" Kerry asked.

Kerry didn't go so far as to say that strong encryption should be outlawed, which Freeh had wanted. But in 1997, the Massachusetts senator did vote for an FBI-friendly bill that would have forced the U.S. technology industry to head in the extremely troublesome direction of key escrow. ("Key escrow" means backdoors in encryption products for the surveillance convenience of police and spy agencies.)

Fortunately, that proposal didn't go anywhere. Professional organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery panned it, saying in a letter to the Senate that "national security and public safety will be weakened by the mandated introduction of constrained or recoverable-key encryption." The groups recommended a competing proposal, called the ProCode bill, which Kerry did not support.

Two years later, Kerry co-sponsored another encryption bill, called the Protect Act. The Protect Act also tried to push key escrow, which it called "recoverable" encryption products, by saying they could be freely exported.

Because it wasn't nearly as intrusive as its 1997 predecessor, it received lukewarm support from some Silicon Valley firms like RSA Data Security. (Then-Sen. John Ashcroft was actually more in favor of privacy than Kerry, saying at the time the Protect Act "is a good start" that "can go farther.")

Patriot Act
Kerry voted for the Patriot Act--and against some proprivacy amendments proposed by Russ Feingold, D-Wis., during the floor debate.

In last week's convention speech, Kerry talked about restoring the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but it's hardly clear what he meant. His campaign says that "John Kerry stands by his vote for the Patriot Act. He even wants to strengthen some aspects of it relating to terrorism, such as improving intelligence information sharing."

At the same time, however, Kerry is a sponsor of a bill in the Senate that would repeal part of the Patriot Act by curbing current police practices relating to surveillance and search warrants.

In 2001, Kerry introduced the Broadband Deployment Act, which gave tax credits for businesses that provided high-speed Internet connections of at least 1.5 megabits per second to "underserved subscribers."

Is that good or bad? The answer depends on your perspective, but might the same tax credit have been better used to encourage the development of nanotechnology, or remote medicine, or Internet security products? The danger in this sort of industrial policy is that a Washington politician, even one who appears to be as intelligent as Kerry, may end up making the wrong call.

To be sure, technology policy won't be as important in the 2004 election as topics like the Iraq war, terrorism threats and the U.S. economy. But the information tech industry does account for 8.2 percent of the U.S. economy, and it's responsible for nearly 30 percent of its growth.