Politics Warms Up Tech Policy Summit

Policy wonks go west and find sharp criticism of Washington's ways from the tech community.

LOS ANGELES-The scene was all Hollywood but the talk was pure Washington as the Tech Policy Summit-the annual confab of Capitol Hill policy wonks and the Silicon Valley-opened March 26. It didn't take long for this year's elections to warm up the crowd.

Meeting in the heart of a Hooray for Hollywood tourist center at the Hollywood and Highland complex, the summit drew early blood with a discussion on what makes a tech president. Most panelists quickly disqualified President Bush at a late morning session.

Alec Ross, executive vice president of external affairs at One Economy, tossed some political red meat to the audience by saying, "A tremendous amount of ground [in global tech competition] has been lost over the last eight years."

Relating a tale of his company's efforts to bridge the digital divide, Ross said he pitched Washington on the idea of broadband in public housing, but was told high-speed Internet connections are considered entertainment and not essential.

Click here for 10 things the next president should do about IT.

"It's really a simple fix. All the president has to do is to sign an order," Ross said. "But there was literally no room for this simple idea at the White House." Although Ross is backing Sen. Barack Obama in this year's presidential election, he said, "All of the remaining candidates understand and 'get it' more than the current president."

Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and a co-founder of the popular site techPresident, also was not shy about where he thinks the U.S. tech sector has gone under President Bush: "We need a complete reboot of our entire system of governance or we're going to be like farmers and ranchers who looked at the steam engine and said it would be good for hauling horses to the fields."

The Bush bashing continued until Tony Perkins, the founder and editor of AlwaysOn, asked, "Didn't broadband penetration go up over the last eight years?" Perkins painted his fellow panelists as cynics, noting that Bush supports opening U.S. immigration policy to include more H-1B visas, a pet cause of Silicon Valley.

"[Sen. John] McCain and Bush were lambasted for pursuing an open immigration policy," said Perkins, who also founded Red Herring magazine and co-founded the Valley's influential Churchill Club. "Job creation is the key, and the best president for tech will get out of the way of a free, unencumbered and unregulated market."

Perkins also took Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton to task for criticizing free trade agreements that the Silicon Valley strongly supports. "What you don't want to do is knock down free trade agreements. Now we have Obama and Hillary going around the country showing how tough they'd be on NAFTA."

Perkins added, "Whoever is president needs to understand how jobs are created. They have to be committed to a flat, even playing field."

For all the inflammatory debate, though, former Congressman Rick White noted, "Tech policy drives zero votes. The president and any administration are going to focus on what people care about."

After the session, White told eWEEK he sometimes fears that it is not a matter of Washington getting tech, but, instead, an issue of tech getting Washington. For instance, he said, "Tech policy is never going to drive immigration policy."