When President Bush delivers his final State of the Union speech Jan. 28, don’t expect to hear much, if any, discussion of technology.
In his previous seven addresses to the nation-adding up to almost 34,000 words-the president has never uttered the words “Internet,” “broadband” or “digital.” Wireless? Not a word. Spectrum? Not a single mention. Network neutrality? Forget it.
Bush’s dozen or so references to “technology” have been used only in the broadest possible sense, as in Bush’s 2007 State of the Union comment, “We need to reduce costs and medical errors with better information technology.”
None of this is surprising to Adam Thierer, director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom and a senior fellow at Washington’s Progress & Freedom Foundation.
When it comes to tech issues, “This has been an administration that has been largely missing in action,” Thierer told eWEEK. “It obsesses more about analog-era issues, steel over silicon, even as the service and technology sectors are the driving factors in the new economy.
“The president, of course, knows the importance of technology, if not the English language. In a 2004 campaign speech, he famously proclaimed, ‘We ought to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007, and then we ought to make sure as soon as possible thereafter, consumers have got plenty of choices when it comes to purchasing the broadband carrier.'”
To date, universal broadband access for Americans is still a distant goal, particularly in rural areas, about which former Montana U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns liked to say, “It’s a long way between telephone poles out here.”
Certainly, no consumer has purchased a broadband carrier, although the Bush administration has approved enough mergers to concentrate broadband access almost entirely in the hands of a few powerful telecommunications carriers and cable companies.
In the meantime, the United States continues to fall behind the rest of the industrialized world in broadband penetration rates.
To be fair, Thierer noted, there’s nothing wrong with setting lofty, albeit unrealistic, goals. “Network economics are an extremely tricky thing. The fact is, it takes time,” he said.
And, Thierer is quick to point out, there’s plenty of blame to spread around in Washington for the current muddled state of technology policy on Capitol Hill. Even though Bush enjoyed the support of a Republican-controlled Congress for the first six years of his administration for his free-market, deregulatory, hands-off approach to technology, Democrats have barely moved the tech agenda forward in their first year controlling both the House and the Senate.
“It’s hard to find clear and principled positions [on either side of the aisle],” Thierer said. “There seems to be a tendency to curry favor with constituents rather than [pursue legislation] that can pass constitutional muster.”
Thierer said he finds that tendency particularly prevalent in the Bush administration’s social agenda. With generous support from Democrats, Bush has aggressively pursued a policy of “cleaning up” the Internet, where, in direct contrast to the president’s hands-off economic philosophy, he supports direct government action.
Bush’s Department of Justice has relentlessly tracked down and prosecuted Web gambling operations, particularly after Congress approved legislation designed to keep Americans from placing online wagers, although it remains legal to buy lottery tickets and to place a bet on horse races online.
In what Thierer calls a “social and moral war” that began with online child pornography, the Bush administration has expanded that effort to all Web pornography, raising free speech and privacy issues.
“A lot of time and energy has been expended on becoming a national nanny,” Thierer said. While that approach is problematic, Thierer remains most concerned about the Bush administration’s digital economic policies, he said: “The president does not seem to pay much attention to new economy issues. He takes a pass on a lot of those issues.”