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3 Tech Arguments that the Candidates for President Will Be Debating... Endlessly

·Contributing Editor

Sen. Ted Cruz (Photo: WSJ Live)

With yesterday morning’s speech by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announcing his candidacy for president, the 2016 presidential campaign season has officially started.

Get ready for endless hours of policy banter about what the government should do regarding a handful of longstanding tech policy problems. (Since the government created some of these problems, it’s only fitting.)

Here’s a quick cheat sheet on what you should expect to hear:

Net neutrality

The single most surprising part of Cruz’s speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., was the lack of any mention of net neutrality. Last November, Cruz called the idea “Obamacare for the Internet.”

No part of the Obama administration’s tech agenda has been met with fiercer GOP opposition than its belated move to regulate Internet providers as “common carriers” that must connect their customers with all legal sites and apps without bias for or against any of them.

Expect to see that denounced as an arbitrary intrusion by government into the free market. Or as Cruz told attendees at Lincoln Labs’ Reboot Congress conference in February: “It is the nature of government regulators that if they have power, they will use it.”

My advice: The phrase “regulate the Internet” is not a sign of serious thought about the subject. Net neutrality only regulates Internet providers. Long-standing laws against spam, meanwhile, unquestionably regulate the Internet. Are they another example of the regulatory state crushing innovation?

If, however, a candidate says the word “competition” while discussing this topic, keep paying attention. The net neutrality debate is fundamentally about many Americans’ lack of a choice (competition) in broadband access; a candidate who wants to address that issue by getting more competitors into the market deserves to be listened to.

Surveillance and privacy

Should the National Security Agency be storing the metadata — the numbers, the date and time, the call duration — of every phone call you make? We did not have that conversation before the 2012 election, because we didn’t know about the NSA’s bulk surveillance.

We had better talk about it in this campaign, especially given Congress’s history of inaction. You may hear more talk about this from some of the Republican candidates than their Democratic counterparts.

During an interview at the recent SXSW festival in Austin, likely candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made that part of his sales pitch: “I’m the only candidate who thinks that the NSA program on bulk collection of your phone records should be shut down.”

And as Cruz said in Monday’s speech: “Instead of a government that seizes your emails and your cellphones, imagine a federal government that protected the privacy rights of every American.”

I disagree with Paul and Cruz on many things, but this issue isn’t one of them. I’ll also hear out anybody who goes further to discuss the warrant-free access current law gives police to emails stored online (fortunately, most major providers, Yahoo included, insist on warrants anyway).

On the other hand, if I hear a candidate begin a discussion about our privacy rights by invoking 9/11, I will be suspicious, and you should be too. That awful date should not be a magic spell used to stop rational thought.

Patent reform

I am not so sure that the broken state of the patent system will come up over the coming campaign season. But it should. The ability of a company that has never invented or shipped anything to buy an overly broad patent from somebody else, then use that patent to sue other companies — and even the customers of those other companies — represents an enormous drag not just private enterprise but even on local governments.

And when patent trolls cloak their ownership of these patents through layers of shell companies, this legalized extortion lacks even the basic accountability of traditional protection rackets. With the Mob, at least you have an idea of who you’re paying off.

Assuming that Congress once again fails to act on this, the catchphrase to watch for is “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” That’s the Constitutional mandate we gave to have patents and every other kind of “intellectual property” — and if the current system doesn’t do that, it needs to go into the shop.

Conversely, starting the discussion by talking about the need to “protect the American inventor” has lost sight of that purpose. Making inventors rich is a by-product of patents, not their reason for existence.

The interesting thing about all three of these areas is the lack of a bright line separating Democrat vs. Republican and blue vs. red. The optimistic read on that: There are grounds for thoughtful discussion and productive collaboration. The pessimistic read: Until the leadership of one or both of these parties comes out solidly behind fixing these problems, Washington will remain collectively lost.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.