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Here’s how Hillary Clinton plans to keep America the world’s tech leader

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gives a speech. (Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

by Rob Pegoraro

The wait is over to learn about Hillary Clinton’s tech-policy priorities—and it turns out we didn’t really need to wait at all, since most of them match President Obama’s.

The positions the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee set forth in a 6,794-word briefing (“I do plead guilty to being a policy wonk,” Clinton said in a brief speech Tuesday at the Denver campus of the startup hub Galvanize) may amount to “a comprehensive plan to keep America on the cutting edge of technology and innovation,” as she put it.

But this summary of Clinton’s stances on tech issues definitely adds up to a continuation of Obama’s aspirations, with only a few notable departures from that pattern.

Startups FTW?

Clinton’s tech plan, reported in advance by Politico’s Tony Romm, leads off with a list of initiatives to boost the teaching of “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) in schools. Like all federal educational projects, they are subject to the reality that the national government doesn’t run local schools.

The more interesting stuff comes later on, when the paper breaks out ways to get more startups into the economy. “What we’ve been doing isn’t sufficient,” Clinton said Tuesday.

First, she would let startup founders defer their student-loan payments, putting them “into a special status while they get their new ventures off the ground.” The text of the proposal doesn’t limit that to tech founders, which could make it costly to start.

Second, Clinton would try to poach more talent from overseas by letting foreign STEM graduates stay to work here and issuing “start-up visas” to encourage international entrepreneurs to build a business in the U.S. Alas, this would have to be part of comprehensive immigration reform, a tar pit for today’s Republican Party.  

Net neutrality and (somehow?) broadband for everyone

Clinton strongly defends the Federal Communications Commission net-neutrality rules that just won a major victory in court. That puts her in direct opposition to Republicans including, it seems from a 2014 tweet, their presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump.

(Most of Trump’s other tech-policy positions remain undocumented on his site and in his speeches, although we do know he wants to cut terrorists off from the Internet and force Apple to make the iPhone in the United States.)

Clinton would also resume efforts to extend broadband connections to those parts of the U.S. still lacking it—which is another way to say many of the goals in the FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan remain undone.

In Tuesday’s speech, Clinton called broadband’s incomplete availability “an economic impediment” and said we should “do what we did with electricity.” Her goal: Every American household “will have the option of affordable broadband” by 2020.

(That ambition, along with the startup-visa idea, represents an interesting parallel with France’s efforts to make itself a startup destination; the Clinton campaign may not appreciate the comparison.)

But where FDR’s rural-electrification efforts centered on cooperatives, Clinton would let private enterprise lead. A nod to “targeted” municipal-broadband efforts comes after an inventory of ways to boost privately-owned broadband, such as “dig once” policies to ease extending Internet access along public rights-of-way.

Cybersecurity and encryption

Neither the security of our computer networks nor the role of encryption in protecting our data got enough attention in the 2008 and 2012 elections—even as the National Security Agency’s then-unknown surveillance was making a public debate over both inevitable.

Clinton’s proposals there amount to perhaps-unavoidable vagueness. She calls for new federal cybersecurity initiatives, which is about all a president can do when a top-down cybersecurity program like Israel’s won’t fly here.

Clinton supports the proposal of Sen. Mark Warner (D.Va.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R.-Tex.) for a commission to study balancing encryption with public-safety concerns. We should already know its outcome: If you want the strongest possible encryption to keep our information safe, you can’t have a backup key waiting to be exploited by an attacker.

But when you have the likes of Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D.Calif.) and Richard Burr (R.-N.C.) proposing a bill that would not just ban strong crypto but arguably represents an attack on general-purpose computing, yet another study with a foregone conclusion may not seem so bad.

Changes on intellectual property

The most daylight between Clinton and Obama emerges in intellectual property.

Clinton, like Obama, backs efforts to make “patent trolling”—obtaining patents only for the sake of shaking down companies with threatened litigation for allegedly infringing them. But her list of proposed remedies doesn’t include making unsuccessful patent plaintiffs pay a defendant’s legal costs, which is both a key part of Obama-backed patent-reform legislation and something trial lawyers hate.

On the other hand, Clinton goes past Obama in declaring support for copyright reform to liberate “orphan works,” out-of-circulation material for which no copyright owner can be found. The White House backs a trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would block action to address that problem; Clinton once supported the TPP but no longer does.

This plan, however, says nothing about the inevitable debate to extend copyright terms yet again in 2018—without which such long-copyrighted works as Disney’s first Mickey Mouse cartoon will enter the public debate. Should we further reward artists who have long since died with yet another copyright-term extension?

Somebody could have asked Clinton for her views on that after Tuesday’s speech. But the first and only press question she took was about Benghazi, a non-tech subject back in the news after the release Monday of a House Republican report that found no evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton.

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