Why we need a presidential debate on technology

Here are three reasons. There are many more.

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During an impromptu office gab session before the town hall presidential debate last week, Nextgov Senior Web Producer Ross Gianfortune said there really ought to be a full presidential debate on technology.

We all got a good laugh out of that. Ross and our other Web Producer Caitlin Fairchild have scoured the first three presidential and vice presidential debates for any mention of tech to tweet out under the @nextgov handle. They’ve found only a few offhand comments that are really about increasing trade, competing with China and clearing a path for high-skilled immigrants seeking green cards.

If I take off my cynic’s hat for a moment, though, I realize Ross is right. Technology is everywhere in the president’s responsibilities. Demonstrating that the president has a comprehensive understanding of technology plus a mature view of its capacities, limitations and dangers should be central to the electoral process. Unfortunately, as with so much other heavy policy, technology is largely left out of the political debate.

Here are three reasons why there should be a presidential debate on technology.

1.     Cyberwar is war.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have both gone on at length about when (not whether) a military strike on Iran is justified and accused the other of either softness or unwarranted bellicosity. Yet, Obama effectively launched a military strike on Iran’s nuclear capability three years ago, using the Stuxnet worm, known internally as Olympic Games. (This is according to extensive New York Times reports not verified by the White House.)

If cyber attacks are going to be a central part of our national defense going forward (and it’s clear they are), the president’s understanding of how these attacks work and their possible unintended consequences should be just as deep and well informed as his understanding of conventional military operations. Moreover, he should have a refined philosophy for when such attacks are justified and the precedent U.S. cyber actions set for other nations. We citizens should be privy to that philosophy before we elect him.

2.     Here’s what the Supreme Court will really be dealing with.

Per our quadrennial ritual, Obama and Romney have both been hammered on whether they’d appoint Supreme Court justices who would support or repeal Roe vs. Wade, the nearly 40-year-old decision upholding abortion rights. Obama has insinuated his justices would support the law. Romney has insinuated he’d appoint justices who would repeal it. Other fights about judicial nominees tend to center around social issues such as gay marriage and affirmative action.

Some of the court’s most important and far reaching decisions of the next decade, however, are sure to be focused not on the social squabbles of the past but on the technology of the future. These questions include: whether advertisers, Web browsers and Internet service providers can troll your email and search history for personal information, whether and when law enforcement and debt collectors can access that information and whether law enforcement can use the GPS in your cellphone to track you and gather evidence of wrongdoing.

A president’s understanding of these issues and these technologies is vital to his ability to pick Supreme Court nominees -- not to mention district and appeals court judges -- who will make smart, measured decisions in these areas and others.

3.     Transparency and free speech are different in the Internet age.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has embraced global Internet freedom as a basic human right, and President Obama has made digital transparency the cornerstone of his open government initiative. At the root of both positions is a complex understanding of the way speech, transparency, political action and also political repression have all mutated in the Internet age. 

A president who doesn’t have a strong grasp of -- and well defined positions on -- both the Internet economy and the Internet economy of ideas will be ill equipped to navigate these basic questions in an increasingly Web-first world.

These are just a few reasons there should be a presidential debate on technology. There are many more. Note yours in the comments below.

double screeningFedblog@govexec@nextgov