Obama’s Apple, McCain’s Microsoft: the Politics of Tech
May 21st, 2008
Daniel Eran Dilger
While the United States prepares to elect a new president, candidates on both sides have made interesting comments about their affiliations with tech companies and their perspective on issues facing the tech industry.
Here’s a look at Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain compare, looking first at how each relates to Apple and Microsoft, how corporations are leveraging money and political power to shape public policy to fit their own interests, and followed by a look at each candidate’s stance on issues related to technology.
Obama and Apple.
Barack Obama’s campaign has casually referenced Apple directly or indirectly on a number of occasions. Last year, supporter Phil de Vellis edited Apple’s legendary 1984 Mac ad to portray opponent Hillary Clinton as Big Brother. The Obama campaign did not sanction the video, but it did cast Obama as a challenger that “thinks different.”
In January, Obama appeared on David Letterman to recite a series of comical campaign promises including, “I won’t let Apple release the new and improved iPod the day after you bought the previous model.” Again, Obama was merely referencing the popularity of the iPod rather than endorsing it, but more recently Fake Steve Jobs pointed out that Obama was captured on camera consulting his iPhone (McCain has a Motorola RAZR).
More significantly, Obama said last fall that Apple board member Al Gore could play a key role in his administration if Gore were interested in doing so, and even left the door open to possibly naming Gore as his running mate. Apple itself has remained relatively political neutral, with no campaign donations of record to either Obama or McCain, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As a company, Apple has regularly presented presidential debates in iTunes without any political bias.
While CEO Steve Jobs served as an adviser to Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004, he has made few political donations recently. Last year, Jobs described Gore as an ideal but reluctant candidate, telling Newsweek, “We have dug ourselves into a 20-foot hole, and we need somebody who knows how to build a ladder. Al’s the guy. Like many others, I have tried my best to convince him. So far, no luck.” Jobs hasn’t made similar comments in support Obama.
McCain and Microsoft.
On the other hand, John McCain told Wall Street Journal columnists at last year’s All Things Digital conference that he would select individuals for his cabinet who have “been a success and understands the issue,” specifically naming Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer.
Ballmer’s reputation for throwing chairs, sweaty theatrics on stage, vowing to “kill Google,” and his association of Linux with Communism played into blogger Kara Swisher’s reply, “Steve Ballmer, Secretary of State, right?” which elicited some laughs. McCain added, “How about ambassador to China, that would be good.”
Microsoft’s PR agency declined to comment on the possibility of its CEO leaving to join McCain’s cabinet. Ballmer lacks any public sector experience but the fact that he was the third person McCain’s thought to name as a potential cabinet member shouldn’t be surprising. Microsoft lobbies the government intensely and contributes more to political campaigns and special interests than any other tech company.
Those political contributions have historically been split equally between Democrats and Republicans, although according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Microsoft has been funneling nearly twice as much money to Democratic candidates this year, anticipating a change in the nation’s political direction. Eight years ago, Microsoft’s political affiliations turned decidedly toward Republicans.
Microsoft’s Political Action: Defense.
The company’s interest in politics is relatively new. In 1995, Microsoft had a Washington DC political influence staff in of one and made minimal contributions. In the late 90s however, the government’s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft resulted in a dramatic upswing in the company’s funding and staffing for political causes. By 1999, Microsoft was the fifth largest soft-money donor in the US. Microsoft even founded its own political action committee and hired Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, to lobby George W. Bush on the company’s behalf.
Some of Microsoft’s money goes into mobilizing political astroturf campaigns. According to Corporate Watch UK, Microsoft has “established phoney grass-roots groups, hired people to write opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, pose as ordinary citizens in various Internet chat rooms, sponsored polls to make it appear they have a groundswell of support, and have enlisted their stockholders and business partners to lobby for them.”
Microsoft directly funded the work of the Association for Competetive Technology and its Americans for Technology Leadership group, which invented a sham grass roots campaign that wrote letters to states involved in the antitrust case, asking them to ignore Microsoft’s predatory, anticompetitive monopoly. At least two of the fake letters received by Utah’s Attorney General Mark Shurtleff were found to be addressed by names of dead people.
Minnesota’s Attorney General Mike Hatch called Microsoft’s astroturf campaign “sleazy,” saying, “This is not a company that appears to be bothered by ethical boundaries.”
Microsoft also lobbied to defeat a budget increase for the Justice Department’s antitrust division, hoping the agency would subsequently lack the resources to pursue its case. Once George Bush took office, Microsoft’s antitrust troubles vanished.
Microsoft’s Political Action: Offense.
After successfully buying its way out of any meaningful impacts related to its conviction of illegally monopolizing the market for PC operating systems, Microsoft retooled its political machinery to begin lobbing against the use of free and open source software. Microsoft is the largest backer behind the Initiative for Software Choice, which exists to thwart the use of public funds to develop any software delivered under the open source GPL.
“When public funds are used to support software research and development, the innovations that result from this work should be licensed in ways that take into account both the desirability of broadly sharing those advances as well as the desirability of applying those advances to commercialized products,” the group says. However, it simply isn’t true that innovation is hampered by open source, even with the GPL. Apple and IBM have both successfully used open source software in their commercial products.
Instead of open source software being the threat to technical advancement, Judge Jackson’s findings of fact in the Microsoft monopoly trial noted that “some innovations that would truly benefit consumers never occur for the sole reason that they do not coincide with Microsoft’s self-interest.” Open source proponent Bruce Perens called the Initiative for Software Choice’s policies a deceptive campaign, saying, “Their policies are written to maintain an unfair bias for proprietary software in the market.”
Outside the US, Microsoft has lobbied hard to stop any efforts to promote the use of open source, leveraging its American political clout. John Hamilton, then US Ambassador to Peru, wrote a letter to the president of the Peruvian Congress applying pressure against a bill intended to promote the use of open source software. That followed an intense campaign led by Microsoft to stop the bill. Bill Gates subsequently visited Peru to donate $550,000 to the national Peruvian school system, targeted at the same improvements the open source bill was intended to fund.
Microsoft has similarly thrown cash around to stifle the One Laptop Per Child project’s use of Linux, as well as other efforts by governments to back the use of open source, free software, and open standards.
Microsoft’s Political Action: Intellectual Property Protection.
Bill Gates is spending Microsoft’s vast fortunes in a new style of philanthropy; Gates began transferring Microsoft’s wealth into his private foundation in $5 billion increments as the antitrust verdict loomed. However, while his foundation channels millions to the needy, it is also used to support “education initiatives” that favor Microsoft’s business in emerging markets such as India and in Africa.
“In the case of SchoolNet Namibia,” Corporate Watch reported, “it turned out that the $2000 Office software license donation was conditional on the project spending $9000 to pay for operating system licenses, and Microsoft attempted to get the project to spend a further $22,500 on equipment that would have mainly been useful as part of a Microsoft marketing campaign.”
Microsoft offered a similar sort of “philanthropy” in the wake of hurricane Katrina, offering a free year’s worth of Windows Vista and Office 2007 licenses for businesses, but requiring them to sign up for a three year plan. A local paper noted “For the typical small business of 50 employees and 25 personal computers licensing Microsoft Windows Vista and the Office 2007 suite of programs, the free year can result in savings of as much as $12,050.” Of course, what that really meant was that recovering small businesses would actually have to shell out $24,100 just for software licenses over the next two years, in addition to buying computers capable of running Vista. That isn’t philanthropy, it’s predatory marketing.
Gates’ foundation also staunchly supports genetic modification of food as a solution to global hunger. Monsanto, notorious for its work in patenting GM food supplies, delivered the head of the foundation’s Global Health program, linking Microsoft’s intense support for intellectual property protection to the incredible monetary power of Microsoft’s illegally gained wealth, now being used to set public policy on a global scale, frequently in ways that benefit Microsoft’s interests and without regard for public opinion.
Gates’ view of his own power was evident back in 1993, when a close friend noted, “We were talking about Clinton, who’d just been elected, and Bill was saying blah, blah, blah about whatever the issue was. Then Bill stopped and said, ‘Of course, I have as much power as the president has.’” Microsoft as a company and Ballmer as its CEO share the same arrogance on their relationship to law and society.
Will America Become More Like Apple, or More Like Microsoft?
The presidential elections in the US will determine the influence of money over the public vote. While active in global issues, Apple primarily engineers real products to be sold in open markets. Microsoft services a monopoly that sells intellectual property, a business that requires it to invest heavily in political maneuvering and law evasion.
Whether the future US government will seek to support the needs of legitimate businesses or continue to protect corporate shenanigans that act against the interests of the American people depends greatly upon the vision and policies implemented by the next president.
In issues that involve the tech markets, Obama and McCain see things differently. Last fall, speaking at the Google campus, Obama presented a detailed outline of his stance on tech issues related to net neutrality, encouraging diversity in media ownership, children and freedom of speech, privacy rights, open access to government, modernizing communications infrastructure, and employing technology to solve problems and to increase the country’s competitive edge. Here’s how Obama and McCain differ on those issues.
Obama strongly supports keeping Internet access free of content discrimination by the corporations that supply it to individuals, even linking the idea to freedom of speech. His website states “A key reason the Internet has been such a success is because it is the most open network in history. It needs to stay that way. Barack Obama strongly supports the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet. Users must be free to access content, to use applications, and to attach personal devices.
[…] Because most Americans only have a choice of only one or two broadband carriers, carriers are tempted to impose a toll charge on content and services, discriminating against websites that are unwilling to pay for equal treatment. […] Such a result would threaten innovation […] It would also threaten the equality of speech through which the Internet has begun to transform American political and cultural discourse.”
McCain opposes net neutrality, saying, “When you control the pipe you should be able to get profit from your investment.”
Sen. John McCain – D5 Highlights – All Things D
Media Ownership Diversity
Obama: “the nation’s rules ensuring diversity of media ownership are critical to the public interest. Unfortunately, over the past several years, the Federal Communications Commission has promoted the concept of consolidation over diversity. […] As president, [Obama] will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum. An Obama presidency will promote greater coverage of local issues and better responsiveness by broadcasters to the communities they serve.”
McCain: “I’m all for the government encouraging competition, but I’ve found over time that less government involvement is better. Unless there is a clear-cut, unequivocal restraint of competition, the government should stay out of it. These things will sort themselves out.”
However, McCain also voted against a 2003 joint resolution to prevent FCC approval of larger media conglomerates, so his position isn’t really one of less government involvement and free markets, but rather of encouraging big media consolidation as a matter of public policy.
Children and Freedom of Speech
Obama: “values our First Amendment freedoms and our right to artistic expression and does not view regulation as the answer to these concerns. Instead, an Obama administration will give parents the tools and information they need to control what their children see on television and the Internet in ways fully consistent with the First Amendment. […] Obama supports tough penalties, increased enforcement resources and forensic tools for law enforcement, and collaboration between law enforcement and the private sector to identify and prosecute people who abuse the Internet to try to exploit children.”
McCain: [Would you police the Internet culturally, such as for predators & pornography?] “Absolutely not, but I also want to point out this Internet child pornography is a terrible evil. It’s got to be addressed. And everybody knows the way you stop it is go after the money.”
At the same time, McCain also suggests requiring filtering software for all public school and library computers as a way to keep children from potentially harmful Internet sites. Again, McCain describes an ideal of less government and free markets, but then promotes big government involvement in a broadly targeted and frequently flawed form of censorship.
Obama: “will strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and will harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy […] ensure that powerful databases containing information on Americans that are necessary tools in the fight against terrorism are not misused for other purposes […] will increase the Federal Trade Commission’s enforcement budget and will step up international cooperation to track down cyber-criminals so that U.S. law enforcement can better prevent and punish spam, spyware, telemarketing and phishing intrusions.”
McCain: “When companies provide private records of Americans to the government without proper legal subpoena, warrants, or other legal orders, their heart may be in the right place, but their actions undermine our respect for the law. I am also a strong supporter of protecting the privacy of Americans.”
However, McCain voted against “an amendment to deny AT&T and other telecommunications companies legal immunity if they are proven in court to have violated federal privacy law by opening their networks to the National Security Agency.” One can’t be a strong supporter of protecting privacy while voting to protect the corporate interests of companies who collaborated to support illegal programs to spy on American citizens.
Open Access to Government
Obama: “The Bush Administration has been one of the most secretive, closed administrations in American history. Our nation’s progress has been stifled by a system corrupted by millions of lobbying dollars contributed to political campaigns, the revolving door between government and industry, and privileged access to inside information-all of which have led to policies that favor the few against the public interest. An Obama presidency will use cutting-edge technologies to reverse this dynamic, creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens.
[…] will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.
[…] Lifting the veil from secret deals in Washington with a web site, a search engine, and other web tools that enable citizens easily to track online federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts with government officials.”
McCain: “I find it astonishing that the Supreme Court of Mongolia has an official web site, but the US Supreme Court still does not. It is critical to make as much information as possible available to the public over the Internet.” When asked about his personal use of the Internet, McCain responded, “Not nearly as well as I should. My wife Cindy is a whiz.”
Modernizing Communications Infrastructure and Education
Obama: “will emphasize the importance of technology literacy, ensuring that all public school children are equipped with the necessary science, technology and math skills to succeed in the 21st century economy […] restoring the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials”
McCain: [Should we spend government funds to address the digital divide?] “No, I wouldn’t do it directly, but there’s lots of ways that you can encourage corporations who, in their own self-interest, would want to provide — would receive tax benefits, would receive credit, and many other ways for being involved in the schools and upgrading the quality of the equipment that they have, the quality of the students, and thereby providing a much-needed, well-trained work force.”
So far, most American corporations have demonstrated that their self interest lies with doing business on the cheap using overseas labor, not in investing in education.
Employing Technology to Solve Problems and to Increase the Country’s Competitive Edge
Obama: “America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access. As a country, we have ensured that every American has access to telephone service and electricity, regardless of economic status, and Obama will do likewise for broadband Internet access.
[…] supports doubling federal funding for basic research, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology. This will foster home-grown innovation, help ensure the competitiveness of US technology-based businesses, and ensure that 21st century jobs can and will grow in America
[…] will invest $150 billion over the next ten years to enable American engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs to advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, accelerate the commercialization of plug-in hybrids, promote development of commercial-scale renewable energy, and begin the transition to a new digital electricity grid.
[…] committed to improving the information and communications technology used to support public safety from the antiquated 1970s and 1980s-based technology currently used by agencies around the country to a modern system that will enable us to respond to emergencies and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
[…] make the Research and Development tax credit permanent so that firms can rely on it when making decisions to invest in domestic R&D over multi-year timeframes.
[…] giving the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) the resources to improve patent quality and opening up the patent process to citizen review will reduce the uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation.
[…] will reinvigorate antitrust enforcement, which is how we ensure that capitalism works for consumers.”
McCain: “I have been a leading advocate in the Senate for seeking market-based solutions to increasing broadband penetration. We should place the federal government in the role of stimulator, rather than regulator, of broadband services, remove state and local barriers to broadband deployment, and facilitate deployment of broadband services to rural and underserved communities.”
However, the companies providing broadband services often do so as municipally granted monopolies, making a “market based solution” non-sensical.
What’s Your View?
Will the US be better off with corporations setting public policy based on their own self-interest in “market based solutions”? Or does it make sense for government to act in the role of serving individual citizens first, providing oversight and setting standards and that companies have to comply with?
Incidentally, both Obama and McCain support making the moratorium on Internet taxes permanent, and both recognize that global climate change issues require prompt action, not simply further study.
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