Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What the Technology Industry Can Expect from a New Democratic Congress

Huffington Post
Jason Pontin
What the Technology Industry Can Expect from a New Democratic Congress

What should technologists--entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, researchers, employees of publicly traded technology companies, and any one who depends on their products and services--expect from a Democratic Congress? If history and ideology is any guide, something from very different from the mixture of neglect and wariness that characterized recent Republican attitudes.

For ideological reasons, Republican legislators and administrations have been reluctant to regulate emerging technologies: they see it as a violation of the principle of economic liberty.

For geographic reasons, Republicans have been closely tied to established, traditional industries, and tend to favor these industries with tax and other benefits: the reddest of American states are dominated by oil, agriculture, and the defense industries. For historical reasons, and perhaps because of a barely suppressed hostility to academic culture, Republicans have been disinclined to fund research whose only end is discovery: for the last six years, funding for basic research has declined, unless researchers could demonstrate that their work would contribute to the War on Terror. For instance, funding for the National Institutes of Health has declined in the past three years.

By contrast, Democrat legislators have seen regulation of new technologies as not only a proper function of government, but as a necessary contribution to technology ventures: they think that in the absence of common, universal standards, technologies fracture into rival, proprietary camps. Democrats are comfortable with the curious ecologies of technology industries, and are eager to be associated with the glamour of startups: in California , Washington State, New York, and Massachusetts , entrepreneurs and venture capitalists regularly contribute to Democratic candidates and freely offer their advice and support.

Lastly, Democrats want to fund long-term research: they understand that new technologies never emerge only because they are pulled into the market by consumer demand, but also because academic and government research has supported basic research for which there was no immediate economic benefit.

In consequence, a Democratic Congress will be friendly towards technology ventures, will fund discovery-based research that will create more, new technologies, but will at the same time be much more ready to regulate emerging technologies.

In coming weeks, I will describe specifically what this will mean for specific technologies. But at the very least, we can anticipate some useful and also some not-so-useful new developments. More stem-cell research will be funded at the state level, and Democratic legislators will challenge the federal ban on funding of new stem cell lines. Net neutrality, which would protect an Internet that did not favor any particular class of applications, and which was defeated six times during the years of Republican rule, will be revisited and might very easily pass.

On the other hand, a Democratic Congress might feel empowered to invest in a particular technology in preference to another, something that is usually better decided by the pull of markets. Worse, Democrats might want to regulate emerging social networks like MySpace in the interests of protecting minors.

But at the least, we will see something we've not seen since for years: a federal government that is not baffled by new technologies and technology ventures, but appreciates their capacity to grow existing markets, to create businesses where none existed before, and to expand human possibilities.