If nothing else, the 2016 U.S. presidential race has been a radical case study in stark contrasts: When your two main choices are an establishment career politician and a disruptive reality TV star, it’s hard to imagine many American voters still haven’t made up their minds.
But for rank-and-file tech workers who care about policies that directly affect their industry, it’s easy why you might feel passed over this election season, especially now that both parties have officially announced their nominees. Neither Democrat Hillary Clinton nor Republican Donald Trump has made tech a major platform issue on the campaign trail so far, and neither candidate seems to have a consistent or well-defined stance on some of the biggest issues facing the tech sector.
In fact, both nominees have repeatedly demonstrated a distinct lack of technical competence, whether it was Clinton conducting government business on a private email server or Trump suggesting that the way to defeat ISIS is to simply “close up” parts of the Internet. Such stumbles only create more uncertainty for tech pros hoping that the next president will confidently steer the digital economy toward a prosperous future. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on the question of which candidate might execute the most tech-friendly policies.
“I’m going to call it a tossup at the moment—largely unknowable,” said Jeff Eisenach, a tech policy expert and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-business research group in Washington.
Eisenach, who favors Trump, said he thinks the business mogul would be a better choice when it comes to clamping down on regulations that might hinder some of the fastest-growing tech companies. He cites recent battles fought by Uber in Democratic strongholds such as New York and Austin, Texas, where local officials have called for stricter background checks for ride-sharing companies. Assuming a Clinton administration would favor a regulatory environment consistent with much of the Democratic Party, Eisenach said a Clinton victory could spell trouble for companies that depend on a freewheeling, hassle-free gig economy.
“It’s Democrats who are going after the Airbnbs and Ubers of the world and protecting the incumbent hotel and taxi companies,” Eisenach said. “I don’t mean to be casting stones here, but I think that’s an accurate characterization.”
Yet regulation is only part of the story, and Eisenach concedes that Clinton would likely be a more tech-friendly candidate when it comes to free trade. Tech companies operate globally, after all, and Trump has made fierce anti-globalization rhetoric a cornerstone of his campaign.
“On foreign trade issues, you’d probably have to give the nod to Hillary on balance,” Eisenach said. “She seems to be more of a free trader than Trump, who seems to be—if you take him at his word—quite a protectionist.”
The Proof Is in the Policy
It’s not that the candidates have been completely radio silent on tech. Late last month, the Clinton campaign released its “Initiative on Technology & Innovation,” which outlined an agenda for growing the tech economy. The five-part plan includes commitments to STEM education, computer science, and broadband infrastructure, among other things. It has won praise from technology writers like Dan Gillmor, who called it “surprisingly solid” in an article for Slate.
On the other side of the ticket, delegates to the Republican National Convention recently adopted the GOP’s official 2016 party platform, which addresses numerous tech-related policy issues, from net neutrality to data encryption and privacy. Like Clinton’s plan, the GOP platform encourages efforts to expand broadband networks and foster the connectivity needed to allow the tech industry to flourish. It also supports simplifying the tax code and lowering the corporate tax rate, which Republicans say would “create incentives for investment and innovation.”
Trump, too, has espoused such positions as part of his tax plan, but his campaign has yet to put out its own proposal specific to tech policy, and in fact Trump has been publicly hostile toward companies like Apple and tech power players like Jeff Bezos of Amazon. The feeling is mutual for many Silicon Valley insiders, 145 of whom signed an open letter earlier this month saying a Donald Trump presidency would be “a disaster for innovation.”
Some industry trade groups, meanwhile, are also getting impatient with the GOP nominee. “With every election cycle, the growing influence of technology and innovation is further shaping the public policy discourse in our country,” Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, said in a statement last week. “We’re hopeful the [GOP] platform’s inclusion of these issues means we’ll soon see a detailed policy agenda from the Trump-Pence campaign, outlining its specific positions and priorities on technology and innovation.”
For tech workers, and the American economy as a whole, there couldn’t be more at stake this November. A recent industry report from International Data Corporation (IDC) estimated that the global IT market (hardware, software, services, and telecommunications) will hit $3.8 trillion dollars this year—up from $3.7 trillion in 2015; the U.S. market comprises about 28 percent of that. An estimated 5.04 million U.S. workers were employed in core I.T. occupations last year, up 3.1 percent from 2014.
In other words, the next president will have a massive digital ship to steer, and tech policies will be integral to the voyage, with domestic and global implications that will reverberate well into the 21st century. So if you still haven’t made up your mind, no pressure—it’s only the entire future of civilization that hangs in the balance.