The Elephant In The Room: The GOP’s Tech Dilemma

Nathan Leamer Policy Analyst, R Street Institute
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Fifteen months ahead of the presidential election, a number of the 17 Republicans vying for their party’s nomination have invested considerable energy courting Silicon Valley. These candidates are boldly attempting to articulate a coherent understanding of the issues facing the technology industry.

This makes sense: what’s been seen traditionally as a Democratic stronghold ought to be ripe for the Republican taking. After all, it’s easy to frame the success of the Internet as an excellent manifestation of the conservative ideology that free markets and limited regulation spur economic growth and upward mobility.

Yet none of the Republican candidates has demonstrated a coherent technology-policy agenda. Despite all the overtures, the latest quarter’s financial filings revealedmost tech industry bigwigs are throwing cash at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.”

This isn’t because Hillary Clinton has a better tech agenda or better tech instincts than Republicans. Her comparative fundraising success is likely attributable primarily to the tech community’s own instinct that it’s better to trust the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

It’s clear that Republicans want to win Silicon Valley’s affection, whether it’s former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hailing an Uber; Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., hanging out at SXSW; or Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., suggesting he would be “a new president for a new age.” Despite these photo-ops, careful evaluation of the candidates’ positions on issues important to startups, tech hubs, innovators and Internet giants show the Republican field is conspicuously out of step.


For some of the Republican candidates, the primary issue is an unwillingness to challenge the surveillance state. This may be due in part to a desire to preserve the party’s brand as a home for security hawks and in part to avoid appearing soft on Edward Snowden. Whatever one thinks of Snowden personally, there’s no dispute that his disclosures about the National Security Agency set off a national debate about the balance of security and privacy. These very real privacy concerns have resulted in significant economic fallout for the tech sector, as consumers and the international community lose confidence about the ability of U.S. firms to secure their data.

This summer, after much deliberation, the House and Senate passed the USA FREEDOM Act.  Swiftly signed into law by President Barack Obama, the law ends the bulk collection of phone metadata. This reform did not address all surveillance concerns, but it did represent a substantial and balanced approach to curtail the abusive spying undertaken by the government.

While the tech community universally praised the legislation, the GOP’s presidential candidates for the most part opposed efforts to rein in the NSA. Ignoring Silicon Valley, Sen. Rubio called for a “permanent extension” of the PATRIOT Act and voted against the reform. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker echoed Rubio, saying the nation “would be much better off” without the USA FREEDOM Act. Not to be outdone, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie famously defended the NSA, explaining that critics of mass spying should talk to families of the 9/11 victims.

Only two of the GOP candidates aligned with the tech community against the unwarranted mass surveillance of Americans. Sen. Paul didn’t vote for final passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, because he didn’t think it went far enough, but he did rally privacy supporters with his efforts on the Senate floor that helped bring about reform. Fellow privacy hawk Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, showed solidarity with Paul during his filibuster, even though he ultimately voted in favor of the USA FREEDOM Act.


Last year, the conservative-leaning Young Guns Network published a paper titled “Room to Grow,” designed to serve as a conservative blueprint for an “innovative agenda that empowers individuals by increasing competition and replacing failed government policies.” In the report, American Enterprise Institute scholar James Pethokoukis correctly identified a problem hindering so many in the tech community. In his essay, “Regulatory and financial reforms to combat cronyism and modernize our economy” Pethokoukis explained: “over the years, copyright and patent law has evolved into cronyist protection of the revenue streams of powerful incumbent companies—a type of regulation that hampers innovation and entrepreneurship.”

This resonates as true in tech hubs across the country where many entrepreneurs are struggling to fight patent trolls as they develop new software and services. These “trolls” are companies that take advantage of the patent system to amass huge troves of weak and broad patents and make money by threatening lawsuits against legitimate new startups and entrepreneurs. Not only are patent trolls costing the economy $29 Billion a year, but the struggle against meritless patent litigation was even satirized front-and-center in the HBO hit comedy Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately, it appears the Republican candidates missed those episodes. For example, when pressed about his stance on patent reform in an interview with Tech Dirt, Rand Paul passed quickly over the issue, leading the author to conclude that fighting patent trolls “doesn’t appear to be of serious interest leading to Paul or his ilk.”

Of the other candidates, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has been the most vocal on the topic. Unfortunately, her stance has been to oppose patent reform. Fiorina attacked a Silicon Valley-supported legislation to rein in patent trolls, explaining, “these supposed reforms pose a dire threat to our notion of property rights.” The current reform effort – Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s INNOVATION Act – actually wouldn’t change substantive patent-law rights, but it would curb frivolous litigation costs and abuses.

Net Neutrality

As access to the Internet has increased dramatically, there has been serious interest and debate over its future, quite often centered on the question of net neutrality. While the conversation in D.C. largely has been partisan, in Silicon Valley, there long has been vibrant, nuanced debate, both in favor of and in opposition to net-neutrality proposals.

Unfortunately, Republican candidates largely have been tone deaf on net neutrality. Rational people can disagree on the issue, but it isn’t helpful for branding when Ted Cruz calls net neutrality the “Obamacare of the Internet” or Jeb Bush says it the “craziest idea I’ve ever heard.” (There are some other pretty crazy ideas out there.)

If Republicans are serious about relating to the interests of Silicon Valley, they must learn to speak intelligently about the issues that matter to tech interests.

On a few subjects, they do. On the national level, Republicans have embraced the benefits of the sharing economy, notably in support of car-sharing services like Uber, although at the local level, Republicans and Democrats have been split fairly evenly in their support for and opposition to these innovations.

But the sharing economy is only one aspect of the tech revolution. Republicans should extend their celebration of free-market solutions into a comprehensive tech agenda. Some of these ideas were laid out by technology analyst Derek Khanna, who has written that conservatives should “create forward-leaning legislative policies to foster innovation, not uncertainty.”

The candidates would also do well to learn from their counterparts in Congress, who have deliberated on a host of issues of concern to the tech industry. While there are still areas where the stance of congressional Republicans (particularly on immigration) is unpopular in the Valley, many Republicans are working with their Democratic counterparts to make policy changes that will enhance the tech sector.

Most notable among these are Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who have been on the front lines on surveillance reform, patent policy and rebalancing copyright. This trio hasn’t hesitated to seek support for forward-thinking solutions, both within their caucus and across the aisle.

In the absence of strongly articulated pro-tech stances in the Democratic presidential field, 2016 has the potential to be a defining election for the Republican Party on the tech-policy front. But for GOP top-of-the-ticket candidates to win over new audiences and support, there must be a concerted effort to showcase a comprehensive agenda that will spur economic growth. There’s still time for Republicans to seize these issues, but the time is shorter than GOP leaders may like to think. We can only hope that, over the next year, more of the leading Republican candidates will step up to the challenge and frame a visionary path forward.

Nathan Leamer is outreach manager and senior policy analyst for the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank.