Ever since the mid-1990s, politicians have grown fond of peppering their speeches with buzzwords like broadband, innovation and technology.
John Kerry, Al Gore and George W. Bush have made fundraising pilgrimages to Silicon Valley to ritually pledge their support for a digital economy.
But do politicos' voting records match their rhetoric? To rate who's best and who's worst on technology topics before the Nov. 7 election, CNET News.com has compiled a voter's guide, grading how representatives in the U.S. Congress have voted over the last decade.
While many of the scored votes centered on Internet policy, others covered computer export restrictions, H-1B visas, free trade, research and development, electronic passports and class action lawsuits. We excluded the hot-button issue of Net neutrality, which has gone only to a recorded floor vote in the House of Representatives so far, because that legislation has generated sufficient division among high-tech companies and users to render it too difficult to pick a clear winner or loser.
The results were surprisingly mixed: In the Senate, Republicans easily bested Democrats by an average of 10 percent. In the House of Representatives, however, Democrats claimed a narrow but visible advantage on technology-related votes.
Many high scorers came from Silicon Valley, the birthplace of a laissez-faire attitude toward Internet taxation and regulation. Also unsurprising was George Allen, a first-term Virginia Republican who won the top score in the Senate, at 78 percent, after becoming chairman of the Senate High Tech Task Force five years ago.
A less obvious winner was Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who represents a rural district along the Gulf Coast that's home to few Web 2.0 start-ups but plenty of cattle ranchers and petrochemical companies. He topped the House rankings with a score of 80 percent, narrowly besting two Northern California Democrats.
"I believe strongly in protecting the Internet," Paul said in an interview. "My colleagues aren't quite as interested in the subject. That, to me, is disappointing."
To create our 2006 News.com scorecard, we selected 20 representative votes in the U.S. House of Representatives and 16 votes in the U.S. Senate. Then we wrote a computer program to download, sort and tabulate approximately 10,400 individual "yeas" or "nays."
To be sure, no political scorecard can satisfy everyone, and all scorecards require making difficult choices. When compiling our votes, we paid close attention to votes on Internet taxes and free trade, which trade associations have long viewed as key factors when evaluating a politician's record. We also included votes on amendments requiring additional reporting to Congress about which electronic surveillance techniques the FBI employs.
Overall, we rewarded politicians who viewed Web sites and computer software as deserving no more regulation than, say, books and magazines--an approach that handed poorer scores to anyone clamoring for new laws. That principle led us to take a dim view of a call for a federal probe of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" and a proposal to target social-networking sites like MySpace.com.
We also awarded points for votes for other longtime favorites of technology companies, such as renewing the research and development tax credit, and curbing class action lawsuits, which lobby group TechNet counted as a priority last year.
Similarly, we gave poor grades to politicians who supported laws that were either duplicative or not effective. Those included the 2003 Can-Spam Act--which zapped tougher state laws and hardly stemmed the flow of junk e-mail--and regulations said to thwart spyware that the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission both say are unnecessary.
Unfortunately, Congress' tendency to shy away from recorded votes means that some important events were not available to score. Bills such as the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, a Web content-labeling measure, and a high-performance computing measure were approved by voice vote without a record of individual politicians' choices.
Only the winners applaud
Winners reached by News.com did not quibble with their scores. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, who came in second in the Senate with a score of 73 percent, sent us a statement reiterating his commitment to limited regulation and Internet taxation. He told us in an e-mail, "It is important to take every opportunity to support the technology industry, both in my home state of Idaho and nationwide."
Maria Cantwell, a former RealNetworks executive running for a second term in Washington state, landed the top spot among Senate Democrats with a score of 67 percent. "Washington's technology sector is vital to our state's economy," campaign spokeswoman Amanda Mahnke said. "Given her background working in this field, Sen. Cantwell is particularly proud to help support northwest innovation in the Senate."
The losers, on the other hand, complained bitterly about the choice of votes. Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, voted in the pro-tech direction in only 2 of 13 votes. That put in him second-to-last place in the Senate, with a score of just 15 percent.
"The methodology behind this scorecard is cuckoo for cocoa puffs," Kerry spokesman David Wade said. "He's been a leader on Net neutrality, helped write the first Internet tax moratorium, and built a coalition of tech leaders and mayors to fight for broadband deployment."
But the Massachusetts Democrat has frequently taken a pro-Internet tax stance. Kerry voted in 1998 to require a supermajority in both the House and the Senate to renew the Internet tax moratorium; and he voted in 2001 against making the moratorium permanent. He also opposed killing an amendment that would encourage online taxation. (Kerry skipped the fourth tax vote, which was held during the 2004 presidential campaign.)
Similarly, a spokeswoman for Democrat Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, the worst-scoring senator, at just 14 percent, claimed that her boss was "not only a friend to the tech industry but also a protector of its future." Akaka scored well on just 2 of 14 votes.
"Sen. Akaka voted in favor of protecting our national security and the American consumer," spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said. "More specifically, a couple of the votes dealt with protection of our children using the Internet, and another was on a provision contained in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror and Tsunami Relief. In these cases, his votes do not reflect on his support for the tech industry."
Akaka voted in 1995 for the Communications Decency Act, opposed not only by civil libertarians but also by Microsoft, America Online, Netcom, Compuserve and Prodigy, which jointly sued to overturn it. (In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law as unconstitutional.) In addition, Akaka voted for a so-called emergency appropriations bill last year that contained the controversial Real ID Act, which creates a nationalized digital ID card under the direction