Why does Sen. Joe Biden hate the Internet?

August 26, 2008

That didn’t take long.

Declan McCullagh at CNET takes a look at Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee-to-be Joe Biden’s track record on IT issues and finds a great deal lacking.

Historically speaking, Biden favors an extremist vision of intellectual property and anti-privacy enforcement.

McCullagh sums it up in the story’s lede:

By choosing Joe Biden as their vice presidential candidate, the Democrats have selected a politician with a mixed record on technology who has spent most of his Senate career allied with the FBI and copyright holders, who ranks toward the bottom of CNET’s Technology Voters’ Guide, and whose anti-privacy legislation was actually responsible for the creation of PGP.

Yikes.

In the rest of the article, McCullagh focuses on the areas of copyright, online privacy, peer-to-peer networks, and net neutrality, showing how Biden has built a reputation as one of the Democratic Senators most hostile to the the Open Internet and commons-based business models in the music, film, and IT industry. The summary version: Biden is as anti-Internet and anti-innovation as anyone on the left of the aisle.

What this means for an Obama campaign that has promised to implement a progressive information and technology policy agenda predicated on net neutrality and the growth of innovative industries is anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, what I can’t figure out is why Biden does it.

To judge from McCullagh’s claims, Biden’s positions stem from his close ties to the Intelligence community and the FBI. The Delaware Senator has staked his career on being a credible Democratic hawk. He has backed a corresponding “tough on crime” approach across the board.

Funny thing is, his funding base doesn’t seem to reflect this historical favoritism towards the cultural content industry, anti-privacy interests, and other IP-enforcement extremist groups.

According to the campaign finance data maintained by OpenSecrets, Biden’s strongest bases of support have been lawyers, real estate developers, and investment firms based in Delaware, New York, and Philadelphia.

This makes perfect sense given his positions on the powerful Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees (he is currently chair of the latter), both of which oversee massive budget allocations and key legislative decisions on trade, investment, and legal regulation. It also corresponds to Delaware’s historic role as a tax haven for numerous corporations.

To give you a better idea, here’s a graph from OpenSecrets that breaks down Biden’s funding by industry:

Sen. Joseph Biden - Top Donations by Industry (from www.opensecrets.org)

Sen. Joseph Biden - Top Donations by Industry (www.opensecrets.org)

Note how the communications/electronics category is woefully low in comparison to the FIRE and Lawyer/Lobbyist categories. Biden may be a staunch DMCA supporter, but he’s no Howard Berman by any stretch of the imagination.

Instead, Biden’s pattern of knee-jerk support for anti-privacy and anti-Internet regulation suggests a deep-seated misunderstanding of digital technologies and the potential of information networks.

Consistent with McCullagh’s claims, Biden has historically taken advantage of broader fears about terrorism and deviance as justifications for gutting civil liberties as well as freedoms of speech, movement, and organization.

Maybe this is the kind of reputation the Obama campaign believes it needs to appear more hardened and mainstream in the face Barack’s obvious lack of support from foreign affairs and military interests. It also doesn’t hurt that Biden has historically enjoyed such strong backing from elite corporate lawyers, investors, and the FIRE sector – representing a wide swath of the country’s financial elite.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to avoid the writing on the wall following the Biden announcement and Obama’s recent vote in favor of retroactive community for illegal spying and privacy violations by telecommunications firms. We may still be a long way from a U.S. president that is willing to take a progressive stance on the Open Net.

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