How Hillary Clinton Adopted the Wonkiest Tech Policy Ever

The candidate’s key digital aide explains HRC’s views on tech, the economy, and the government. And why Trump is nowhere on this issue.

Hillary Clinton checks out 3D printers in Waterloo, Iowa. (Bloomberg / Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton wasn’t kidding around when she released her technology policy initiative in June. It was a gloriously wonky Gladstone bag of positions on issues batted around at think tanks, on digital democracy panels, and in Susan Crawford’s Backchannel columns—almost a K-Tel Records version of tech policy’s greatest hits. It was all there. Yes to high-speed access, international internet governance, immigration reform, orphan works, online privacy, gig economy benefits, diversified workforce, STEM education, cybersecurity, net neutrality, and the United States Digital Service. No to Balkanization of the internet, the digital divide, and venue shopping in patent litigation. All in all, it was a nakedly unashamed dive into the conceptual Venn diagram overlap of Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.

Generally, the policy favored the progressive side of the tech debates, embracing innovation even if it disrupts. (Telling detail: it inveighed against laws requiring that cars be sold through auto dealerships. So where’s Elon’s endorsement?) The Valley crowd loved it, and the usually-finicky tech policy elite were stunned into saying that it was surprisingly—almost shockingly—clueful.

Leading the team drawing the document was Sara Solow, the candidate’s domestic policy advisor. She agreed to provide us with some context on Hillary Clinton’s tech policy — and also wound up venting about the opponent’s apparent lack of a policy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Steven Levy: How did you produce such a detailed and wonky tech policy?

Sara Solow: Last June or July (2015), we pulled together a working group with a whole bunch of outside experts and outside advisors, and a range of stakeholders, to start helping us collect policy proposals and thoughts about technology, innovation, and intellectual property. We had regular monthly meetings or phone calls, and I personally developed relationships with 30 outside experts, at least. It was a very collaborative, comprehensive process.

We had intended to roll out a tech and innovation plan numerous times throughout the year — we thought maybe in January — but as we got more and more into the weeds, it became clear to us that we needed to really take our time and have a full comprehensive plan, rather than go out of the gate with just something on broadband or just something on digital security, and whatnot.

One overarching theme was that there was a natural amount of skepticism or anxiety around technological innovation, and whether it really is going to be a good thing for the middle class and for middle-skilled jobs in this country. There are reports and data that show displacement of workers as certain industries and jobs or job tasks become more automated. So how do we wrap our heads around this, and how do we harness the forces of technology and innovation so that it actually is something that produces widely-shared economic growth?

A lot of our conclusions came back to human capital. In order to make tech and innovation really work for the economy, we have got to make the right investments and commitments in our own people so that they have the skills to make the best use of the power of technology. That’s not something that you can just figure out overnight.

Can you tell me who was in the working group?

No, because it is confidential. But there have been public reports that Alec Ross [who worked with Clinton in the State Department] and Jennifer Pahlka [the Code for America founder who was an Obama presidential fellow] were the coordinators or the chairs of it, and then that Ben Scott [also from State] was a coordinator. Karen Kornbluh [who worked on Obama’s 2012 tech policy] was very involved. Those are among the people that were in my kitchen cabinet that I worked with all the time. [Politico claims to have identified more of the group, though Solow disputes its accuracy.]

What was Secretary Clinton’s involvement in this policy?

It was a collaborative process with her, just like it is producing any policy document. She said to us, “How can we make sure that we are harnessing the forces of tech and innovation for widely-shared growth in the economy?” Some of the stuff that she’s been saying in her stump recently is about the homework gap — teachers are assigning homework that requires being able to get online, and there are students who don’t have internet access at home. She’s a policy wonk; she was reading articles and reports and talking to folks about it, because she’s so focused on kids.

Overall I found the policy very optimistic and reflective of the views of what you might call the progressive tech agenda crowd. It’s not something that those defending the old guard would embrace.

Sara Solow.

Yeah. We believe the ability to have high-speed, good, reliable internet should be high up on the list of any policy maker. We were working on a rural plan — and also with urban communities, when we’re talking about how to try to incentivize more small business development in underserved markets. This also goes back to Secretary Clinton’s time as a senator in New York, where she introduced bills year after year in the Senate trying to deliver broadband for her constituents. For small businesses, for entrepreneurs, for students, for individuals that are increasingly working as freelancers and members of the freelance economy or sharing economy—that the ability to get online, sell your skills, sell your product, connect with other work opportunities, and connect with other markets, is undeniably important.

Would a President Clinton set a date by which all Americans will have access to high-speed internet?

Yes. We’ve said by 2020 we think that every household in the country should have high-speed connectivity to the internet. Now, we haven’t said that that necessarily means a fiber optic cable running under the earth to their house, because that’s not a realistic suggestion for every single last household in the country. We want to look at a range of technologies.

Getting people internet access should be a bipartisan thing, yet somehow it has been thwarted in Congress. How would Ms. Clinton pass her agenda?

You’re 100 percent right, it should be a bipartisan issue. One of our first bites of the apple is going to be in the jobs and infrastructure bill that we said we’re going to introduce in the first 100 days, and broadband and 5G wireless is a component of that plan. So if we get money out the door, we can progress toward that 2020 goal of hooking up every household.

You say you’re going to convene a commission to study encryption. Obviously as a former secretary of state, Ms. Clinton is familiar with these issues. Doesn’t she already know where she stands on whether Apple should have to give the FBI its information? Why kick that can down the road?

This is one of the most complex issues that we’ve grappled with over the course of the campaign, and we’ve found that the proposal to create a commission where we can get the best minds from the tech sector and from the government working together on a range of solutions is the most appropriate place for us to be at this juncture.

Didn’t President Obama already have a commission? What was wrong with that commission?

Not of the type our proposal suggests, where there is not just a one-off meeting either in Washington, D.C. or in Silicon Valley, but a considered process with a whole range of solutions and in which technical experts are briefing law enforcement experts.

The policy strongly endorses the open internet. Some politicians, notably Ted Cruz, have been campaigning against international internet governance, saying the US is giving away the internet. How do you avoid this oversimplification?

Well, the reality is the United States never owned the internet, and so we have committed to the transition to the multi-stakeholder approach of internet governance that has been set in motion for a very long time. We think that Ted Cruz and people [like him] are really just spreading misinformation. The transition to the multi-stakeholder governance approach is what will protect the open internet [and impede] the Balkanization of the internet, or the various governments around the world trying to assert control over the internet in their own countries. Secretary Clinton’s own personal record of fighting for internet freedom around the world suggests that this is the best and most thoughtful way forward.

You support the United States Digital Service. How will that evolve in a Clinton administration?

We definitely think making the Digital Service permanent and a priority for federal agencies is important, so we have to keep that. We want to transform the top 25 citizen-facing government services, and tell the USDS or the various teams to come up with a plan for upgrading, and [to create] performance and customer service metrics. We think the way that Yelp works would be an interesting model to adopt.

Do you have a sense at all about where your plan differentiates from what your opponent would do in terms of technology policy? Is there anything that you found that you can contrast against?

Very, very little. He has said absolutely nothing about computer science education, which we think is so central to the educational mission of the next administration.

Maybe Trump University can offer courses!

I hope not. He’s said very, very little about how tech should be a force for growth for small businesses or for underserved communities, very little about commitments to broadband. He talks in the abstract about American infrastructure being in decline, but gives no real path forward. All I’ve been able to find are empty rhetorical statements and no real policy specifics. Nothing about cross-border data flows, except for maybe encouraging Russia to hack US computer systems. Maybe it’s because Donald Trump has written off Silicon Valley or the tech community. Maybe there are too many immigrants that have started companies. I don’t know what it is, but it has not been a priority or even something he has addressed in any serious capacity in his campaign, from what I can tell.

NOTE: After this conversation, Backchannel contacted the Trump campaign to see if it had anything to say about the GOP candidate’s technology policy. Spokesperson Hope Hicks’ complete response was, “We will pass! Thanks.”