Yes, the right is behind on campaign tech. But it’s seizing the mantle on tech policy.

January 27

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has been on a tech policy tear lately, along with other key Republicans. Here he is in 2011 speaking at a rally outside the Capitol. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When it comes to technology, Republicans are often said to lag behind Democrats. Conservatives are still learning to utilize voter data, a key liberal weapon in the last presidential race, to their advantage. Some GOP operatives say privately that the party remains dominated by a consultant class that's less than adept with the latest political technology.

Yet even if they aren't quite as technically nimble on the campaign trail as their liberal counterparts, Republicans are starting to get in front of tech-related issues in an important way. It may not flip the outcome of any races anytime soon, but a growing Republican focus on tech may lead to a broader identity shift for the GOP that helps it draw in more money, more natural constituencies — and perhaps more victories.

On Friday, the Republican National Committee took a big step in that direction with a vote rejecting the NSA's bulk phone records collection. With the resolution, which calls the program "an intrusion on basic human rights," conservatives reversed a decade-long tradition (at least) of defending the spy agency from criticism. Not a single committee member opposed the vote, as MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin pointed out. That's remarkable when, as recently as last summer, the measure failed to get enough support for a vote at all.

The resolution's passage officially puts the party on the right side of the surveillance issue for civil libertarians who accuse the NSA of an unconstitutional privacy violation. It also draws a sharper contrast with Democrats who, whether out of ideology or political necessity, find it necessary to defend the program. Some, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have rushed to the NSA's defense, claiming that greater surveillance could have prevented 9/11. Others, such as President Obama, have proposed changes to the program while still maintaining that it is a valuable tool.

It'd be wrong to say either party is monolithically united on surveillance. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) remain big-time NSA critics on the left, while Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) has been an ardent agency proponent on the right. Still, there's no denying that when overreach occurs, the opposition party has the most to gain. This is true no matter who's in the White House. Liberal voters are currently more likely to endorse the NSA's activities compared to Republicans, but their positions were flipped 10 years ago when news broke of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program under President Bush.

The NSA program is just one example of the way Republicans are attempting to seize the technology mantle. Another is the effort to rewrite the law concerning copyright and, in particular, cellphone unlocking. Last year, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would make it legal once again for consumers to unlock their phones without the approval of their wireless carrier. Among the issue's key advocates is Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the committee chair, and Derek Khanna, a former staffer on the Republican Study Committee. Goodlatte is also working on a wider overhaul of copyright law.

Republicans are also behind a burgeoning push in the House to update the Communications Act, the 1996 law that governs much of what happens in the telecom and media space. Leading the charge are Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), both of whom hold key positions on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

What compelled the two lawmakers to choose this particular moment for what will likely be a years-long process of consultation and reform isn't entirely clear, though publicly they say the law is ill-equipped to address issues raised by new, Internet-enabled technologies. Now is no better or worse than last year or next month. But tech analysts and industry groups acknowledge that attempts to revise the law will lead to intense lobbying.

"It’s going to be a battle royale in Washington," Gordon Smith, the broadcast industry's top lobbyist, said last week.

In some ways, a new chapter in tech-related lobbying has already begun. Google is now funneling ever greater sums of money toward right-leaning politicians, think tanks and causes in an unprecedented break from its liberal roots. The search giant last year donated $50,000 to a dinner featuring Sen. Rand Paul, the Tea Party firebrand from Kentucky, according to the Post's own Juliet Eilperin. It also reportedly gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in free online advertising to the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. Other conservative groups benefiting from Google's gifts include Heritage Action, the American Conservatives Union and the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC.

This is a major step for a company whose executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, is closely linked to the Democratic Party. Schmidt was deeply involved in President Obama's reelection campaign, playing a key role in building the analytics team that helped propel Obama to victory. Now, the redistribution of Google's donor money is a sign that the company's political sensibilities have matured, at least when it comes to the policy battles that dominate in Washington.

All these changes may be individually insignificant. But together, they paint a picture of a conservative ship making an important course correction. Taking the lead on tech issues is likely to help reestablish the GOP as a source of ideas. And that, in turn, could draw in many of the younger voters the party will need in the future.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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