A few months ago, I argued that the expanding role of technology in people's daily lives has made tech policy a more relevant and viable campaign issue in the 21st century election cycle. Looking back now on this midterm cycle, however, it's clear that I was completely, totally off-base. Flat-out wrong, even.
Take net neutrality — arguably the biggest, baddest tech issue of the year. More than the Comcast merger, more than NSA surveillance, more than pretty much any other item on the tech policy agenda, net neutrality drove people to the barricades. In absolute terms, net neutrality produced a staggering response from the public. The Federal Communications Commission got a record-setting 3.9 million comments from Americans who felt, at some level, that the future of the Internet was at stake.
But compared to other election issues, net neutrality barely registered on the candidates' scales. Below, you'll find a chart of Google search interest for the nation's top political topics, as identified by Facebook. Net neutrality — which didn't make Facebook's list — is in blue.
While a lot of these results can be chalked up to the fact that "marijuana" and "taxes" are often invoked in a non-political context, too, it's clear that net neutrality simply lacks the natural widespread appeal of these other issues.
Across the country, tech hasn't really emerged as a central campaign issue. One of the few candidates to make it a part of his platform was Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term "net neutrality" — and he lost his bid for New York lieutenant governor in a nationally publicized primary. Wu's defeat underscores how, for many voters, tech simply isn't ready to become primetime campaign fodder.
The question is, why not? One convenient answer is that technology is complicated and hard to explain to people, and campaigns rarely lend themselves to nuance. But foreign policy and health insurance are no less sophisticated. Perhaps it's that those issues hit closer to home — pocketbook politics, and such? That's an unsatisfying answer, too. After all, Americans shell out hundreds every year for TV, cellular data and gadgets.
A more compelling explanation for the lack of campaign interest in tech — for net neutrality, at any rate — turns on three things. First, net neutrality is primarily an issue for the executive branch, not Congress. Although lawmakers have been sending letters about it to the FCC along with everyone else, there's very little they can do to determine the outcome of that issue (short of passing a new law, and we all know how good Washington is at doing that these days). The ball is in the FCC's court, no matter how the midterms turn out.
Second, the public response to net neutrality has mostly been the result of Internet organizing — which, by definition, involves people who are spread out and not a cohesive political actor. If you have 50 activists spread out across 50 states, that's a very different kind of political power than having those same 50 activists concentrated in one congressional district, which can change the outcome of an election.
Third, because Internet users skew younger, and younger people aren't very politically engaged, it's not crazy to think that net neutrality activists might wield less power at the ballot box more generally compared to their older peers from the outset.
To be sure, other tech policy questions may be driven by other factors. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is expected to lose his seat, despite campaigning heavily on the subject of NSA surveillance. Even though Americans generally find the programs unpopular, it's also something that Congress has much more control over than it does on, say, net neutrality.