This November, the people of the United States will go to the polls and elect the most powerful man on Earth. Should we expect this man to be PC-literate?

During George W. Bush's Whitehouse tenancy, the technology of global communication gained as much influence over humanity as oil and terrorism, and the next President's decisions on technology will influence the entire planet.

Republican candidate John McCain readily admits that he's a computer illiterate who "has to rely on [his] wife for all of the assistance I can get." Senator Barack Obama, however, is 25 years his junior and apparently much more comfortable with digital communications. Both campaigns have actively made use of the internet, but Obama's is impressive for its level of public support.

Obama currently has over 718,000 friends on MySpace, and his Facebook page gathered around 200,000 supporters in just two weeks. However, what really matters is not how many virtual supporters they can gather, but that the new President has a clear understanding of the sheer power that access to information has over humanity.

"Whoever wins the next US election will have to confront and embrace the ongoing revolution in technology, harness the social capital that it makes possible and embrace the newfound emancipation that it has created across the globe," says Dr Todd Landman, Director of the Centre for Democratic Governance at the University of Essex.

"The world has seen the emergence of the Web 2.0 generation," he adds, "with blogging, social networking, self-publishing, the expansion of broadband in many more homes, and many other developments that have fundamentally altered the way in which human beings relate to one another and to information in general."

So how does each candidate tackle the issues of broadband access, net neutrality and online protection?

Neutral access

The US currently lags behind most of Europe, South Korea and even Canada in broadband uptake. Both candidates say that they support universal broadband access, including opening up the airwaves to give high-speed internet access to more remote rural areas. And while both candidates say all schools should have broadband access, McCain also says that local government should provide Internet access where no ISP is available.

Another thorny subject for the candidates is net neutrality. Currently, access to online information is strictly 'neutral'. The internet automatically routes information by the fastest path. However, some carriers want to charge information providers based on the speed at which they make information available. Some say that this is a little like someone who makes lots of phone calls being charged more.

Obama is firmly for net neutrality. In a November 2007 interview, he said that, "I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality. The internet is the most open network in history. We have to keep it that way."

In contrast, McCain's believes in natural market pressures. His website states that: "John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like 'net-neutrality', but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices."

Protection and privacy

American parents worry about their children's online habits and the dangers that chat rooms and social-networking sites pose. So how will the candidates address their fears without breaking the US First Amendment ensuring freedom of expression?

During the 2007 Republican debate in Dearborn, Michigan, in October 2007, McCain was asked if he would actively police the Internet for predators and pornography. "Absolutely not," he replied, "but I also want to point out this Internet child pornography is a terrible evil. It's got to be addressed. And everybody knows the way you stop it is go after the money."

Obama's official position is clearer. According to his website: "[He] will give parents the tools and information that they need to control what their children see on television and the internet in ways fully consistent with the First Amendment.

"To further protect children online, Obama supports tough penalties, increased enforcement resources and forensic tools for law enforcement, as well as collaboration between law enforcement and the private sector to identify and prosecute people who abuse the Internet to try to exploit children."

Regardless of who triumphs, the next US government will be the most scrutinised in history. "Now more than ever, ordinary people can access extraordinary information," says Landman. "In the long run this can only make governments more accountable, violators of human rights less able to hide and trans-national networks more powerful."

First published in PC Plus, Issue 275