TCS Daily

The Message From Los Angeles: Helping the Internet?

By James Freeman - August 28, 2000 12:00 AM

Will you be better off if the Federal Government leaves the Internet alone, or takes an active role in its development? Are creative people and free markets the crucial ingredients in America's high-tech success, or do government funding and regulation drive U.S. markets?

At their convention in Philadelphia, Republicans unveiled their technology policy. Rule Number One: Keep government out of the way. Bush wants Washington to first, do no harm to tech consumers and investors. And George W. doesn't think that America's technology markets need his help. Says Bush, "Governments don't create wealth. Wealth is created by Americans by creativity and enterprise and risk-taking."

Now of course it's Al Gore's turn to tell us about his policies. And as you might expect from the man who once claimed to have invented the Internet, he 's a little more ambitious. Gore wants to enact an Electronic Bill of Rights and build a new Global Information Infrastructure. The Democratic platform calls for new programs in tech training, full Internet access in every home, and increased government spending on basic research and development. The Republicans also want to fund more basic research, but the Dems are taking it a step further than just supporting scientific inquiry. Their platform advocates public-private partnerships to help bring new products to market faster.

Hmm. Silicon Valley isn't moving fast enough for Washington? This is probably a relief for tech executives, who've been trying to pick up the pace in their sleepy backwater of an industry. Now they'll get help from the government! Okay, I'll quit with the jokes. In fact, many of Gore's proposals may sound very reasonable. The question is whether you'll be better off if Washington takes a more active role in tech markets.

Personally, I think the Bill of Rights that we already have is working pretty well, so I'm not convinced that we need a new one. Gore's idea is to regulate how companies collect and use information about their customers.

Protecting privacy sounds great to everybody, of course, until they have to pay for it. In the traditional offline world we understand that we have to pay for privacy, with a house set back from the road or maybe a fence around the property. But online we're used to getting things for free. Ironically, if marketing and advertising are made more difficult and costly by new privacy regulations, the unavoidable result will be fewer services and less free content online. How does any online publication sell advertising if it can't describe its customers to potential sponsors?

We move on to Gore's plans for new programs to train people in technology. Given the job that government is doing in educating our kids, do we really want to hand over more educational authority and bigger budgets to these folks? And then there's the goal of Net access in every home. Given the amazing history of the last decade, why do we think that government will do a better job than the market in bringing new technology to millions of people?

Whenever I write a column describing the value of an Internet free of government regulation, someone always says, "Don't you know that the government created the Internet?" I do know that the Defense Department funded what later became the Net, but I also know that not much happened until the Internet was commercialized in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, the market has delivered a phenomenal array of new products and services. And the digital party can continue without help from government.

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