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Clinton touches on 'digital divide' in address

High tech again finds its way into the State of the Union address, as President Clinton renews focus on the so-called digital divide.

High tech again found its way into the State of the Union address tonight, as President Clinton renewed focus on the so-called digital divide.

In a speech dominated by social initiatives as well as various tax-cut proposals, the president frequently alluded to the influence of the "digital economy" on American life. Government must work to bridge the gap between those who have easy access to the Internet and those who don't, Clinton said, calling upon high-tech companies to participate in unnamed federal programs and promising tax incentives.

Last month, Clinton announced a spring tour to address the plight of those lacking modern, Net-ready computers.

The speech, introducing the president's proposed 2001 budget, also called for more funding for schools and libraries through a subsidy program nicknamed E-rate. Some 90 percent of all schools are wired, Clinton claimed, but many facilities are broadly inadequate.

"We know we must connect all our classrooms to the Net," he said.

Only a few years ago, Netizens would have thrilled at the characterization of the online medium as such a vital force. Comparatively few vocations are mentioned in the president's yearly address to a combined Congress. Not only has Washington's attention become commonplace, however, but many in high tech are uncomfortable with the political realm.

Elsewhere, Clinton called for government to "accelerate the march of discovery," asking for some $3 billion in scientific research, and endorsed "open trade," likely to please high-tech executives but for its artful reworking of the free trade moniker that aggravates big labor. The two industries have clashed over such issues as visas for skilled foreign workers.

Reacting to tonight's address, the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group, issued a statement noting with approval the president's "recognition that information technology is an increasingly important part of our economy."

Last year in Congress, industry interests won protection for digital works, legislation prohibiting "cybersquatting," and a three-year moratorium on Net taxes. Clinton also endorsed a Republican-shaped bill that curbs Y2K-related lawsuits. But Washington passed the Child Online Protection Act, derided by the Net's libertarians.