Politics and the Internet are not likely to become bedfellows--strange or familiar--during the next White House administration.
As George W. Bush edges toward victory in the hotly contested U.S. presidential election, a new research paper has concluded that the Texas governor will assume a hands-off approach to the Internet and technological initiatives.
"The top items on the Bush policy list are not of high priority for the Internet," Dave McClure, chief executive of the US Internet Industry Association, wrote in a research report issued Wednesday. "They include an expansion of H1-B visas, promotion of biotechnology and reform of the technology export rules. Even in these areas, technology will not be a legislative priority."
But it is tough to speculate how Bush's noninterventionist theories will play out during the next congressional session, which could be chock-full of important initiatives on copyright, Internet gambling, unsolicited commercial email and infrastructure issues such as open access. The Bush administration could also preside over a significant revisitation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is widely perceived as having failed in its efforts to stimulate meaningful reform and competition.
"Generally, we can expect these issues to reflect a business orientation," McClure wrote of Bush's hands-off stance on the Internet and technology. "The consumer issues that have been the hallmark of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission under the Clinton administration will not go away, but the hard line taken against businesses--such as the antitrust actions against Microsoft and the hard stances taken in merger reviews--are far less likely."
Bush's approach is a stark contrast to the stated goals, track record and public perception of Vice President Al Gore, and the politicians sparred over their tech strategies in televised debates. Long intrigued by technology, Gore took a highly proactive role in promoting the Internet while in Congress and as vice president.
Gore defined the fledgling Internet as an "information superhighway" and advocated public-private partnerships dedicated to turning research findings into commercial products. His critics lambasted him for being an overly zealous tech champion and for his admittedly regrettable quote that he "took the initiative in creating the Internet."
Hesitant to talk about infrastructure
By contrast, Bush has been hesitant to talk about or form official commissions on topics that can directly influence Internet infrastructure--despite a respectable record in Texas, which emerged during his governance as a leading state for high-tech companies.
The official "Bush Technology Plan" was formulated by a 440-member team of tech heavyweights, including Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computer, and Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel. But the team did not include any representatives from telecommunications, satellite or cable companies--implying that Bush has little interest in regulating or monitoring Internet infrastructure, McClure said in his report.
"This does not mean that there will be no Internet issues addressed in 2001," McClure wrote, "only that these issues will be driven by the Congress and the regulatory agencies rather than the administration."
McClure said that Bush's official philosophy on technology and the Internet is likely to be cribbed from corporate America. In addition to Dell and Barrett, Bush's "Information Technology Advisory Council" includes John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems; Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems; Gordon Moore, chairman emeritus and founder of Intel; Tom Engibous, CEO of Texas Instruments; Carol Bartz, CEO of Autodesk; E. Floyd Kvamme, partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; and Kleiner Perkins partner Ray Lane, former president of Oracle.
Bush's formal plan has three primary goals: It aims to lift barriers to innovation and fight efforts in the United States and overseas to impose new obstacles; help the United States develop and maintain a work force prepared to seize the opportunities of the high-technology economy; and develop a stable environment that encourages research and innovation in the private sector and in the military.
Also borrowing a tactic from the corporate world, Bush plans to appoint a chief information officer for the U.S. government and create a $100 million fund to support interagency e-government initiatives. He also hopes to raise the cap on H-1B visas to allow the immigration of more temporary, high-skilled workers. And he wants to "reduce the threat of junk and frivolous lawsuits" with legal reforms, according to the plan.
Following a well-paved Republican and conservative approach, Bush seeks to spark investment by lowering taxes. His plan calls for a permanent extension of the research and development tax credit and an extension of the Internet Tax Moratorium for up to five years.
He also wants to replace the so-called "e-rate," a Democratic program reviled by Republicans in Washington as the "Gore Tax." Bush wants to replace e-rate, a federal subsidy program for Internet hook-ups in classrooms and libraries, with a $3 billion fund to integrate technology in schools and libraries and $400 million in new money to help ensure that technology is boosting student achievement.
Although the official tech plan does not explain where the money will come from, Bush also wants to increase the military research budget by $20 billion and double the research budget of the National Institutes of Health.
A staunch supporter of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, Bush does plan to dabble in technology as it relates to international trade. He'd like to restore presidential trade negotiating authority to "make the Internet a duty- and tariff-free zone worldwide, fight to tear down non-tariff barriers to trade in information technology, step up efforts to combat piracy of American ideas and intellectual property, and promote the development of internationally compatible e-commerce standards."
But the plan is very short on details in a number of key areas, McClure observed. To deduce Bush's stance on several hot-button Internet issues, McClure had to rely on "casual reference" in Bush campaign speeches and televised debates.
For example, Bush has given the public little insight on his views about online privacy and filtering of Internet content. In campaign appearances in Michigan on Oct. 5, Bush expressed little more than a benevolent desire to shield children from "filth and violence," but McClure said it was difficult to extrapolate how this might apply to official presidential policy on the subject.
"Culture is sometimes the enemy of what parents and teachers are trying to teach our children," Bush said on the campaign trail.
Given the uncertainty over Bush's stances on specific tech topics, McClure said those with a stake in the tech sector should make their voices heard.
"It will be incumbent upon the Internet industry to better identify and communicate specific business priorities and needs if it is to gain the support of both a Republican Congress and a George W. Bush administration," McClure concluded.