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U.S. official directs Net funding, puts consumers first

Like many former government officials, Zoe Baird believes the Net will dramatically alter society. In fact, she's betting millions on it.

Like many former government officials, Zoe Baird believes the Net will dramatically alter society. In fact, she's betting millions on it.

Soon after Baird took over as president of the 72-year-old Markle Foundation in 1998, the organization announced it would dedicate $100 million over three to five years to ensure that the public's needs are served by the Net and other emerging communications technologies.

A University of California at Berkeley graduate in communications and public policy and a veteran Washington attorney, Baird is no stranger to technology or the Beltway.

President Clinton nominated Baird to be the first female attorney general in 1993, although he withdrew support following a controversy over her hiring of undocumented immigrants. She now sits on his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Baird also served as associate counsel to President Jimmy Carter and was an attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department.

Diverging from her legal career, Baird is fighting to let people have a say in how the Net influences their lives. She is leading Markle's funding initiatives to encourage the public's use of technology to "participate in democratic society" and to improve education and health care.

Already, Markle has backed a wide range of organizations as part of its Internet Governance Project. Those receiving funding from the foundation include the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Carter Center, Common Cause, the American Library Association, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, which address issues such as the Net's critical address system, e-commerce standards, consumer protection, privacy and Net content regulation.

Baird visited CNET's headquarters in San Francisco to discuss how Markle is trying to increase activism surrounding international communications policy and how it's working with nongovernmental entities to make them more accountable and democratic when they craft decisions that affect Net users. Why is the Markle Foundation funding these Net policy-making projects?
Baird: This is an outgrowth of the policy environment for the Net. This is a huge area of public interest, but there has been very little effort to create a public voice. We're trying to find ways to expand people's involvement in decision making for the Net and things that affect the Net.

A lot of nongovernmental bodies are assuming the role of government in this area. As this transfer from the public sphere to the private sphere (was taking) place, we saw that it was happening without the public being given a voice. The Markle program is not just focused on policy; we're also putting an aggressive effort on building interactive media to improve people's lives in a number of ways, (such as by encouraging) children's growth, improving health care, and improving people's influence on news and media.

Markle has committed $250,000 to fund a general election process for the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This body is the most prominent model of the government transferring power over Net policy to the private sector. Is ICANN a good role model as far as giving the public a voice in its decisions?
It think it's still too early to tell. We're going to have to experiment with a lot of models from the World Trade Organization to the World Wide Web Consortium; those are other examples of groups that are making decisions that have to do with how people can use the Web. People have taken for granted what the government has done for them, which is now up for grabs in this arena--from consumer protections to free speech, to whether law enforcement can access (people's) locations during a criminal investigation.

But how involved do regular people really want to be in shaping rules for the Net?
Regular people are affected in many ways. When people are sitting around a kitchen table to create a small business on the Web, they have a vested interest in what it is going to take and cost, which policy can affect. They'll want to engage in these discussions.

We've done a lot of focus groups with parents, and one of the things we're seeing is that parents don't understand the resources out there to protect their children online. So what if one solution is to have a top-level domain for safe sites for kids? They would engage. They also can get close to the process through groups they participate in, such as the PTA, church groups and other affiliations.

We know politicians are wired, but how much of it is public relations? Do you think candidates and elected officials take comments and suggestions made via the Net seriously?
It's all going in that direction when emails will be like any other form of communication with elected officials. The Net changes the dynamic of people being able to express what they care about. You can't be a couch potato. Candidates feel more like they have to be themselves--that changes things.

Markle has been involved with posting election information online. What do you think about the Federal Election Commission's advisory opinions regarding Net political sites' financial reporting and disclosure obligations?
In 1998 we helped start Web White and Blue with 1,300 Web sites to make good information available about candidates, so people could enter in their zip codes and find out a candidate's views on issues and their contributors. We've just funded a working group at the American Bar Association, which has made a group of recommendations to the FEC. We also support DNet, which the FEC gave an opinion to (stating that DNet's political debate and election material site doesn't have to report its activities to the FEC). I think the FEC from all sides is trying to struggle with keeping its regulations from standing in the way of the Net.

Why did you invest $4.5 million to work with Oxygen Media to research the information needs of women to be used for the creation of TV and Net programming?
The Oxygen/Markle Pulse will develop baseline ongoing research, day in and day out, to find out what women want, what they are concerned about, and how they feel about the world around them. All of this will be made public so that other companies can use it. We hope it will influence public perception and women's perception about their influence.

It can be argued that the media and governments hover above people as the ultimate authorities and decisions makers. Does the Net change that?
It has to the biggest transformer, because it eliminates the middleman. But I don't think it's a forgone conclusion that the diversity and the vibrancy of the Net will be here in 10 years. We need to insist on it. The loyalties to political parties have broken down, and now people can use the Net to get down to the issues.

The Net has the greatest potential of anything I've seen to allow us to address important public needs. A lot of the programs we are funding are directed toward sharpening our perception of this potential--helping a broad set of people figure out what they aspire this to be. For example, we have an advisory group that will identify urgent public issues that need to be addressed, which could be privacy, Net taxes or consumer protection.

Looking at the Microsoft antitrust case as an example, do you think courts and governments should play a role in establishing fair competition in the high-tech industry for consumers' sake?
There is going to be a very interesting period when some governments will take actions, and other governments will decide the private sector should lead in this area. It's very important to us that the public be involved in this push and pull. We don't know how it will come out. But I feel most fundamentally that if the public is not involved and if their needs are not protected, the decisions will not be sustainable and will have to be revised.