Wiring bills on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON--Today in Washington it's as trendy for politicians to advocate technology as it is to pitch family values. And Rep. Rick White (R-Washington) can deliver digerati speeches with the best of them--he just happens to know his stuff.

13 min read
CNET News.com Newsmakers
May 12, 1997, Rick White
Wiring bills on Capitol Hill
By Courtney Macavinta
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM

WASHINGTON--Today in Washington it's as trendy for politicians to advocate technology as it is to pitch family values. And Rep. Rick White (R-Washington) can deliver digerati speeches with the best of them--he just happens to know his stuff.

A founding member of the Internet Caucus, White is the perfect congressional poster boy for the Net. He holds online chats with Netizens, sponsored a tax-free Net bill, and is dragging his colleagues "kicking and screaming" into cyberspace.

White, 44, could be mistaken for one of the vibrant software CEOs with whom he so often rubs elbows. He is energetic and animated, using his hands to explain complicated concepts. He's probably on the verge of hauling a white board into the House so he can draw a diagram of how the Net works once and for all, holding a Q&A session at the end.

But White is still a politician at heart, a fact made clear by one serious blemish on his cyberpolitic track record. Last year he voted in favor of an online censorship vehicle known as the Communications Decency Act.

"Kids" and "porn" in the same sentence was all a fearful Congress needed to hear to rally behind the CDA's regulation. Once it became law, adults charged with the felony could get up to two years in jail for transmitting indecent material to minors over the Net.

The controversial CDA is before the Supreme Court now. As for White, he has yet to get backed into another corner as he was on the CDA--a provision buried in the Republicans' celebrated Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Despite his vote, White agrees (diplomatically) that the CDA was a mistake, passed by a Congress that didn't know the difference between America Online and the Web or TV and the Net.

That's where White wants to make a difference. As one of the four creators of the Internet Caucus, founded just after the CDA was passed, he and his Net-savvy cohorts want Congress to understand a lot more before making more policy decisions that affect the Net.

In just one year, the Internet Caucus has gained 100 members, all of whom make a pledge to create a Web site within three months of joining, maintain an email account, and most important, to keep an open mind about Net issues. The caucus itself conducts workshops where panels made up with civil liberties groups, computer experts, and lobbyists tackle issues like free speech on the Net and encryption.

Those issues can no longer be ignored inside the Beltway. In the last few months alone, Congress has had to consider bills that would protect consumers' online privacy, require Internet service providers to offer filtering software, and shield the digital medium from taxes.

Latching on to the Net has been a brilliant strategy for White, who was reelected for a second term last November. This term, White has become even more visible in high-tech circles. And when the Supreme Court held a hearing on the CDA in March, people on the Hill were finally talking White's language.

On the snowy day of the CDA hearing, just before he rushed off to a Microsoft mixer, White sat down with NEWS.COM and eagerly discussed political influence, the caucus, and teaching Congress a few high-tech lessons.

NEWS.COM: Silicon Valley and high-tech companies are starting to invest a lot of money in politics. What do they want from you?
White: Well, frankly, I'm not quite sure. And that's one of the reasons they need to get a little bit more involved than they had been in the past. One of the things that we noticed in the Telecommunications Act was that the phone companies, the long distance companies, the cellular telephone companies, even the television industry were great at coming to Congress and saying, "Here, here's what we need to have. You're going to make a mistake if you don't write the bill in this way." The computer companies really didn't have a clue at the time how to tell us how they thought the legislation should turn out. (See related story.)

Now we're not going to do exactly what they said; we're not going to do exactly what anybody says. But it's important for that industry to be able to explain in a concise, effective way how it thinks the Internet ought to be regulated. And I think they are getting a lot better than they used to, but they still have a ways to go to be as good at that as they should be.

You know, Microsoft's in my district and so obviously it's my job to make sure I understand where they're coming from on a lot of these issues, but I think they don't expect me to do everything they say, and there's no way in the world I will do everything they say. I've got some broader responsibilities than just making sure I bring home the bacon to people in our district.

They are influential, and they've usually got a lot of good ideas and suggestions. I make it a point to get their input on a lot of things. But I do the same thing with people like Netscape and other companies and institutions around the country.

If you weren't from Washington would the Internet be this important to you?
Part of my job is to represent my district and my district is a very technically literate one, and so I think it's important for me to get out there and be involved in some of these issues. If I came from a farming district east of the mountains in the state of Washington, I might have a personal interest in the Internet but I would probably have to spend a little bit more time worrying about apples and cherries than the Internet.

NEXT: Educating Congress  

Age: 44

Claim to fame: Founding member of the politicalional Internet Caucus

Current campaign: Just say no to Net taxes

Surfs the Net: To search for new ski boots, check weather reports, chat with Netizens, and email staff

Homefront: Mixes with Microsoft, visits AT&T's campus

CNET News.com Newsmakers
May 12, 1997, Rick White
Educating Congress

What was your first experience on the Net like?
My first experience was a little confusing, as I recall. I didn't quite know how to do a search. I just kind of bounced from one Web page to another without really quite knowing where I was going.

It's gotten to the point where I can't do research on anything without stopping first at the Internet. If I want to buy a new pair of ski boots or if I want to know what the weather is like someplace, my first instinct is to always go to the Internet because you can get real-time information that I know is pretty accurate. So I've really come to use it a lot.

Does Congress understand the Net better since the Internet Caucus was founded in March of 1996?
Frankly I think there's been a major change. And I'd like to take credit for that through the Internet Caucus, but I can't say it's all our doing. A year ago people just didn't quite seem to understand what the Internet was about. They thought it was a new form of television or something.

Now I think there's a recognition that this is a different medium, a medium with lots of potential but a medium that's different from a lot of the media that we've seen in the past. They don't understand that it's a million different people talking to each other. And that leads to a lot of mistakes.

What does it mean for members of Congress to join the Internet Caucus?
If you join the Internet Caucus you have to take the online pledge, which means that within 90 days you have to have a Web site in your office, you have to be available by email, you've got to agree to have an open mind on some of these issues. So the Internet Caucus isn't one of these things where you can just put your name on a list and forget about it. It requires a little action and activity on your part.

That's the way we wanted it, but it sometimes takes us a little longer to explain to people that they ought to join. We've had great success. We started out with 20 members a year ago--we've now got close to 100. So that's progress, but we don't have everybody yet.

What do you think should have happened with the Communications Decency Act the first time around?
Well, you know, the Communications Decency Act deals with pornography on the Internet. It's one of these age-old issues that people have tried to deal with forever and ever under the First Amendment to our Constitution. We all want to protect children from inappropriate materials, but we also want to make sure that we don't prevent adults from doing things that are constitutionally protected. So it's just a question of how do you do that with this new medium.

One of the real frustrating things for me was that when we adopted the standard in the Communications Decency Act, we just took a rule that we had developed for television and applied to the Internet without really thinking about it. And I think that's why we ended up with something that's unconstitutional.

I actually was in the Supreme Court listening to the oral arguments. I think they will find that what we did was unconstitutional, but with a little luck they'll give us some guidance on how we can adopt a law to solve this problem that would still be constitutional.

Didn't you try to change the wording in the CDA from "patently offensive" to "harmful to minors?"
Yes, the whole issue on the Communications Decency Act was: Do we use this indecency standard, which is what we ended up using, or the so-called harmful-to-minors standard. The only difference was "indecency" was kind of vague so that you don't know if you're violating the law under the indecency standard because it doesn't really quite tell you what's OK and what isn't. The harmful-to-minors standard was much more specific--for example, if you have the interview that President Carter did in Playboy magazine, that's OK, but the centerfold from Playboy is not OK to give to children. That's the sort of guidance that would make the law constitutional.

Do you monitor your child's use of the Net?
My oldest child is 13, and she loves to get on the Internet. The last thing in the world that she's concerned about, at least as far as I know, is getting into some of these sexual sites on the Internet. But I know that I'm just right at the beginning of that process where I'm going to have to exercise a little bit more control over that. And what we tend to rely on is: No. 1, having her clearly understand what we expect her to limit herself to; and No. 2, software that would help us do that.

The problem with the Internet (and also the wonderful advantage of it) is that it isn't limited to the U.S. You could just as easily get a Web site in Amsterdam or Thailand as you can one in Seattle, Washington. So no matter what laws we have in place in the country, they're not going to affect a lot of what you can get on the Internet. So we fully understand that we've got to protect our daughter because the government's not going to be able to do it.

Do you think a law akin to the CDA will turn up after the Supreme Court's decision? What other Net legislation is Congress working on?
With respect to the Communications Decency Act, I think a lot depends on what the court comes up with in June. If they totally throw out the whole statute but say, "Here's the way you could do it," then there may be a movement to try to restrict the access of children in a constitutional way that allows adults to do everything they should be entitled to do on the Internet--and I think that would be a positive thing. It may be that the court just tinkers with it and we don't need to do anything. So a lot depends on the final ruling.

With respect to other issues, there are a ton of things coming down the pike that really have a big impact on the Internet community: encryption, copyright protection, intellectual property rights, taxation, privacy issues--all these things that, like it or not, Congress is going to have to deal with in the next three or four years. I just hope the Internet community is as active and as vocal as it possibly can be to let us know what they think we should do.

NEXT: Regulation, e-commerce, and partisanship

CNET News.com Newsmakers
May 12, 1997, Rick White
Regulation, e-commerce, and partisanship Is there a difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to Internet issues?
Not so much. This is not an issue that really breaks down on partisan lines. For awhile, at least in the last year or so, it's kind of broken down along the lines of "Do you understand what the Internet is all about or not?"

Now, though, I think you are starting to see some of the party differences coming out. Democrats are much more comfortable with the government regulating things and trying to kind of control the direction that a certain technology might go. They think the government is pretty good at that.

Republicans, who tend to distrust the government, think we're better off letting the Internet community make these decisions itself.

What about the Clinton administration. Do you think that people like Ira Magaziner and others who will influence online policy are hip to the Net?
The Clinton administration tends to say the right things. But I sometimes wonder whether its heart is really in it.

The great value of the Internet is that it's not controlled by the government. It's designed not to be controlled by the government. And so unfortunately it's difficult for the administration to deal with a big, pervasive medium like this and not try to regulate it. They're always kind of walking a little bit of a tightrope between not killing the golden goose by overregulating it, but still feeling like they need to do something. I think it's a lot easier for Congress, which tends to be a little bit more hands-off to let the Internet go on its own without getting too involved.

Which medium do you think the Net is most like?
I think that's hard. On the one hand, the Internet is kind of like a public square where people get together and talk. And that's a good description of part of the Internet. It's also a lot like a library where there are resources of information and people go to those Web sites or other places on the Internet and they can bring information up--just like they would do at a library. It's kind of like a postal service where you can send email back and forth. So it really combines the aspects of lots of different institutions we already have. [It's] kind of hard to say it's more like one than the other.

Should it be overseen by the Federal Communications Commission?
I think the answer is no. The government should do as little content regulation as possible. I just don't see a role for the FCC in regulating the content of the Internet. I think that's a mistake.

Do you think the Net should be taxed?
It's just real dangerous to start taxing this medium when we really don't quite know how it's going to develop, what it's going to turn into. There are 30,000 taxing jurisdictions in the United States--every single one of them is looking for a way to make just a little bit more money. And to have them all think the Internet is a place to find that money I think is a big mistake. So I introduced this bill that would say no taxes on the Internet--for a while, at least, until we give it an opportunity to develop and see what the best way to tax it might be, if we have to tax it at all.

What about e-commerce?
I don't think we've yet figured out what the most effective way of having commercial activity on the Internet has been. And one of the things I do know is that the last person to figure that out is going to be the United States Congress. The last thing we want to do is have the government saying, "This is the way we think e-commerce ought to go, so we're going to push everybody in that direction," because I guarantee it--we'll turn out to be wrong.

I always think back to the late 1980s when they had the big debate about high-definition television and everybody was saying, "Oh gosh, the Japanese are ahead of us once again, they're going to beat us once again because they've all gotten organized and everybody in Japan is marching down the same path to developed HDTV."

But you know, that was analog high-definition television that they were doing at the time and a year later in 1990 Americans invented digital television. So now we're the world leaders because we didn't all get organized and one little intrepid band of inventors was out there doing something a little bit differently. That's the temptation that government always has to avoid thinking: that we really know something when we don't.

How can our country be more economically healthy if there's less regulation of the Internet?
No matter how many Rhodes scholars we have in the White House or in Congress or in the executive branch, they're never going to be smart enough to tell Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard and invent the software industry. It's the genius of our country that you've got 250 million people out there, each one of them trying to figure out a better way to build a mousetrap. And the government is just never going to be able to figure that out.

I think that history has proven over the last 200 years that our form of government really does give you the most prosperity, but it's hard to maintain because government always has an instinct to try to regulate and usually--if it overregulates--that gets you into trouble.

So what I'd like to see us do is let that develop in the private sector, let the 250 million American people decide the best way to do it, and try to keep out of it as much as possible.