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Execs learn political realities

As high-tech executives descended on Washington this week to debate Net content issues, some found that politics may not be as easy as they'd thought.

    Throughout the debate over the Communications Decency Act, the high-tech industry's stance was simple: Let technology and the industry take care of it, and everything will be fine. But as Internet leaders descended on Washington this week, some began to realize that politics may not be as easy as they'd thought.

    At private meetings Wednesday morning, some of the industry's highest-profile CEOs encountered the same stumbling blocks that legislators, family values advocates, and civil rights activists have known well for years.

    "Washington is an interesting place," said Joe Kraus, founder and senior vice president of Excite, who arrived in Washington late Tuesday night. "I'm used to getting things done a lot more quickly."

    Although CEOs crowed about their ability to pull together so many Silicon Valley stars, they quickly came to the realization that their ability to make money doesn't necessarily translate to the skills required to push public policy.

    "The hard part begins now," chief Yahoo and company cofounder Jerry Yang said. "There are a lot of cautious optimists around, and I am one of them. But anyone who is realistic about the political process shouldn't imagine for one second that the game is over."

    That game is figuring out just how technology and self-regulation are going to protect children from inappropriate content on the Net. All of the Internet executives interviewed said that they were ready to take on the challenge, but most seemed to approach the policy planning as just another business decision.

    Steve Perlman, chief executive of WebTV went so far as to characterize the industry's agenda as competitive, rather than political. He said that in recent hearings in Washington, Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser had been praised for having certain safeguards to protect children that Netscape Communications' browser didn't have. "Everyone is very competitive," he said, "and no one wants someone else to have something they don't."

    "There was no violent disagreement," said Lycos CEO Bob Davis. "But there was debate about where you draw the line against content regulation, how you define what our responsibilities are. I am of the belief that we should be a little more proactive."

    Davis suggested that search engines such as Lycos, Yahoo, and Excite reject advertising for hard-core sites, as well as any that "take advantage of youth and innocence."

    "There have to be agreed responsibilities," Davis said. "There should be no constraints on what the site indexes, then you get into First Amendment issues. I don't want to play that role, but I don't need to propagate content that is outside the norm, and that includes not only the acceptance of advertisements for hard-core material, but the classification of hard-core material in editorial content on the site."

    Davis said that the other CEOs present at the breakfast didn't "engage on the topic." But Yahoo's Jerry Yang didn't shy away from the issue.

    "Bob raised a number of good issues," he said. "But I think that not including hard-core advertising is something that goes beyond what is necessary. One of the main reasons we are doing this is to protect the First Amendment. The Internet, as a First Amendment medium, hinges on free expression and that means free advertising."

    The one thing everyone could agree on was that this week's meetings in Washington were a step in the right direction. Both Yang and Davis noted that different companies will always produce different goals. The political process is to find a compromise.

    Tim Newell, a senior White House official and point man on high-tech issues, summed it up best: "I'm not going to tell you that there wasn't a healthy sense of competition among the companies, but the bottom line is that they were here, talking and working together."