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High tech told to play politics

Rep. Rick White (R-Washington) tells Silicon Valley companies to have a presence in Washington or risk detrimental legislation.

    SUNNYVALE, California--Rep. Rick White (R-Washington) dished out advice for Silicon Valley companies today on how to play politics on Capitol Hill.

    As part of a special series on "good politics" hosted by Amdahl and organized in part by the Technology Network, White told the crowd that the high-tech industry has to have a presence in Washington or risk letting some uninformed lawmakers pass legislation that could be detrimental to the growth of the Net or the widespread use of encryption, for example.

    He pointed to a recent close call for software makers regarding the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act, a bill to lift export controls on strong encryption--technology that ensures the privacy of digital communications. Industry trade groups, concerned Net users, and SAFE cosponsors had to scramble last month to derail an amendment endorsed by law enforcement agencies that would have radically overhauled SAFE by mandating that products include a built set of spare keys so that law enforcement officials, with prior court approval, could gain immediate access to people's messages.

    A House committee rejected the domestic controls last month, a victory for the SAFE camp. "We won 40 to 11 because the technology community took the interest and got involved," White said. (See related story)

    But other battles have been lost due to the online and computer industries' late reactions, he added, citing the passage of the Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to transmit "indecency" to minors over the Net. Although the law was overturned by the Supreme Court this summer, White warned that the high-tech community may not get so lucky next time.

    Moreover, he said powerful companies like Microsoft have only recently learned the importance of making friends with politicians before they pass legislation that may have adverse effects on the industry. "Microsoft has done a terrible job at letting their representatives know what's going on until now," White told reporters after his speech, adding that the computer industry has been proud to remain aloof from government.

    Known for his support of legislation to halt local or state taxation of the Net as well as his introduction of a bill to prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from regulating the online medium the same way it does telephones, White said that it was not enough to contribute to campaigns. Instead, the industry needs to make sure the person they help get into office will support beneficial legislation down the line.

    The industry must do three things to help shape federal policy, White finally told attendees:

  • Stay engaged in the political process.

  • Don't get too self-focused. Embrace broader issues that will help the industry while benefiting other sectors of society.

  • "Be a listener," which means learning how to compromise with your opponents.