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Tech Industry

They call him Dr. No for good reason

CNET News.com's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh goes one-on-one with Rep. Ron Paul, the sole House Republican to oppose the Child Obscenity and Pornography Prevention Act. But that's not all he's against.

WASHINGTON--Rep. Ron Paul doesn't mind if his colleagues in the House of Representatives call him "Dr. No."

The Texas Republican says his habitual votes against bigger government, including one he cast this week in opposition to a "morphed" child pornography bill, will preserve the vibrancy of America's technology industry.

"The danger is that if they're allowed to get in the business of regulating the Internet, who knows what will happen next?" Paul said in an interview.

A 66-year-old medical-doctor-turned-politico, Paul has voted nay on proposals to prohibit Internet gambling, ban Internet sales taxes and restrict online sales of alcohol. He denounced the USA Patriot Act, which Congress approved as an anti-terrorism measure last fall. Two years ago, Paul was the only House member to vote against a bill requiring that e-mail spam sport correct return addresses.

On Tuesday, Paul became the sole Republican to oppose the Child Obscenity and Pornography Prevention Act. The measure, which has garnered the enthusiastic support of the White House and congressional leaders, restricts computer-generated images of nude minors that are "indistinguishable" from the real thing. (Congress is responding to a recent Supreme Court decision that slapped down a similar 1996 law, ruling it ran afoul of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression.)

"I thought it was weak in that this was not dealing with the issue of violence toward kids," Paul said of the new bill. "It was virtual porn, a bit of a stretch. If you're going to protect children--which we should do--it should be done at the most local level possible."

Paul is a rarity in Congress: A true libertarian who believes in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, a limited federal government and free markets. That doesn't make him too popular around town--but Paul says that since he chooses his votes based on deeply held principles, not campaign donations, at least lobbyists leave him alone.

"The danger is that if they're allowed to get in the business of regulating the Internet, who knows what will happen next?"
--Rep. Ron Paul
First elected to Congress in 1976 and re-elected in 1996, Paul has won a national following for his outspoken laissez-faire views, including his vow to abolish federal drug laws and his 1988 presidential bid as the Libertarian Party's candidate. He shows up on self-gov.org's list of political celebrities, and his votes have prompted Lew Rockwell, founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, to proclaim: "We have not seen Ron Paul's like in Washington since the days of the Founding Fathers. He is the 20th Century's Thomas Jefferson."

"My allies come and go," Paul said. "On civil liberties and some of the anti-war issues, they're more on the left. When they're good hard-core economic issues, I'll have allies on the Republican side, like Jeff Flake of Arizona."

A spokesman for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the sponsor of the "morphed" porn bill, said Paul's nay vote was expected. "He would say he votes on his principles," said Smith spokesman Brad Bennett. "It's not surprising to see that vote. It's not as if, 'Oh my goodness, Ron Paul voted against this?' Obviously you anticipate it."

Briefly Noted

Cybersecurity flap:"Cybersecurity" elements of President Bush's homeland security plan are drawing fire on Capitol Hill. During a hearing of the House Science committee this week, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) complained that not enough cash would be spent on research. Said Boehlert: "The bill does not even explicitly mention R&D in some critical areas, such as cybersecurity and transportation security (and) it creates no slot for an official whose primary concern would be R&D."

Patrick Leahy, Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wondered why the Freedom of Information Act should not apply to the proposed new agency. There's no reason, Leahy said, to keep secrets permanently about security-related vulnerabilities that companies provide to the Feds: "In the end, more secrecy may undermine rather than foster security."

Delays, delays, delays: Call it the Week of the Cancelled Hearing. First it was Attorney General John Ashcroft scheduled to testify on Thursday. Moments before the event was to begin, the House Judiciary committee abruptly cancelled it. The reason, a committee spokesman said: Ashcroft never submitted his written testimony in advance. Members of the panel have been skeptical of the new rules that permit greater Internet surveillance by the FBI, arguing they apply to drug and copyright-infringement cases, not just terrorism, and that Congress should have been consulted first. Then, on Friday, a House subcommittee had planned to look into the privacy aspects of President Bush's homeland security bill. That, too, was cancelled--apparently because the White House wasn't ready to testify. One witness--Peter Swire, a top privacy official in the Clinton administration--circulated his testimony anyway. Swire concluded that the homeland security agency features "essentially no" privacy safeguards. But one person close to the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "The president is big on (privacy). That's never happened in the creation of a Cabinet department before."

Microsoft lobbying: Microsoft honcho Craig Mundie trekked to Washington this week to plead for a hands-off approach--not for his employer, but for broadband services. During a meeting with FCC commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin, Mundie asked them not to impose new regulations on cable companies that offer Internet access. A post-meeting letter from Microsoft said the FCC "should not require cable operators to offer access to multiple ISPs." Microsoft is part of the High Tech Broadband Coalition, which wants a "minimal regulatory environment" for broadband access to the home.

"I thought it was weak in that this was not dealing with the issue of violence toward kids."
--Rep. Ron Paul
Tech-Dems: Remember those New Democrats? Ex-chieftain Bill Clinton may be just a memory, but the centrist New-Dems in the House hope to remain relevant by being tech-friendly. This week they published a 26-point plan that promises not to change accounting rules for stock options and criticizes efforts by a fellow Democrat, Sen. Fritz Hollings, to inject anti-copying technology into consumer electronics devices. It acknowledges that free trade--a non-negotiable point in the eyes of Silicon Valley execs--is "key to economic growth." Yet the fine print gives a nod to unions, saying any trade proposals must include "consideration of labor."

Indecency cops: ABC's "Philly" law drama may have been cancelled, but it lives on in the hearts of Washington's prurience police. After the FCC this week dismissed an "indecency" complaint against the show as unfounded, Commissioner Michael Copps complained that the FCC's Enforcement Bureau had grown far too permissive. "The Bureau seems to argue that almost any word is permissible as long as it is not used in a very specific or particular context," the Bush appointee said in a statement. "I disagree--some terms are in themselves indecent. Not so many years ago, the Commission thought so too." The episode in question, as quoted by Copps' allies at the American Family Association, includes this memorable line: "There's no way I'm gonna stand up in open court with my d**k in my hand while your (client) walks out the door!"

Russia's Net restrictions: Russia's lower chamber of Parliament has approved sweeping restrictions on using the Internet to oppose the government. In a 274-to-175 vote, the Duma this week granted President Vladimir Putin new powers to curtail the activities of dissidents and says "it is "forbidden to use computer networks for extremism." Putin asked the Duma to enact the measure, opposed by human rights groups, as Russia struggles with attacks on foreigners and anti-Semitic acts. The Draft on Contravention of Extremist Activities now goes to the upper chamber of Parliament, which is expected to approve it.

Spain follows suit: Web site operators in Spain will soon be subject to being closed by the Spanish government without a court order. This week, Spain's Congress approved the Law of Information Society Services and Electronic Commerce, known by its Spanish acronym LSSI, which lets government agencies pull the plug on commercial sites that have not registered. Plus: An addition to the LSSI, opposed by the tech industry, requires Internet providers to keep records of their customers' activity for one year.

This week: The House adjourned Friday for the Fourth of July holiday recess. It and the Senate will return next week...Philip Lowe, soon to be a top European antitrust official, will speak Monday at a conference at the National Press Club. In September, Lowe will become the European Union's director general for competition...On Tuesday, President Bush's Homeland Security Advisory Council will meet behind closed doors in a secret session. Bush's executive order creating the council says its 21 members are in charge of ginning up "a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks," including so-called cyberattacks.