The end of Internet regulation

By Steve Martinovich
web posted August 9, 1999

America, put your mind at ease. According an agency of the United States government, the Internet is prospering because it is taking a hands-off approach to regulating it. If you missed it, a study commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission says that the Internet has prospered in part because of the commission's hands-off approach to regulating it.

The study lauds the commission's role in developing a reliable and affordable telephone system -- originally a government granted monopoly -- over which data services could be offered as enabling the Internet to prosper. FCC policies have apparently also helped to keep dial-up Internet access costs down by exempting enhanced service providers from the access charges paid by other types of carriers...certainly sounds hands-off to me.

Of course, the study left an out in case the FCC has to "protect consumers." The commission, said the study, still must be wary of alleged anticompetitive behavior in the market, such as bottlenecks and tying up lines. But the paper urges that any responses should be at the bare minimum and should outweigh the costs of regulation.

But where one hand giveth, the other is quite capable of taking away. The FCC may have taken a slightly more laissez-faire approach to regulation, but other branches of government haven't been so generous. The same old boogey men cited by politicians a few years ago about the danger of the Internet are being trotted out today.

For example, claiming on-line pornography is a "serious problem," five members of Congress asked a federal appeals court to uphold a law that makes it a crime to post sexually explicit images on-line.

A 28-page amicus brief, submitted July 19, says Congress intended the Child On-line Protection Act -- the successor to the Communications Decency Act -- to address "the dire situation" of tens of thousands of pornographic Web sites that both adults and children can easily visit.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, Senator Dan Coats (retired) and Congressmen Tom Bliley of Virginia, Michael Oxley of Ohio, and James Greenwood of Pennsylvania -- Republicans each and every one of them -- all signed onto the brief arguing that the Child On-line Protection Act is a narrowly crafted law that will affect just pornographers, that the appeals court, which ruled that it violated free speech, should go out of its way to find a way to ensure it is constitutional, and that it is the least restrictive way to accomplish Congress' stated objective of protecting children on-line.

If using the straw man of pornography wasn't bad enough, how about cryptography?

On July 21, the House Armed Services Committee voted 47-6 to replace an industry supported bill with one drafted by law enforcement advocates. The industry bill would have relaxed rules on things like web browsers but the one introduced by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Penn)would grant the president complete authority to deny any expert controls that he considers "contrary to the national security interests of the United States."

The House Rules Committee will decide what version, if any, will be voted on by the entire chamber. Experts expect that if the industry-backed version wins, opponents would try to add crippling amendments during a floor vote.

Under Weldon's plan, the president will set the "maximum level of encryption strength" that companies may export and will convene a 12-member "Encryption Industry and Information Security Board" to advise on how widespread foreign encryption products are.

Well, things really haven't changed in those areas, but at least politicians are leaving e-commerce alone to give a chance for future Bill Gateses and Scott McNealys to get started, right? Wrong.

On July 22, House Republicans announced an "E-Contract" with America. Filled with statements designed to remind one of the Declaration of Independence, the document promised "to continue our legislative...efforts to remove the barriers to future innovation, competition, and growth."

"Keep up the good work, and we'll try to stay out of your way," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

Of course, Armey forgot to check in with one of his peers in the Senate. The very same morning that Armey spoke his words of liberation, Senator Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) introduced his Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, just recently passed in the Senate. The legislation would allow companies to recover up to $300 000 from anyone who registers an Internet domain name that appears to infringe on one of their trademarks.

That gives existing corporations first right to most of the desirable Web addresses in the English language -- and unfairly penalizes the very startups that Armey praises as the engines of the New Economy.

Sounds to me like the Internet will keep the way, notice what party affiliation all of those politicians had?

Steve Martinovich is the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.

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