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The Net: What's Government's Role?

Thinkers assess the future of regulation and the Internet

By R. Morris Barrett/AllPolitics

WASHINGTON (April 21) -- While the Internet poses distinct regulatory and political challenges, American democracy and society may be at "the dawn of a new age," according to participants at a conference on the digital revolution.

Speaking at "Regulation in the Digital Age," a two-day conference sponsored by the Cato Institute and the Brookings Institution, Wired magazine editor Louis Rosetto declared, "the digital young are revolutionaries. Unlike the clucking boomers, they're not talking revolution, they're actually making one."

Rosetto, identifying the Internet community as largely libertarian in outlook, said Net users are creating a new, optimistic civilization that rejects government as unworkable and big media as preoccupied with notions of U.S. decline.

He cited a University of Michigan survey that tracked personal income and found that only five percent of those in the lowest income bracket in 1975 were still there in 1991. Eighty percent, according to the study, had made it into the middle class by the early 1990s.

"This revolution is building a new economy, one that is networked, global, efficient and based not on scarcity ... but actually on abundance," Rosetto said.

He was one of some 30 analysts and scholars who assessed the future of the Internet, with a particular eye on what government's role should be.

Brookings scholar Thomas Mann, while predicting the Internet may have "a profound impact on politics and government," was less impressed than Rosetto with the Net's current political impact. He cited figures showing very few people went online for political information during the last presidential campaign.

Still, while warning against "third-wave utopianism," Mann foresaw an age of increased voter turnout through electronic voting, information kiosks and other innovations. Most promising, he speculated, was the promise of enhanced community.

A recent Pew Research poll supports some of Mann's criticisms of the Net. Only about 10 percent of Americans went online for political information during the 1996 campaign, according to the survey, which was conducted last October and queried 1,003 people by telephone.

At odds with Wired's Rosetto, perhaps, the Pew poll found the most popular sites were run by major media companies. Only 17 percent of the users surveyed said they had contacted or e-mailed groups, organizations or public officials about political issues or public policy questions.

Not all participants at last week's conference, April 17 and 18 at Washington's Capital Hilton, saw the Net's biggest potential as strengthening democracy. Showing his institution's more libertarian bent, Cato chairman William Niskanen contended the main impact of Internet would be to empower individuals, enabling them to conduct the business of their lives, regardless of what the government does.

But Columbia professor Eli Noam arrived at the opposite conclusion. He predicted that the Internet will be easy for governments to regulate, and that as networks proliferate worldwide, politicians will apply rules that reflect their nations' cultural norms.

While predicting remarkable developments from Internet commerce (such as a privatized monetary system), Noam speculated that for foes of regulation, "it will be a giant step back."

Are developments in the digital age are so revolutionary they require a revolutionary approach to government regulation, conference speakers were asked?

"No," answered University of California at Berkeley professor Michael Katz, a sentiment echoed by a number of speakers. Katz and others concluded that while regulatory issues abound for the digital age, the same political forces that drive regulation in other industries apply to the digital age as well.

Regarding antitrust law, University of California at Davis scholar Tom Hazlett contended the digital age doesn't so much require a new approach as "it just requires we get the old one right."

Cato scholars, in general, tend to take a dim view of regulation, while Brookings analysts are generally more comfortable with government intervention in the economy. But on the subject of the digital future, the two groups shared a skepticism of government management.

"It's high time we take our ignorance more seriously," said communications consultant Peter Pitsch, echoing the central insight of F.A. Hayek, an economist favored by many Cato scholars. But at this conference, that idea seemed centrist.

Several Internet entrepreneurs discussed the barriers that current regulations pose to their businesses.

Hyatt Legal Services co-founder Joel Hyatt described his frustration with attorney licensure laws that make it impossible for him to market an interactive software package with which users can draw up estate plans and other legal documents. But any product that effectively performs an attorney's work is now illegal, Hyatt explained, since attorneys must be licensed.

For telemedicine, an emerging field where digital technology is used to deliver medical services, "it's worse," contended American Telemedicine Association president Jay Sanders.

Sanders described developments in telemedicine that would allow physicians to send multimedia referrals to specialists worldwide. Appearing on the panel with Sanders, attorney Robert Waters noted 19th century medical licensure laws make such consultations illegal.

Other speakers discussed various thorny technical issues such as security of transactions and computer viruses, as well as the complicated challenges in international law presented by encryption technology.

The most controversial (though somewhat ignored) speaker was American Enterprise Institute scholar Walter Berns, who contended the Constitution does not preclude placing restrictions on Internet obscenity.

Berns spoke in place of controversial AEI scholar Robert Bork, who had to cancel due to illness, and echoed Bork's view that America's Founding Fathers intended for the common law to help mold the moral character of the citizenry, and that the First Amendment should not construed as a blanket protection for obscenity.

Responding to Bern, American Civil Liberty Union of the National Capital Area legal director Arthur Spitzer asked rhetorically, "How do you tell what is the good speech and the bad speech today?" Spitzer suggested that were Berns alive at the turn of the century, he might have wanted to squelch the then-controversial ideas of Charles Darwin and the music of Igor Stravinsky.

Raising the Communications Decency Act, which forbids transmission of indecent material on the Internet to minors, and now awaits a Supreme Court ruling on its constitutionality, Spitzer said not even "the smartest people" have the wisdom to make such judgments.

Attorney Robert Corn-Revere noted governments have historically sought to single out new forms of technology, such as paper and movies, as presenting unique threats to society.

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