August 1997


So Long, Highway

by John December

Political opportunism being his modus operandi, Bill Clinton's discovery of the Internet as a key national resource comes as no surprise. He has spent the past months promoting the White House's Framework for Global Electronic Commerce in which today's Internet plays an important role.

But it wasn't always this way.

Back in the early days, in 1994, the Clinton administration largely ignored the Internet and the World Wide Web and instead touted a non-existent and utopian "information superhighway." This highway was to be the centerpiece of computing and communications for the United States and indeed the world. The Internet was not to be part of this vision. Indeed, the Internet was disparaged as chaotic, unregulated, slow, unreliable, and a poor precursor to what would some day be a highway, a clean, well-lighted, orderly place for all. Politicians and academics of that era thus avoided the Internet. Perhaps they saw in the Internet their worst nightmare: a world without hierarchy or central power to seize.

"Hands off" should be the watchword for the United States as well as all world governments in their Internet policies.

But an information superhighway never materialized. What happened was a grass-roots acceptance of the Internet. People have chosen to use the Internet, not because of a government program but because they can communicate with other people using it. The numbers of Internet users has risen to as high as 50 million according to some present estimates (CyberAtlas). Bill Clinton has seen this opportunity and has decided to get in front of it.

It wasn't always this way. In just the past year, Clinton deliberately attacked free speech and the Internet in his Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA was never about communications or decency, but about political control. To be able to monitor and regulate speech means that you control the medium. To control the medium means that you can regulate it. And tax it.

Now, Clinton realizes that embracing a growing medium means that you can, to some extent, gradually and subtly, co-opt power over it. Aside from government cheerleading, there are grants, advocacy, and government programs. Academics smell money. Politicians smell a potentially lucrative tax source. Opportunists see a juggernaut hype machine, ready for a host of stupid schemes.

But this sickening embrace of the Net does not bode well. I'm very concerned about the unstated assumption of the Clinton Internet policies. Intertwined in these policies is the idea that the United States government (or G7, or "Group of Eight") has world-wide jurisdiction over this global network. I'm very concerned that further government involvement with the Net will quickly lead to taxation, more demands for regulation of speech and content, and a gradual co-opting of human communication and relationships into the framework of "commerce."

It need not be so.

If you are in the United States, contact your representative and participate in the political process. Everywhere in the world, advocate a "Hands off" policy in Internet policies .

John December ( is editor of CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1997 by John December. All Rights Reserved.

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