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George of the Jungle

Is America's incoming president a friend of the Web or afraid of it?

Now that he’s pulled off the rare trick of losing the popular vote while managing to win the White House, George W. Bush becomes the first Republican to assume the presidency since the arrival of the Internet as a cultural force.

The last GOP standard-bearer, W.’s father, left Pennsylvania Avenue in January of 1993. Back then, no one had just been sent Christmas gifts from Amazon.com, only your academic pals had email addresses, and the White House wouldn’t have a Web page for several more months. But as of January 2001, it’s George Jr.’s turn to read the incoming email for “president@whitehouse.gov.”

So what Internet policies and initiatives will America get from his administration?

During the debates, Bush let it be known that he was techno-savvy, if for no other reason than he’d just been emailing his mother. On the other hand, the culture war reared its head when Bush, in answering a question about guns and the Columbine school shootings, described the Web as someplace where “a child can walk in and have their heart turn dark as a result of being on the Internet.”

In a recent speech, Bush said: “Prosperity is not a given, and governments do not create it. Wealth is created by Americans — by creativity and enterprise and risk-taking. These are the hallmarks of the high-tech industry, where the great engine of wealth has become the human mind — creating value out of genius.”

So which Bush can the Web expect? The cultural warrior or the free-market cheerleader who hopes a flourishing, tech-driven economy will provide economic cover for a program of government cutbacks?

Ohio Congressman Michael G. Oxley represents both the GOP’s cultural and marketplace politics and is a good exemplar of what Bush might push — or simply agree to — as commander in chief.

On the one hand, Oxley was the author of the Child Online Protection Act, which passed Congress in 1998. The ostensible idea is to “protect” children from, specifically, online pornography, a general enough proposal that no politician, equally seeking to protect their careers, is likely to oppose. The question has always been how you enforce it.

“The current move is for more decency,” says Tracy Westen, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and prexy of Grassroots.com, a nonpartisan site devoted to increased citizen participation in politics. He says he would “not be surprised to see strings” start to attach themselves to grants, etc., coming out of Washington as filters become a de facto regulation.

December’s congressional session actually produced an 11th-hour law attached to the budget bill that would mandate filters for all public institutions, i.e., schools and libraries, taking federal dollars. The American Civil Liberties Union has promised a court challenge, and will find itself up against Bush’s Justice Dept., much as it found itself up against Attorney General Janet Reno and company in the COPA battles.

Ironically, a few right-wing institutions found themselves hoisted on their own petards with this bill when the filtering was turned against them. As reported by MSNBC’s Brock N. Meeks: “House Majority Leader Richard ‘Dick’ Armey, a supporter of filtering software, found his own Web site blocked from access by one filtering program because his site contains the word ‘dick.'”

Other groups, Meeks noted, like the generically named American Family Assn., had their sites blocked when their railings against “homosexual activism” were indistinguishable to filters from Web pages allegedly promoting same.

As for Oxley, he has designs on the chairmanship of the House Commerce Committee and is widely perceived, as stated in a New York Times profile, as a pal “to the long-distance carriers,” all of which speaks to how Bush may handle questions like open access, the digital divide, and the ongoing merger mania affecting all aspects of media and telecommunications.

President Clinton presided over “an accelerated move toward concentration and control,” Westen says, though he thinks it’s likely that Bush might usher in “not even a tolerance, but a promotion,” of such big-get-bigger corporate tangos.

In a mid-December speech given to the Federal Communications Bar Assn., Oxley talked about a growing consumer demand for broadband access, and had his own particular notions of how to meet it.

“If a regulation has outlived its usefulness for protecting consumers it ought to be repealed … that’s why I’m against imposing open-access regulations on cable systems,” he said. “I also favor relaxing horizontal ownership caps on cable systems.”

Oxley then added, “What’s more, the FCC merger review process is a disgrace, in my view. I believe mergers will help provide the scale necessary to facilitate full broadband deployment.”

So don’t expect reasonable service or price breaks on high-speed Net access until your Internet service provider is big enough.

On the judicial side, the Microsoft case has higher odds of getting amicably settled to the tech giant’s liking. The Bill Gates-founded empire “probably sees this as a reprieve,” according to Coralee Whitcomb, president of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. She also thinks that “Napsterlike efforts” will have an even tougher time in the courts.

On the issue of Internet taxation, Bush and Al Gore administrations may not have differed — since the whole notion of taxing e-commerce, at this point, may seem like kicking a dog when it’s down. Bush has promised to keep the tax moratorium going, but the Brookings Institution’s Robert E. Litan, a VP and director for economic studies, thinks the issue isn’t “going to come to a head until later in the year,” at which point Bush may feel some pressure from Republican governors, missing the lost sales tax revenues.

Indeed, if any e-companies are left by then.