Forty-eight points of blight, Big Mother, and a wired version of Phyllis Shafley

web posted March 1998

I am by no means Pollyannaish about the future of the Internet. I prefer instead to leave the folks over at Wired to wax over-optimistically about a future which consists of digital paradigms, the new economy and "wired citizens". Despite the fact that a wonderfully eclectic mix of people helped create the communities of the world wide web, there is one group that can put a stop to it with nothing more than ill-considered legislation.

The reason for my latent distrust for the future of the Internet are recent moves by various levels of government in the United States.

Three fronts, some being considered and others actively pursued -- consisting of taxation, privacy and decency -- are once again conspiring to place the future of the Internet in their hands. It's 48 points of blight, Big Mother, and a wired version of Phyllis Shafley.

The 48 points of blight refer to 48 governors who adopted a resolution in February calling on states to establish single tax rates on all electronic commerce over the Internet and mail order purchases. With only the governors of California and Virginia dissenting, the National Governors Association passed a resolution urging Congress to enact legislation to regulate Internet sales.

The resolution said such legislation should prohibit taxes on Internet access or monthly fees, but it urged each state to "establish a single statewide sales tax rate on all taxable electronic commerce and mail order purchases." Only U.S. President Bill Clinton, legendary for sticking to his promises, stands in the way of this resolution, promising a tax moratorium of five years.

Big Mother comes in the form of Congress which currently has 80 bills pending which deal with privacy, many of them addressing the Internet.

The fear among legislators is that the average person cannot be relied on to read the fine print and decide whether to reveal personal information to web sites about themselves. And the many software solutions which deal with trivialities like 'cookies' is apparently not solution enough.

And decency? Did you really think the death of the Communications Decency Act, struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, really spelled the end to "protecting" children from real and imagined evils on the Internet? During the first week of February, a "son of CDA" was discussed in the Senate, a new piece of legislation which would modify the restrictions in the original CDA enough so that it could pass constitutional muster. Though methods already exist which would protect children, or at the very least, allow parents to monitor the places they've been, legislators seem to fear leaving any options to "the people."

Along with taxation, privacy and decency, various government bodies are still attempting to limit encryption technologies, one of the most essential parts of commerce. In no way is government finished with trying to recreate a digital version of itself and its powers on the Internet, no matter what Ira Magaziner, Clinton's Internet czar, thinks or says.

While few of us were active in the fight against the CDA, realizing perhaps that the law would never get through the courts on constitutional grounds, it is time to get involved now. Once the government gives itself the ability to tax and regulate trade and content -- and unsavory things like pornography is content -- over the Internet, the liberal atmosphere may well disappear, replaced with content provided by big PAC donors and taxes sucked out of the main demographic of the Internet -- educated middle-class Americans.

I would urge you to email your representatives and tell them to consider carefully their actions, but many of them have revealed their real feelings about the Internet and effectively blocked that avenue. Using that method would yield a response not by a secretary or aide dismissing you with a letter -- instead, you would likely receive a brush-off digital style -- with email courtesy of an autoresponder.

Seems like they've learned at least one use for the Internet after all.

Thanks for reading,

Gord Gekko


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