Less is more when it comes to regulating the Internet. At least that's what Ira Magaziner, a senior advisor to Bill Clinton reckons. "We're putting forward a market-oriented approach that emphasises consumer choice and competition," said Ira.
Ira Magaziner is the person who led Bill Clinton's disastrous healthcare reform campaign four years ago. In the aftermath of that debacle, he was criticised for being too heavy-handed. But he swears he and the administration have changed. Magaziner believes the hand of government should fall lightly - if at all - on electronic commerce, saying: "We say this should be a non-regulated industry, with private buyers and sellers coming together freely."
Magaziner now heads an Internet policy task force whose mission is to do away with the current mishmash of rules and policies governing electronic commerce. The goal is to replace the mess with policy guidelines covering encryption, censorship, taxation and the protection of intellectual property.
The task force report, expected to be released in June, makes a major, new concession to the computer industry. Magaziner explained: "We say to the states and local jurisdictions, that no new taxes should be levied against the Internet" on top of normal sales taxes.
But that doesn't mean the government will back off completely when it comes to Internet regulation. Magaziner says the administration is prepared to act on a number of fronts, particularly to protect children from pornographic material on the Internet, if the industry does not police itself.
The new policy, insists Magaziner, will be market-driven and will eventually include a uniform commercial code of basic rules for business-to-business transactions on the web. Some of the task force recommendations could result in legislation, but this is not expected to create an enormous package of laws. "We want the industry to step forward," said Magaziner, vowing that the government will not try to legislate technical standards.
But the US is still in a state of panic about tax regulation on the net.
A bill that would allow the state to place a surcharge on online access was passed by the state of Iowa recently and some are worried that online transactions could be hit by multiple taxes. So if you're buying a T-Shirt in Wyoming, you might have to pay taxes in the consumer's state, the vendor's state and the state where the central computer that enables the transaction is located. Harsh, indeed.
But it's the task force's recommendations on protecting children that is set to cause more controversy than its stance on taxation. The group wants the industry to develop an effective way to authenticate the age of anyone requesting X-rated material on the Internet. Although Magaziner remains elusive on this one, it seems likely that simply requiring the use of a credit card will not be enough. The message here is that unless the industry regulates itself, as it does in the UK, US ISPs could be in for a very hard time.
The task force is also hoping the industry will find a way to protect the privacy of people doing business on the Internet. It wants vendors to refrain from selling or giving away personal information gleaned from online customers unless the customer gives permission. But again, legislation could follow if the industry does not clean up its own act.
Magaziner's group is getting a positive reaction. But not everyone is convinced:"I read (the draft) and I see the weasel words," says Michael Godwin, staff counsel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is battling the Clinton Administration over the Communications Decency Act.
He added: "I'm not sure the administration has taken this to heart." Godwin fears the report will leave the door open to more government regulation than Magaziner acknowledges, particularly on the encryption issue.
And you can't blame him for fretting. The Clinton administration is still sending out mixed signals about Internet regulation. Two weeks ago the Commerce Department agreed to allow unlimited export of products that include encryption and are designed to support financial transactions.
Meanwhile, the administration still supports the CDA and thus remains in the ring with the very people it is supposed to represent.
Magaziner is careful not to claim premature victory for his task force report, but he is optimistic: "We know we can't please everybody."
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