Nader Vs. Al Gore: What’s The Best Policy
For Democracy And the Internet Economy
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hosted a particularly lively and informative debate on technology
policy during the 2000 election. It featured Green Party presidential
candidate Ralph Nader and Al Gore advisor Reed Hundt, former chairman
of the FCC during the Clinton-Gore administration. Other presidential
campaign offices declined to participate. Here are some key excerpts.
a U.S. senator, Mr. Gore was indeed a supporter of public investments
in the development of the Internet, and a vision for the Internet
to serve educational needs. However, for the past eight years, Mr.
Gore has not only coasted on his earlier deeds, he has actively
pushed for a new approach to the Internet as something that is far
with the famous exchange between Mr. Gore and AT&T right after
the 1992 election over who would build the "information superhighway,"
the vice president has followed corporate America in redefining
the agenda. It is no longer about information policy; it is about
government promotion of e-commerce and the growth of markets.
initiative for funding telecommunications services for schools and
libraries is one of the rare areas where the public character of
the Internet has been given any attention. To his credit, Mr. Hundt
at the FCC, of course, supported this initiative. However, at the
end of the day, this isn't a lot for an eight-year legacy.
What is remarkable
is how little the Clinton/Gore administration has invested in critical
evaluation of technology in the classroom, the development of curriculum,
training for teachers, the creation of new public-domain software
or content relating to teaching.
For all of Mr.
Gore's reported concerns about digital libraries, what has the administration
The big push
to put government information online came from the grass roots --
librarians and activists such as the Consumer Project on Technology.
The decisive movement for government policy on this topic did not
come from the Clinton/Gore administration, which was busy raising
money from their friend Vance Opperman, then the CEO at legal publisher
West Publishing, a company that opposed online access to public
Rather it was
from Newt Gingrich, who proclaimed in 1994 that all Congressional
documents would be published on the Internet for free -- the minute
they were available to corporate lobbyists.
While Mr. Gingrich
and the Congress never followed through on this promise, his statement
at least pointed to a decisive policy goal that never came from
the White House.
An endless source of frustration with the Clinton/Gore administration
on this score has been the unwillingness to enforce across-the-board
limits on the prices that federal agencies charge for data -- hefty
prices that limit access except for corporate users -- and the various
proposals to privatize and corporatize certain federal databases
and publications. Of course, different federal agencies have different
records, and under Mr. Hundt's leadership the FCC did a great job.
But there have
been battles over opening up the Patent and Trademark databases
and the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which is marketed
by the National Technical Information Service as the World News
An annual online
subscription to the World News Connection is $25 per week, or $780
per year. Want the conference proceedings for Workers' Compensation
and Managed Care? You can place your order online for $124. The
18-page executive summary of Hospital Based Managed Care: Cost and
Quality is $28.50. How many school children or civic-minded citizens
can afford these prices for government reports?
I have been asking the administration to put all government contracts
(above a threshold amount) on the Internet, to make the management
of taxpayer property and government by contract more transparent
and subject to public scrutiny.
I will add that
the lack of openness regarding government contracts is astonishing.
For example, the Clinton/Gore administration won't even disclose,
under Freedom of Information Act requests, for the term of exclusive
patent licenses or the royalties paid to the government for taxpayer-funded
inventions that are worth billions to big pharmaceutical companies.
government information on the Internet should be the easy part.
The more challenging issue concerns the funding and support for
the free public digital libraries that would focus on materials
that are particularly useful for students and citizens. The vice
president talked about this when he was elected, but what was actually
cursory discussion of competition policy deserves something more
than a few self-congratulatory pats on the back for the occasional
good works by the bureaucracy.
The Reagan administration
split AT&T into seven regional local exchange companies and
one long-distance company, with rules in place that stopped the
local exchange companies from entering various content businesses.
It has been the Clinton/Gore administration that has permitted the
Bell Atlantic/Nynex/GTE merger (now Verizon) and the SBC-PacBell-Ameritech
merger, reducing the number of big local exchange carriers from
eight to four.
This has fundamentally
undermined the benefits of the AT&T breakup. With smaller local
calling areas, the local exchange monopolies would have had to contend
with entry barriers when they tried to grow outside of their market
area. But these mergers have given the local exchange monopolies
such huge calling areas that they can avoid competition with each
other and punish rivals in a much bigger market.
of the FCC, the U.S. Department of Justice and state regulators
to protect the competitive sector for last-mile connections is one
of the reasons there is so little broadband deployment.
resistance from the Clinton/Gore administration, the new entrants
are merging or becoming partners with the incumbent monopolies.
The local exchange companies are buying into the new DSL providers.
SBC/PacBell/Ameritech is now an investor in Covad, a firm that had
filed an antitrust suit against SBC. Verizon is investing in Northpoint
As Brian Pioskina
writes in Interactive Week, NorthPoint and Covad were the two strongest
competitors in the market, not just because of their size, but because
of the ferocious manner in which they took action in court against
the incumbents when business practices were in dispute.
Will the Gore
Administration stop these deals? The Qwest merger with U S West
was another example of a merger that sought to avoid competition.
If you look
at the Internet Service Provider market, you no longer see a group
of upstart companies challenging the old-guard telecom players.
With few exceptions, you see a bunch of upstart companies that have
been bought or become partners with old-guard telecom companies.
earlier assertion that there was no evidence that the cable industry
would engage in anticompetitive conduct in the broadband Internet
market prompted me, in my previous post, to quote from Disney's
devastating accounting of the history of AOL and Time Warner's anticompetitive
Mr. Hundt ignores
all of the specific allegations expect one -- the time that Time
Warner blacked out ABC from its cable television platform, which
he also noted led to swift FCC action to protect Disney.
Then Mr. Hundt
accuses me of shilling for Disney, which he calls "Mickey Mouse
behavior." To be accused of shilling for Disney by Mr. Hundt,
on behalf of Mr. Gore, is of course offensive or amusing, depending
upon one's mood. But clearly Mr. Hundt is afraid to deal with the
specifics set out, not only by Disney, but by virtually every major
consumer group that follows the open-access issue, including the
Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Media Access
Project, the Center for Media Education, and the Consumer Project
on Technology, not to mention free-speech groups such as the American
Civil Liberties Union.
comment on the Cisco initiative includes this naive statement: "Cisco's
vision of the Internet fundamentally reinforces the concepts of
openness, and the transfer of market power to the individual and/or
enterprise user. The tools discussed by Cisco can work for the individual:
Every person with a server is part of the vision."
person with a server may be part of the vision, what Cisco has marketed
to cable companies will by managed by the cable owner, not by the
cable subscriber? Perhaps Mr.
Hundt can't see the difference between Time Warner/AOL and AT&T
or Comcast and their customers, but I can.
The issue isn't
whether or not technology by Cisco or others would permit useful
ways to control Internet-data delivery -- they will. The issue is
who will control this technology, and what are the consequences
for the Internet of tomorrow.
If the cable
Internet company decides which data travels fast and which data
travels slow, it can and will use this bottleneck to charge content
providers premium fees for premium delivery or to discriminate among
This is not
rocket science. The cable industry has been engaged in discrimination
among content providers as long as there has been a cable industry.
This is what the cable companies do. This is also what AOL does,
and it is what every would-be Internet monopoly dreams of, including
Microsoft, now an investor in many cable systems here and in Europe.
If Mr. Hundt
wants to make a good case for Mr. Gore, he should explain how Mr.
Gore will protect the Internet from would-be monopolies, including
those in the cable industry who want to turn the Internet into a
highly discriminatory content platform with monopolistic pricing
for data delivery that isn't lousy (the so-called premium service).
This would be more compelling than telling us how Al Gore deserves
credit for every new technical innovation on the Internet.
comments regarding privacy seem to suggest the issue will be solved
if the Democrats can only control Congress. But what does this mean?
Will the Democrats in the
Congress finally stop the Democrats in the White House from using
U.S. trade policy to undermine European privacy policies?
Will the Gore
appointees to the Federal Trade Commission finally see Internet
privacy as something not solved by self-regulation? Will Mr. Gore
actually agree that the government must actively protect citizen
Will he agree
to the creation of an independent office with a mission to protect
personal privacy, as most modern countries do now? Will he support
an International Convention on Privacy Protection that will help
safeguard the privacy interests of consumers and citizens in the
21st century, as called for by the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue
and global privacy groups?
On the issue
of privacy, the United States stands alone in opposing meaningful
privacy regulation of e-commerce. Why is this so? Because the Clinton/Gore
administration has been so focused on raising campaign contributions
from the e-commerce industry, where company valuations are often
based upon a firm's ability to strip consumers of privacy.
When it has
come down to a choice between what investors in e-commerce want
and what most American voters want, the investors have had their
way. Does Mr. Hundt really believe this will change in the next
four years, after what we have seen in the past eight?
In looking at
the Internet, one might also ask what has the administration done
to support the open-source movement, either through procurement
policies (very little), funding for open-source software (not something
the administration talks about) or protecting free software developers
from software patents and anticompetitive practices targeted at
the free-software movement?
In the area
of corporate welfare, tax breaks and subsidies for big corporations,
there is no end to what this administration will do for the e-commerce
But when it
comes to supporting an astonishing citizen movement that is protecting
the Internet from Microsoft and other would-be monopolies and providing
huge benefits to the economy, the administration is completely inarticulate.
During the government's
antitrust investigation of Microsoft, Mr. Gore's daughter went to
work for Microsoft. Could he at least respond to the repeated requests
for the administration to talk about procurement and the free-software
movement? Or find a way to use the federal acquisition regulations
to fund the development of public-domain software? More