The Internet is transforming American society. It is having a profound effect on our government institutions and our economy and how we communicate with each other and with the rest of the world. About 40 million people used the Internet in 1996, and that number is expected to rise to about 200 million by 1999.
The Internet is a global network of computers linked by phone and cable lines. It began in 1969 as a Defense Department initiative to link a handful of universities, research laboratories and military bases, and has now become ubiquitous. Individuals can access the Internet from personal computers at home or at work, at schools or in the library. The Internet is a means of disseminating information and, increasingly, a way to conduct business.
Congress is struggling to define what role government should play in the Internet. The Internet is a wide-open forum with few rules and regulations. It is not owned by anyone, and it is not confined by geographical borders. This very openness is the great strength of the Internet, facilitating the free exchange of information and ideas around the world. It is also a source of concern. For example, some of the most profitable web sites on the Internet are devoted to gambling and pornography. Some in Congress have urged aggressive regulation of the Internet, while others have urged minimal government involvement.
The Internet has had a dramatic effect on how the average citizen interacts with the federal government. First, individuals now have greater access to information about government. Federal agencies have web sites which usually describe key programs and initiatives and help citizens get answers to commonly asked questions, such as how to apply for a job or how to get benefits. Second, the Internet has made it easier for citizens to communicate with their elected representatives. About 4000 people have contacted my web site in the last year, and many constituents now send e-mail messages to my office. Third, the Internet provides a wide-range of fora for citizens to debate and discuss political issues, from 3-mails and chat rooms to ideologically-oriented web sites.
The Internet has also revolutionized media coverage of Washington. When I first came to Congress in the mid-1960s, most Americans got their news on current events from the morning paper and the evening news. Today, media coverage is almost non-stop, and the Internet has contributed to this trend. For example, the Monica Lewinsky story first broke on a web site, and several news outlets have provided round-the-clock reporting on the scandal from their web sites. Some would say the Internet is feeding the public's appetite for information. Others would argue that it has lowered media standards, opening the floodgates to unrestrained speculation.
Congress will focus its legislative efforts on the Internet in four basic areas. First, it will consider various consumer protection bills, including measures to restrict junk e-mail, protect the privacy of personal information in government databases, and, most importantly, limit pornography and gambling on the Internet. Congress passed legislation in 1996 making it a crime to knowingly send or display indecent material over the Internet, but the Supreme Court invalidated the law on free speech grounds. Supporters say restrictions are necessary to limit access by minors to such materials. Opponents respond that parents, not the government, should control what their children see, that most Internet providers, such as America Online and Prodigy, already give parents and schools the tools to screen out offensive materials, and that regulating pornography will be difficult because U.S. laws don't reach web sites established overseas. We want to protect children from inappropriate material, but we also want to protect the exploding commercial potential of the Internet.
Second, Congress will debate measures relating to taxation of Internet commerce. One recent study estimated that the value of goods and services traded over the Internet will grow from $8 billion in 1997 to $327 billion in 2002. Those figures do not include consumers who are increasingly shopping on the Internet as they become more comfortable with the technology and more aware of the protections against credit card fraud. Many state and local governments, concerned about the shift of commerce to the Internet, want to impose taxes on Internet transactions. The challenge is determining which jurisdiction should levy the taxes, or whether state and local governments should be allowed to tax Internet commerce at all.
Third, Congress will consider bills involving the export of encryption, which is data scrambling technology used to prevent unauthorized access to electronic data on the Internet. Encryption, for example, may be used to secure credit card purchases over the Internet, or to restrict access to certain government web sites. The encryption issue is very contentious. Bills have been introduced to ease restrictions on the export of encryption products so that U.S. manufacturers are on a level playing field with their overseas competitors. The White House, however, has opposed relaxing export controls because of concerns that widespread use of sophisticated encryption will hamper law enforcement and intelligence gathering.
Fourth, Congress is reviewing the issue of trademark protection. Currently, the government has contracted with a private entity to assign web site names. Problems arise when entrepreneurs grab an address that is clearly identified with a well-known brand name or even with a governmental entity. Some argue the federal government should plan an enhanced role in resolving trademark disputes, while others favor referring such disputes to an international organization because the Internet transcends national boundaries.
The federal government has a legitimate role to play in Internet governance, particularly where interstate commerce, trade and law enforcement are involved. I do believe, however, that Congress should proceed with caution as it debates measures to regulate the Internet. I favor a minimum of regulation, but there are some things, like child molesters who get information from the Internet, that simply cannot be ignored. The Internet is a powerful, global technology which is changing our society in ways we don't fully understand, and raising complex legal and policy issues we have rarely, if ever, confronted. My sense is that Members of Congress should probably spend more time trying to learn about the complex and technical issues surrounding the Internet before trying to regulate it.