Net Election

Candidates Cagey on Net Issues

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

Records show former Sen. Bill Bradley collected more campaign funds in Silicon Valley through the third quarter of last year than any other presidential candidate. The Democratic contender also netted more contributions over the Internet than anyone else, surpassing $1.2 million.

But where does he stand on the issues that are of importance to the growing number of Internet users and workers who depend on cyberspace? And, furthermore, will it matter to the electorate?

While Bradley has been mum on some of the key Internet topics, other candidates are betting that digital issues will matter to voters. This week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., started taking out campaign ads touting his support for permanently extending a moratorium on Internet taxes and protecting children from pornography and other online content. The candidate is betting that some of the growing number of Internet policy issues will resonate with voters. (He’s pushing his anti-tax messages in tax-free New Hampshire; the anti-porn ad has been airing in conservative South Carolina.)

Experts agree that the year 2000 contest is a new frontier. Never before in the history of presidential politics have candidates felt the pressure to adopt a high-tech platform, speak out about protecting privacy over the Internet, or sign a pledge vowing they will forever oppose Internet taxes. Though, clearly, none of these issues yet ranks with election-deciding topics such as economic depression, war, or tax cuts.

“We believe that Internet users are the soccer moms of the 2000 election,” said Ron Nehring, director of national campaigns for Americans for Tax Reform, which asked all presidential candidates to sign a declaration opposing any Internet taxes. “Just as soccer moms were the constituency everyone was trying to reach in the 1996 election, Internet users will play the same role this year.”

The Internet tax issue is a complicated one. It pits the interests of dot-com companies that don’t want to be burdened by collecting taxes on behalf of some 7,500 different sales-taxing jurisdictions against the interests of states and municipalities that rely on revenues to fund schools, law enforcement, and public works projects. A congressional commission is expected to recommend a national policy in April. There are essentially three options: Ban sales taxes on Internet purchases, leave the status quo (in which case it only matters where the Internet company is located), or give states the ability to go after sales taxes from out-of-state Internet companies.

Republican candidates Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, and Gary Bauer have signed the no-tax pledge, and McCain’s campaign has indicated he will also sign. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has declined. While he favors a three-to-five-year extension of the current moratorium, he wants to await the recommendations of the congressional commission. Democrats Bradley and Vice President Al Gore have also declined to sign the pledge. Both have said publicly that they want to await the commission’s report and that they are also concerned about the potential drain on state and local tax revenues if a ban on Internet sales taxes is made permanent.

“The vice president supports finding a solution to these issues that allows the Internet and e-commerce to flourish without stripping states and localities of their ability to educate children and fight crime,” said an administration official. The Bradley campaign declined to comment.

Nehring predicted the issue could unite a block of Internet voters: “It’s a galvanizing force that will serve to activate Internet users on a political issue.”

But some skeptics disagree that any Internet issues will sway the electorate at large. “The issue of export controls on encryption technologies, or even the tax issue, is not broad-based enough,” said Michael Cornfield, a professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “One possible exception is if there’s a ‘privacy Chernobyl.’ If there is some disaster involving a lot of peoples’ privacy, that is the one issue where the Internet would be on the agenda on a mass level. … If that happened, I think all the candidates would be forced to take a position on the issue.”

Several candidates already have taken public stands or made statements about whether or not they believe the government needs to ensure that consumer privacy isn’t violated by online companies. Statements from Gore, McCain, Bradley, and Bush indicate they favor holding off on any general privacy legislation to allow industry to “self-regulate” by posting privacy policies and developing guidelines to ensure that consumers understand how their personally identifying information will be used. Most of the candidates, with the exception of Bush, who hasn’t yet taken a stand, also say that certain records, including medical and financial information, should be protected by legislation. The privacy of children under 13 is already protected under federal law. Forbes, in a speech last month titled “The Future of Privacy,” went further, saying he would shut down all federal medical databases and end the Internal Revenue Service “as we know it” by imposing a simplified flat tax.

Not all the candidates are closing the door on more general privacy protection legislation in the future. “For the current period, we believe industry self-regulation is the way to go,” said Tim Adams, a technology policy adviser to the Bush campaign. “But we don’t rule out regulation in the future if industry fails to do a good job of policing itself.”

Privacy advocates say they believe the candidates are supporting industry self-regulation in order to appeal to industry interests, as opposed to the general population. “Privacy could clearly be one of the critical issues of the first campaign of the 21st century,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “While a lot of the money is in self-regulation, a lot of the votes will be with legislation.”

The pursuit of contributions from the high-tech community is one of the reasons that some candidates have gone to great lengths to develop a high-tech platform. The problem is that in order to appeal to this constituency, many of the candidates have adopted postures that are eerily alike. Most of the major candidates favor loosening export restrictions on encryption policy. Most favor an international ban on tariffs on Internet purchases and services. Most favor forgoing federal regulation at this time in favor of allowing the marketplace to ensure that consumers have a choice of Internet service providers for high-speed Internet services.

Where some of the candidates differ is in support of federal efforts to bridge the “digital divide.” The Gore camp rightly takes credit for fighting for a federal surcharge on telephone service, with the funds going to help wire public schools and libraries for Internet service. In fact, opponents labeled the program “the Gore tax,” but even Bush supports the program, although his advisers say he might make some changes. Forbes, on the other hand, would repeal the surcharge, which has helped provide wiring and Internet service for thousands of schools and libraries to date. McCain, in 1998, publicly criticized the program, saying it “will fail to give schools and libraries the level of funding they had been led to expect. It will fail to stop the inexcusable waste of money on the fund’s administration. And it will fail to keep consumer’s bills from going up yet again.”

The McCain camp clearly believes that South Carolina voters will be swayed by his support of efforts to keep children away from online pornography and other potentially offensive Internet content. He’s tapped Republican South Carolina Rep. Lindsey Graham to stump for him in an ad running through a laundry list of McCain’s accomplishments, including his fight against Internet porn. McCain has been an ardent supporter of the controversial Child Online Protection Act, which seeks to criminalize Web sites that “knowingly” make harmful material available to minors. The act is currently under consideration by a federal appeals court. He’s also proposed legislation that would mandate filtering software for public schools and libraries that receive federal funds. The Bush campaign says it would support the McCain filtering bill, which has not yet become law.

Another issue that has candidates staking out positions is the prosecution of antitrust charges against Microsoft Corp. This is also an issue on which the Forbes campaign has taken a different position from the other candidates. Forbes has chided the government for pursuing the case. Hatch, who hauled Bill Gates before a Senate hearing, has been raising campaign funds from executives at some of Microsoft’s rivals. Bauer cited a federal judge’s recent ruling that Microsoft has a monopoly in desktop personal computer operating system software as a victory for the little guy. Most of the other candidates have tried to tread the middle ground: The Bush and Gore camps have said they will stay silent on the issue because it is a legal matter and up to the courts, not the executive branch.

Gore, during a highly publicized November visit to the Microsoft campus, told employees he wouldn’t discuss the case. But he did say, “If competition is valuable, which I think it is, then antitrust laws have a place in embodying the values of our country. If dominance in one area is used to prevent that competition in another area, that’s wrong.”

Internet proponents say they are convinced that Internet issues will matter this time around. “Internet issues are going to be extremely important,” said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. “The electorate could very well become very concerned about privacy, protecting kids from bad stuff on the Net, preventing fraud on the Net, … and protecting the free flow of information both here and abroad.”