How will tech history remember Clinton?

Summary:The Internet didn't become a phenomenon because of Clinton's years in office, but his administration's policies will go far in shaping the digital future.

A hot economy and a blue dress aren't the only legacies of the Clinton presidency: The Internet came of age during his tenure in office, and Clinton administration's policies will help shape its future.

His presidency has spanned a period of extraordinary change in the high-tech world, and the entire life of the Web. Before Clinton took office, constituents couldn't send e-mail to Congress, electronic commerce consisted of kludgy corporate systems exchanging purchase orders, and the term "information superhighway" went from newsworthy to passe.

So, as he heads toward lame-duck time, ZDNN polled a passel of pundits on just how well Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and their top lieutenants shaped policy on tech issues ranging from privacy to e-commerce.

The results? Truly, a mixed bag.

Industry watchers flunked the administration's efforts on encryption policy, with some barking that the deadlocked initiative shows that at least some in the administration are hell-bent on a "surveillance society."

But the administration got high marks on e-commerce taxes, and in a number of other areas, observers were split.

Here's the roundup on the administration's work on key high-tech issues:

ENCRYPTION: No single issue troubled ZDNN's pundits more than the Clinton administration's embrace of what they say is a restrictive policy on the use of data-scrambling encryption software. In fact, no observer offered a grade higher than "D," save one, who gave the administration a "B."

The administration currently limits the sale of powerful encryption software outside the U.S., and calls for law enforcement to have greater access to U.S. citizens' PCs.

"While Bill Clinton demands that his own privacy be respected, he and his administration have worked assiduously to prevent ordinary citizens from keeping their own communications private," said Dave Kopel, director of the Center on the Digital Economy at the Heartland Institute, a public policy think tank.

Others were even stronger.

"(The policy is) muddled, inconsistent and mostly wrong-headed," said Esther Dyson, a longtime tech watcher and current interim chairwoman of ICANN.

She noted the irony that "the government's own use of, and access to, certain private information about individuals is way overbroad, and yet it is trying to reduce U.S. citizens' data protections, even as it forbids export abroad."

"In all of its encryption-related proposals, the DOJ (Department of Justice) has overreached its bounds," added Jim Lucier, an analyst at Prudential Securities who studies the macroeconomic impact of the Internet industry. "It's the role of the White House to balance law enforcement concerns with industry concerns, and they just haven't done that."

He called the Clinton encryption policy "a massive dereliction of duty."

But Bruce Taylor, an attorney at the National Law Center for Children and Families, agreed with the idea espoused by FBI Director Louis Freeh and others that law enforcement needs to keep encryption in check.

"I'm still open to the idea that the spread of very strong encryption could present some of the threats" that Freeh has warned of, Taylor said.

E-COMMERCE: For several years, Clinton has viewed e-commerce as a critical issue.

The administration's pivotal July 1997 report, the Framework for Global E-Commerce, spearheaded by former White House Internet czar Ira Magaziner, set the stage for what most observers said is a solid e-commerce policy that culminated in passage of the Internet Tax Freedom Act.

"They get an A+ for continually looking for things they can do to validate private-sector solutions" and opposing taxes for online transactions, Lucier said.

But Dave McClure, executive director of the Association for Online Professionals, a trade group, was somewhat critical.

"Like the Congress, the administration has walked the center line on this issue, supporting the concept (of no e-commerce taxes), but are frightened to lose the support of the mayors and governors" who still hope to collect state sales taxes on Internet sales, McClure said.

PRIVACY: The Clinton administration also got high marks for shaping policies on consumer privacy protection on the Internet, mainly for leaving Internet companies alone. There's no law on the books now specifically addressing online consumer privacy, and to the industry, this is a good thing.

"The FTC has taken a hands-off approach, has avoided overreacting to isolated privacy horror stories, and did a good job negotiating with the (European Union)," said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

The administration has also given "a solid defense of industry self-regulation," said Ben Isaacson, executive director of the Association for Interactive Media trade group. Isaacson credited former White House high-tech policy adviser Ira Magaziner and Peter Swire, Gore's head adviser on tech issues, with shaping the administration's laissez-faire privacy policy.

But there's more to do, according to Dyson.

"The government should cheerlead private efforts and focus on privacy protection for medical data, children, and its own collection and use of (online) data," she said.

But not everyone thinks Clinton's administration has negotiated the shoals of privacy successfully. In particular, Taylor said he would have liked to see Clinton and Gore make stronger public statements in support of laws ordering Web sites to protect children's privacy from potential predators.

And others aren't so sure that industry self-regulation has worked.

Said Joseph Reagle, an analyst on technology and society issues at the World Wide Web Consortium: "For progress to be made, we need enforceable rules regarding a baseline of acceptable behavior that cast pro-privacy policies as an advantage rather than a liability."

COPYRIGHT PROTECTION: Observers disagreed on whether the administration's efforts were sufficient to protect major copyright holders -- and whether, in fact, major copyright holders even deserve strong protection for digital works.

"Clinton's ties to the content community -- both the music industry and Hollywood -- have pushed him to support some fairly draconian positions with regard to copyright," said the AOP's McClure. "He gets only modest relief for signing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was crafted by Congress and the (high-tech) industry," McClure said.

Added W3C's Reagle: "The administration hasn't done anything for me (as an online content author) on that front, but it has permitted Congress to continue to toe the line of large companies, eventually frustrating my ability to use digital technologies and public domain resources in ways I would like."

But Lucier disagreed.

"I give them an 'A' on this one -- they have taken this issue seriously, and reached out to governments overseas to find consensus," he said.

CONTENT: The issue of how far governments should go in controlling sexually explicit and violent Web content generated real heat.

The CCIA's Black, while admitting to being "mad at them over the CDA and COPA (the Child Online Protection Act)," shared the view of many observers that the administration's heart was never really in the content fight.

Several pundits felt that the administration's endorsement of the CDA and COPA -- both struck down by the courts as unconstitutional -- came more out of political expediency than a real belief that Net content should be censored.

"I'm not sure the administration is of the same mind as much of the Net community on content, but they've been so wishy-washy about it, it's like they've tried to limit the damage (of legislation such as CDA)," Black said.

Taylor of the National Law Center -- a key supporter of the CDA and COPA -- also criticized the administration on content, but for a different reason.

"You can't give them an 'F' because they did at least officially support the CDA and COPA," Taylor said. "But I would have to give them a 'D,' because the (Attorney General Janet) Reno Justice Department has not adequately enforced the anti-obscenity laws" that cover Net content, he said.

Other observers were on the fence.

"There's been a lot of posturing, but little real leadership on this issue," said Prudential's Lucier. "I'd give them a 'C.' The V-chip and the CDA were unenforceable, but they never really wholeheartedly supported them."

IMMIGRATION: While some observers felt the Clinton White House should have done more to speed along immigration of foreign high-tech workers, others disagreed on how important immigration is to the industry.

"Even though the administration compromised on the allocated visa increase last year, this issue will continue to give this administration problems," said AIM's Isaacson. "This could be a presidential issue for Gore, as he needs labor's support."

Congress is set to raise the cap for foreign tech worker visas when it returns from its summer recess this week, but with a fight brewing between high-tech companies and labor leaders, Isaacson thinks Clinton may veto it.

Keith Fulton, director of technology programs and policy at the National Urban League, said White House officials have been right to support immigration increases up to now, but questioned the need for a further increase.

"American workers can be trained for a lot of these jobs, so we really should concentrate on developing our own talent," Fulton said.

R&D TAX CREDITS: Most observers blamed Congress, not Clinton, for the current deadlock over corporate research and development tax credits.

Every year for two decades, the R&D tax break, beloved of high-tech companies, has been extended for just one year. This year, the industry pushed for a permanent extension, and its fate is now in limbo.

"The administration has not done much on this, and it's really meaningful to the industry," Lucier said. "To qualify for it means you're recognized as a quality company."

But the National Law Center's Taylor said the administration has done what it could to advance the permanent extension. "The industry has no reason to complain about the administration's performance on this," he said.

DIGITAL DIVIDE: The issue of how to rectify inequities in Internet use -- and whether such inequities are large enough to warrant any attention -- proved controversial.

A recent report on the issue from White House officials maintained that rural Americans and minorities lag far behind whites in Internet use. The report called for new public/private partnerships to open Internet access centers in poor areas.

The National Urban League's Fulton, a close watcher of the issue, said he's largely pleased with the administration's efforts to point out the problem.

"There has been a coordinated effort by the federal agencies to address Internet access (inequities), and Clinton and Gore have put this issue in the national spotlight," he said. While solutions won't come easily or quickly, Fulton said the fact that the issue is in the spotlight is very important.

But others disagreed both on the scope of the problem, and how the administration should have handled it.

"This is a no-win question," said McClure. "No matter what the administration does, it will be too little for the left and too much for the right."

"The gap is not so wide that a lot of people can't jump it," Black said. "But the administration has (spoken from) the bully pulpit on this issue, and that's not inappropriate."

The Heartland Institute's Kopel said the administration "created" the issue for political gain.

"Every new technology and new product will be adopted sooner by richer people than by poorer people," Kopel said. "In this regard, the Internet is just like television, telephones, or VCRs.

"The best solution to the so-called digital divide is not another government welfare program, but getting government out of the way," he said.

Topics: Privacy, E-Commerce, Government, Legal

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.