Internet Caucus ready for 1998

Summary:WASHINGTON -- The congressional Internet Caucus has laid out an "ambitious agenda" for the first half of 1998 that includes briefing Congress on Internet taxation, encryption, bandwidth, access to government information and privacy, according to a planning memo obtained by MSNBC. The caucus will announce its plans the last week of February.

WASHINGTON -- The congressional Internet Caucus has laid out an "ambitious agenda" for the first half of 1998 that includes briefing Congress on Internet taxation, encryption, bandwidth, access to government information and privacy, according to a planning memo obtained by MSNBC. The caucus will announce its plans the last week of February.

The Caucus plans a "significant upgrade" for its Web site. "The Web site will contain content relating to every conceivable Internet public policy issue," according to memo obtained by MSNBC.

Various task forces, which track with the issues briefings mentioned earlier, will write position papers that "must show all sides of the issue and remain an educational tool for members," the memo states.

A kind of traveling Internet road show also is being developed. This tutorial is aimed at educating other members of Congress about the history of the Internet, how it works, methods of delivery and its general uses.

The group was formed in March 1996, in the aftermath of the heated and spin-driven debate over the Communications Decency Act. It was founded by Reps. Rick White, R-Wash., and Rick Boucher, D-Va., along with Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

The group started with only 20 members and reached 80 by the end of the 104th Congress. In November, the caucus gained its 100th member when Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-N.C., signed on.

White, in previous interviews with MSNBC, said that the caucus was formed mainly to educate Congress about cyberspace. Such information is critical, White said, especially in an environment where members are increasingly being asked to consider legislation that could negatively impact the development of the Internet.

TAKING THE NEXT STEP

The even-handed and educational thrust of the caucus is in keeping with its charter; it's not meant to be an advocacy group. But to be effective, the caucus has to engage members of congress directly, rather than just members of their staffs, according to one source who is close to the caucus and has sat in on its planning sessions.

"The caucus is really facing a turning point here; now it's about can it deliver," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "What was great about the caucus last year was that it began to raise the profile of Internet issues. But one of the things that didn't really work was that we didn't get a lot of member interest in the events."

"The caucus agenda does a good job because it's really hitting the hot-button issues," the source said. He said the caucus has to be more activist than in the past, "to sort of lead rather than just show the issues."

However, he also acknowledged that such a role may be difficult because of the realities of politics and the original educational charter of the group.

"I think that's a fair criticism," said Connie Correll, White's administrative assistant. This year the caucus plans a renewed effort to engage members directly. "All I can say is, hopefully, we can do better this year," Correll said. "We did tail off a little bit last year and we want to make sure we correct that mistake."

EFFECTIVE OR FLOP?

Just how effective the group has been is a matter of perspective. If the function of the caucus is to promote the use of the Internet for constructive purposes inside Congress and out, "then I'd say it's a total flop," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Ralph Nader group.

"But if the purpose is to provide corporate lobbyists with a lobbying opportunity and a way for them to help get their voice heard up on the hill then certainly it's useful," said Ruskin, who is heading up the Internet caucus briefing on access to government information.

So why is Ruskin even involved? "It's an opportunity for the government reform and consumer groups to be involved as well to participate, despite being greatly outnumbered," he said.

Ruskin continues to push for more public access to government information, although he thinks his efforts via the Internet Caucus aren't particularly effective. "We get very little out of the Internet Caucus," he said. "The issues that we're interested in, for example, placing government documents on the Internet, well, the Caucus has been mostly a great failure at doing that."

Correll said that the congressman's office has addressed Ruskin's concerns by helping sponsor efforts to get the public access to more government information, but that it has been "our own personal project."

She said the caucus, because it is a bipartisan group, purposefully chose not to take policy positions, which might tend to fracture the group along party or ideological lines.

'We felt we were better off educating members about the Internet, about technology providing both sides of the debate so they could make more informed decisions," she said.

Topics: Tech Industry

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