Tech industry cheers Bush pick for DoJ

He may be a conservative, but Republican John Ashcroft supports a liberal tech agenda. He's for encryption exports and against excessive regulation

Several members of the tech industry are cheering president-elect Bush's pick for attorney general, saying Republican John Ashcroft's hands-off approach to commerce could be a boon for business.However, some are less certain about Ashcroft's stance on Internet filtering and online pornography -- two issues sure to come before the next attorney general -- as challenges to laws regulating Internet content make their way through the courts.

Although Ashcroft is likely to face contentious confirmation hearings, Democrats are not expected to muster enough votes to derail the nomination.

Bush's choice of the conservative former senator from Missouri to head the Department of Justice has raised controversy outside the tech realm, particularly among those who fear he won't punish violence against abortion clinics because of his anti-abortion stance.

But inside tech circles, many are praising Ashcroft for his laissez-faire approach to regulation and his position on encryption. As a senator, Ashcroft stood up to the DOJ by opposing strict limits on encryption technology exports, arguing that then-standing restrictions hurt US competitiveness. He's also been highly critical of Carnivore, an FBI email and wire-tapping system supported by the current DoJ.

Ashcroft is one of several Bush appointees with ties to Silicon Valley. Former senator, Spencer Abraham, Republican, Michigan, long a tech industry favorite for his work on increasing H1-B visas, has been tapped for energy secretary. And Democrat Norman Mineta, the Bush nominee for transportation secretary, is a former mayor of San Jose, California.

One technology trade association is actively lobbying on behalf of Ashcroft. The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) has sent a letter to Senate Judiciary chair, Orrin Hatch -- who will oversee the confirmation process -- urging him to clear Ashcroft. The letter calls Ashcroft "a champion on issues of fundamental importance to the continued success of America's information technology sector".

ITAA president, Harris Miller, applauded Ashcroft's record on encryption, his work on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and his reluctance to regulate online consumer privacy.

"He understands that turning to government regulation as a first way of dealing with a problem is not the way to go," Miller said.

Ashcroft also earned accolades from Prudential Securities analyst James Lucier, who issued a report saying the former Missouri attorney general would "restore investor confidence, post the dot-com crash".

The report touts Ashcroft's tech savvy, pointing out that he was the first senator to have an officially sanctioned Web site. The report also noted that Ashcroft has tried to temper excessive restrictions on intellectual property, an issue that's becoming one of the hottest tech topics, as cases like Napster challenge the notion of content ownership in the digital age.

For example, as Missouri attorney general, Ashcroft filed an amicus brief, supporting the now-famous Betamax decision, which allows people to record movies and TV shows on their VCRs for later use. Attorneys in the Napster file-swapping case are pinning much of their argument on the Betamax decision.

But several tech-related questions could plague Ashcroft as he makes his way through the nomination process.

Though Ashcroft has urged a crackdown on privacy violations in the government sector, he favours letting businesses regulate themselves when it comes to consumer privacy -- a practice the Clinton administration says does not work.

"We'd like to hear what he plans to do as attorney general when it comes to consumer privacy," said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

And some civil liberties advocates fear Ashcroft will side with conservatives who want to regulate Internet content. In the past, he's supported bills that crack down on pornographic content or require filtering software in public schools and libraries. Court challenges to such laws would be handled by the DoJ.

During the Clinton administration, the DoJ's biggest influence on the tech industry was its pursuit of the Microsoft antitrust case, which led to a breakup order against the company. That case is on appeal with the US District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Some industry watchers have speculated that a Bush administration might call off the fight.

However, most filings in the case already have been submitted to the court, meaning the new DoJ would likely have little influence at this point.

The Prudential report pointed out that Ashcroft pursued several antitrust prosecutions while serving as attorney general in Missouri, and that he asked critical questions of Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, during Senate Judiciary hearings.

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