The Clinton administration has learned a lot after a series of summits on Internet privacy, safety and connectivity issues, but key questions are still being debated as officials complete a report on e-commerce and online privacy due on Clinton's desk in three weeks.
That's according to Larry Irving, the assistant secretary for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration - the U.S. Commerce Department arm charged with advising the executive branch on technology questions.
Irving, interviewed by ZDNN following his address at the White House-sponsored Conference on Digital Media Content for Children and Teens, said the administration is well aware how important the Internet will be to the world economy over the next decade and beyond.
That knowledge makes it all the more frustrating to try and balance calls for free speech with privacy and safety concerns, he said, and there are conflicting views on Capitol Hill on how best to do that.
As the debate continues, the July 1 deadline approaches, when a report is due to Clinton on online commerce and privacy issues from Irving's boss, U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley.
Daley and other Commerce officials are taking into consideration what they learned at the administration's two previous Internet summits - in December 1997 and in February - along with input from this week's event and another Internet privacy confab planned for later this month, Irving said.
Officials are also taking note of last week's scathing Federal Trade Commission report on consumer Web privacy, he added. Asked whether new legislation is likely, given the FTC's resounding condemnation of Web sites' privacy practices, Irving said: "It's still too early to tell. There certainly will be renewed discussion," both in Congress and in the executive branch. New laws could theoretically be enacted by year's end if a consensus arises.
"We're not afraid to do things on a regulatory basis, but there is an honest, heartfelt belief in this administration that self-regulation is preferable to government intervention, since this industry is moving so fast and is so important to the economy," Irving said.
But the questions Commerce department officials are considering in drawing up this latest report have no easy answers. What, for example, should government do in response to a Kip Kinkel, the 15-year-old Oregon student who used the Internet to learn how to make the bombs with which he allegedly booby-trapped his home the same day he shot his parents and several classmates to death?
"When the 'Steal this Book' campaign was raging in the '60s, people didn't say the bookstores should be shut down," Irving said, noting that the Kinkel incident has prompted calls for censorship of bomb sites.
"You don't want to have a situation where kids have no access [to the Web],", he said. "The Internet is so new, so nascent, that the positive energy and opportunities it is going to create aren't fully apparent yet."
In this week's conference, which is focusing on content-creation and data-privacy issues, government officials are asking educators and technologists how to get the best Web content to the widest possible young audience while shielding youngsters from those who would use the Web to prey on them, Irving said.
He acknowledged that much of the public views the Internet as irrelevant at best, and dangerous at worst. "That's a failure on our part to get the word out about the wonderful things the Internet has to offer," Irving said.
But he added that government and industry need to emphasize that the violent and unsavory aspects of the Internet will never entirely go away, and must emphasize common-sense approaches to using the medium that also apply in the physical world. "The Net is a tool -- it's not inherently good and it's not inherently bad," Irving said.