If recent statements by George W. Bush and his advisers give any indication, we're in for a bumpy flight. The new regime may signal a new era by walking away from the antitrust victory the Justice Department won against Microsoft last year. And that's just one of the questions about how the new administration, particularly its distinctly non-tech, old-school, ferociously ideological Attorney General-designate will view technology, morality and cyberspace.
The handful of Presidents recent enough to experience it have held distinctly different attitudes about online technology, especially the Net and the Web -- and those views have had demonstrable impact. There hasn't been a President yet who spent much time online, or whose life and work was shaped by it, even as it becomes more central to the lives of millions of people. Clinton, according to several profiles of him, barely used a computer at all.
"If you think the Clinton/Gore crowd struggled with technology, wait till you get a load of these people," a Washington Post reporter who covers tech issues told me last week. "They think the Net is another planet. There is absolutely nobody high up in this new administration who is familiar with the Net, and when they do hear about it, it's all hackers and perverts. It's going to be weird, I promise you."
It's not hard to believe.
The Reaganauts (and their Bush II successors) tended to see technology as an alien, menacing new reality -- especially in terms of moral danger and challenge to authority. They were particularly phobic about hacking and online porn. Ed Meese's Justice Department conducted an infamous series of raids on suspected hackers while repeatedly characterizing the Net as a haven for perverts and thieves.
Kevin Mitnick and his demonized colleagues scared the wits out of these people, who tried to make an example of him and others by funding federal computer law enforcement projects and by treating them as vicious criminals. Bush Sr. was, by many accounts, a technophobe who saw the Net as a curious playground for academics, hippies and errant teenagers.
The Clinton administration had a spotty record on copyright and certain free speech issues, but was more sophisticated. If nothing else, they grasped the business implications of the Net and Web, and decided to do nothing to impede the new global economy they envisioned and benefited from politically. Al Gore may have overstated his commitment to universal technology -- the administration sure didn't build any true info superhighway, or even try -- but they did get that the Net was an especially free environment that didn't need much regulation, and would grow and prosper on its own.
The Clinton people did plenty of posturing for phobic Boomer parents and right-wing Luddites. If they were sympathetic to the Net's business possibilities, their commitment to digital civil liberties was less consistent.
They paid lip service to a couple of blatantly-unconstitutional Communications Decency Acts, and promoted V-chips, TV and movie ratings systems, and the equally idiotic Clipper Chip, knowing the courts would laugh them down. They pandered a lot, and they probably knew better. It also didn't seem to bother them that corporations were agressively moving to control cyberspace, wantonly invading privacy and altering the free architecture of the Net in the process.
Further, because of the administration's close Hollywood ties, it backed the noxious Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to help rescue the record companies. In the context of the Net, this is a huge black mark against the outgoing administration, as was the FTC's rolling over for the hideously anti-competitive AOL/Time-Warner marger.
Still, the Clintonians came to have a comparatively sophisticated grasp of tech issues -- a number of Clinton cabinet appointees were online quite a bit -- and little real relish for undermining free speech. They really never seemed to fall the idea that games, movies and the Net were destroying the young and spawning violence. And they kept politics out of science.
The vibes from the Bush administrations seem to suggest otherwise. President Bush and his appointees have made clear that they do see technology primarily in moral terms -- as something children need protection from more than exposure to. Bush's HUD secretary has already ordered a safety review of the much safety-reviewed anti-abortion pill, RU-486. It will be interesting to see how they reconcile thise "pro-life" view with their policies towards the bio-tech industry, which is enthusiastically going about the business of altering (and pre-selecting) forms of human life in fertilization proceedures.
Crusaders like Bush-buddy William Bennett and Vice-President Cheney have long and loudly argued that the Net is rife with pornography and violent imagery, that it is addictive and obsessive, that popular culture promotes immorality and violence. The new Attorney General agrees. Predators and pornographers and rare acts of violence will be seized on and exploited. A key element of the reviving Net culture was is the idea that video games -- along with sexual imagery and a whole range of other things online -- are literally dangerous, even responsible for tragedies like Columbine. Look for the FBI to be given broader authority to track dangerous and illegal activities online and creater a "safer" environment in which businesses can operate.
Universal access to technology is not a Bush administration priority. Gore talked about it, but didn't do much. Only one fifth of kids in families with incomes of less than $20,000 had access to a home computer, compared with 91% of those in families with oncomes of more than $75,000, according to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (study not yet online). Neither Gore nor Bush mentioned this issue during the presidential campaign, or in any of their debates. Bush's education reforms, both in Texas, and as outlined in Washington this week, centered on literary and standardized testing and accountability. They don't deal with technology, perhaps more educationally significant in the long run.
In the past, the likely new attorney general has been a leader of this brainless brigade, along with Bennett and Cheney (and the ex-Labor Secretary Designate Linda Chavez, who withdrew her nomination last week after a controversy involving an illegal immigrant working in her home). Attorney General Ashcroft was a leader in the Congressional movement to post the Ten Commandments in the country's public schools in response to the Columbine massacre. So was Cheney, and,his wife Lynn, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
If the past culture wars are any indication, the new administration will make access to violent and "unsavory" imagery and information online a centerpiece of their law enforcement initiatives. It's been politically popular for years. They will also hammer entertainment companies, online and off, to generate more "wholesome" entertainment programming, especially for the young.
For them, cyberspace poses a threat to traditional moral values, since it empowers individuals -- especially younger ones -- to access information that once required approval by educators, religious leaders and parents. Now anyone with a modem can find his peers. Now wonder they don't like the idea.
Of course, there's been another twist involving the tech universe and this administration -- Bush got a ton of money from Silicon Valley business leaders, once presumed to be either apolitical or Democratic in orientation. Look for a Bush administration to go after dirty pictures and music-thieves while taking a more generous approach to corporate positions on telecommunications, antitrust and copyright.
Even so, the cabinet as formulated doesn't have a single representative from Silicon valley, or any technological industy. What does that mean for the tech world?
An example of the sort of issue digital civil libertarians will have to fight is the ongoing furor over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) placing of limitations on the number of general domains. This, say critics like the ACLU and others, threaten free speech for individual Net users and noncommercial organizations. This pro-business decision -- overseen by the U.S. Department of Commerce -- is a perfect example of the kind of issue this administration is likely to resolve on the side of commercial use, not individual users.
The good news: the new administration is unlikely to curb business or technological innovation and expansion. These are not antitrust gunslingers fighting for the right of the little guy to survive. They would never have brought suit against Microsoft, as several Bush administration executives have inferred.
The bad news: Digital civil liberties will be a hot political issue online. The social conservatives returning to power are highly selective about what sort of free speech stays free. Until the Reagan years, classic conservatives equated free speech with patriotism. But in the 80's, conservatism fused with religious and other moralistic ideologies. They absolutely dread the notion of a free and open Net, for all of the obvious reasons -- it's a dogma killer.
Ever since the social conservatives came to power -- and they are especially close to the Republican congress and this new administration -- libraries, schools, kids and coders have had to content with a wide array of challenges to their rights to a free and open Net. This is the crowd that supported legislation recently enacted by Congress requiring all public institutions that receive federal aid -- mostly schools and libraries -- to install blocking and filtering computer software to protect kids from the dangerous Web. Last month, supporters of such legislation controlled Congress. Now they control the White House, cabinet, and federal agencies as well.
What we can expect:
- Bush's campaign statements suggested he wasn't in agreement with the Justice Department's action against Microsoft, or with the court-ordered remedy of dividing the company and enforcing restrictions on its competitive practices. Ashcroft's Justice Department may drop the case or settle under terms more generous than Janet Reno's would agree to. Both Joel Klein, who prosecuted the case for the Justice Department, and David Boies, the attorney who skewered Bill Gates and worked for the Al Gore post-election, will be scarce now.
- Some Washington columnists, editorialists and insiders are already referring to the new administration as Bush, Inc., it's so pro-business. The Corporate Republic just got a lot more corporate.
- So, expect good times for conglomerates. Microsoft, AOL/Time-Warner, Disney, Sony all have good friends in this administration (as they did in the last one). Bush got so much money from these and other companies that he rejected matching federal funds for his campaign in order to avoid cumbersome federal regulations and disclosure rules, an electoral first. We may see a proliferation of government-supported legal challenges, patent and copyright suits, decency acts and other provisions designed to make life on the Net safe and profitable for big companies. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been pleading for years for more money to go after hackers, crackers and script kiddies on the Net. They'll probably get it.
- Perhaps even more than the previous administration, the Bush team will be sympathetic to publishing, record and movie companies worried about copyright protection. Also to doctors, lawyers and othe well-lobbied professional groups who'd love to curb Websites offering specialized information that used to come, at considerable cost, from them.
- Good times, too, for de-centralized softare programs -- like Linux, Gnutella, freenet and other P2P systems. As government tightens copyright and intellectual property enforcement, which this administration has said it will do, the individualistic point-to-point, peer-to-peer programs already coming of age will become more popular, more necessary, perhaps quite political.
The movement away from top-down, agenda setting media entities has mushroomed online, from instant messaging services to the many thousands of individual Web pages given away for free by search engines and others to sites like this one, Everything2.com, the vines.com, freenet, Plastic.com that turn editorial space and story agendas over to readers and citizens. They are inherently political, consciously or not. The open media movement may accelerate rapidly, and for all sorts of reasons, one being they are much freeer and more open than mainstream media, and nearly impervious to the monitoring of government or other authority.
- The new President himself warned that under certain circumstances, the Net could turn a child's heart "dark." Look for the gaming culture to come under particular fire for promoting violence and other unwholesome behavior.
- Of course, there are certain types of technology the Bush camp will embrace, particularly the kind related to defense industries. Donald Rumsfeld, the new secretary of Defense, and Colin Powell, the new secretary of State, are both pushing for development and deployment of an anti-missile shield around the United States. Claiming the military has been weakened by Defense cuts and needs to be upgraded, they're going to commission the kinds of jazzy weapons systems any 16-year-old Doom player would drool over.
By and large, this is an administration unlikely to focus much on the Net or to pay much attention to the broader, more complex issues affecting Americans and technology in the coming years. If so, this will widen the chasm between younger, technologically-centered citizens and their government, a gap that's already big and getting bigger by the day. Politicians can always surprise us, true, but more often, and especially lately, they seem to play to our worst instincts.