Candidates Cagey on New Issues

Records show former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley collected more campaign funds in Silicon Valley through the third quarter of last year than any other presidential candidate. The Democratic contender also netted more contributions over the Internet than anyone else, surpassing $1.2 million.

But where does he stand on the issues that are of importance to the growing number of Internet users and workers who depend on cyberspace? Furthermore, will it matter to the electorate?

Bradley has been mum on some key Internet issues. But other candidates are betting these issues will matter. This week, Republican Sen. John McCain started taking out campaign ads touting his support for the permanent extension of a moratorium on Internet taxes and protecting children from pornography and other adult online content. The Arizona presidential candidate is betting that the growing number of Internet policy issues will resonate with voters. He's targeted his anti-tax messages in tax-free New Hampshire; the anti-porn ad has been airing in conservative South Carolina.

Experts agree that the 2000 presidential contest is a new frontier. Never before have candidates felt the pressure to adopt a high-tech platform, speak out about protecting privacy online or sign a pledge vowing to forever oppose Internet taxes. Not one of these issues yet ranks with election-deciding topics such as a depression, war or promises of tax cuts.

These days, the Internet has everything to do with the economy, stupid. And read my lips: It also involves taxes.

"We believe that Internet users are the soccer moms of the 2000 election," said Ron Nehring, director of national campaigns for Americans for Tax Reform, which asked all presidential candidates to sign a declaration opposing any Internet taxes. "Just as soccer moms were the constituency everyone was trying to reach in the 1996 election, Internet users will play the same role this year. " The Internet tax issue is complicated. It pits the interests of dot-com companies that don't want to be burdened by collecting taxes on behalf of some 7,500 different sales-taxing jurisdictions against the interests of states and municipalities that rely on revenues to fund schools, law enforcement and public works projects.

A congressional commission should recommend a national policy in April. There are essentially three options: Ban sales taxes on Internet purchases; continue the status quo, whereby Internet companies collect only for the states in which they are located; or give states the ability to go after sales taxes from out-of-state residents.

Republican candidates Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch and Gary Bauer have signed the no-tax pledge and McCain's campaign has indicated he will also sign. Texas Governor George W. Bush has declined. While he favors a 3- to 5-year extension of the current Internet tax moratorium, he wants to await the recommendations of the congressional commission.

Democratic front-runners Bradley and Vice President Al Gore have also declined to sign the pledge. Both have said publicly they want to await the commission's report, and that they are also concerned about the potential drain on state and local tax revenues if a ban on Internet sales taxes is made permanent.

"The vice president supports finding a solution to these issues that allows the Internet and e-commerce to flourish without stripping states and localities of their ability to educate children and fight crime," said an administration official. The Bradley campaign declined to comment.

Nehring predicted the issue could unite a block of Internet voters: "It's a galvanizing force that will serve to activate Internet users on a political issue."

But some skeptics disagree that any Internet issues will rise to the level of swaying the electorate at large. "The issue of export controls on encryption technologies or even the tax issue is not broad-based enough," said Michael Cornfield, a professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "One possible exception is if there's a 'privacy Chernobyl.' If there is some disaster involving a lot of people's privacy, that is the one issue where the Internet would be on the agenda on a mass level ...

If that happened, I think all the candidates would be forced to take a position on the issue."

Several candidates already have taken public stands, or made statements about whether or not they believe the government needs to ensure consumer privacy isn't violated by online companies. Statements from Gore, McCain, Bradley and Bush indicate they favor holding off on general privacy legislation to allow the industry to "self-regulate" by posting privacy policies, and develop guidelines to ensure that consumers understand how their personally identifying information will be used.

Most of the candidates - with the exception of Bush, who hasn't yet taken a stand - also say that certain records should be protected by legislation, including medical and financial records. The privacy of children under age 13 is already protected under federal law. Forbes, in a speech last month titled "The Future of Privacy", went further, saying he would shut down any federal medical databases and end the Internal Revenue Service "as we know it" by imposing a simplified flat tax.

Not all the candidates are closing the door on more general privacy protection legislation in the future. "For the current period, we believe industry self-regulation is the way to go," said Tim Adams, a technology policy advisor to the Bush campaign. "But we don't rule out regulation in the future if industry fails to do a good job of policing itself."

Privacy advocates say they believe the candidates are supporting industry self-regulation in order to appeal to industry interests, as opposed to the general population. "Privacy could clearly be one of the critical issues of the first campaign of the 21st century," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "While a lot of the money is in self-regulation, a lot of the votes will be with legislation."

The pursuit of contributions from the high-tech community is one of the reasons that some candidates have gone to lengths to develop a high-tech platform. The problem is that in order to appeal to this constituency, many of the candidates have adopted postures that are eerily alike. Most of the major candidates favor loosening export restrictions on encryption policy. Most favor an international ban on tariffs on Internet purchases and services. Most favor forgoing federal regulation at this time in favor of allowing the marketplace to ensure consumers a choice of ISPs for high-speed Internet services.

Where some candidates differ is in support of federal efforts to bridge the "digital divide." The Gore camp rightly takes credit for fighting for a federal surcharge on telephone service to help wire public schools and library for Internet service. In fact, opponents labeled the program "the Gore tax".

But even Bush supports the program, although his advisors say he might make some changes. Forbes, on the other hand, would repeal the surcharge, which has helped provide wiring and Internet service for thousands of schools and libraries to date. McCain, in 1998, publicly criticized the program, saying it "will fail to give schools and libraries the level of funding they had been led to expect. It will fail to stop the inexcusable waste of money on the fund's administration. And it will fail to keep consumers' bills from going up yet again."

The McCain camp clearly believes that South Carolina voters will be swayed by his support of efforts to keep children away from online pornography and other potentially offensive Internet content. He's tapped South Carolina Rep. Lindsey Graham, R, to stump for him in an advertisement running down a laundry list of McCain's accomplishments, including his fight against Internet porn. McCain has been an ardent supporter of the controversial Child Online Protection Act, which seeks to criminalize Web sites that "knowingly" make available to minors harmful material. The act is currently under consideration by a federal appeals court. He's also proposed legislation that would mandate filtering software for public schools and libraries that receive federal funds.

The Bush campaign says it would support the McCain filtering bill, which has not yet become law.

Another issue that has candidates staking out positions is the prosecution of antitrust charges against Microsoft - an issue where Forbes stakes out a different position from others, chiding the government for pursuing the case.

Hatch, who hauled Bill Gates before a Senate hearing, has been raising campaign funds from executives at some of Microsoft's rival firms. Bauer cited a federal judge's recent ruling that Microsoft has a monopoly in desktop personal computer operating system software as a victory for the little guy.

Most of the other candidates try to tread the middle ground: The Bush and Gore camps have said they will remain mum on the issue because it is a legal matter and up to the courts, not the executive branch.

Gore, during a highly publicized November visit to the Microsoft campus, told employees he wouldn't discuss the case. But he did say the following: "If competition is valuable, which I think it is, then antitrust laws have a place in embodying the values of our country. If dominance in one area is used to prevent that competition in another area, that's wrong."

Internet proponents say they are convinced that Net issues will matter this time around.

"Internet issues are going to be extremely important," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C.

"The electorate could very well become very concerned about privacy, protecting kids from bad stuff on the Net, preventing fraud on the Net ... and protecting the free flow of information both here and abroad."

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