Wooing the Web Vote

In income-tax-free New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently began airing campaign ads that tout his support for extending the Internet tax moratorium. In conservative South Carolina, he's running ads trumpeting his work to protect children from online pornography. The Arizona senator is betting that those issues - Internet issues - will resonate with voters.

McCain isn't alone. Most of the presidential candidates have awakened to the fact that the Internet now brushes up against such political touchstones as taxes, the economy, family and privacy. Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have offered their positions on a range of Internet issues.

Bush even has Internet advisers. Among the leading candidates, only Democrat Bill Bradley - who raised more money in Silicon Valley than anyone else last year and who also raised more contributions on the Internet - has remained enigmatic on Net issues, perhaps because he's been out of office since 1996, before the relevant questions arose.

Some of the positions of other Republicans seeking the nomination have become clearer during recent debates. When the question of cracking down on Web porn came up during a debate on Jan. 10, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, conservative Gary Bauer and former radio talk-show host Alan Keyes took a harder line than did their opponents. "I don't think it's ever an infringement [on First Amendment rights] to stop pornography, obscenity and other types of trash," Hatch said.

Bauer opined that "we need to take ... all [porn] off [the Web]. ... It exploits women. It exploits children." Keyes agreed that Internet pornography "is an issue of public decency" and not a free speech issue.

Slightly more complicated is the Internet tax issue. It pits the interests of dot-com companies that don't want the burden of collecting taxes on behalf of 7,500 sales taxing jurisdictions against the interests of states and municipalities that rely on those revenues to fund schools, law enforcement and public works projects. A congressional commission is expected to recommend a national policy in April.

There are essentially three options: ban sales taxes on Internet purchases, keep the status quo (the Internet company taxes only residents of the state in which it's located) or give states the ability to go after sales taxes from out-of-state Internet companies.

Hatch, Bauer and Republican businessman Steve Forbes have come out against taxing Internet sales and McCain's campaign has indicated he will do the same.

Bush says he favors a 3- to 5-year extension of the current Internet tax moratorium, but he wants to wait for the recommendations of the congressional commission. Democrats Bradley and Gore both say they will wait for the commission's report, and express concern about the potential drain on state and local tax revenues.

Several candidates have also taken public stands on the government's role in protecting consumer privacy online. Bradley, Bush, Gore and McCain favor holding off on general privacy legislation to allow the online industry to "self-regulate." Most of the candidates, with the exception of Bush, who hasn't taken a stand, also say medical and financial records, among other personal data, should be protected by law. Forbes last month went further, vowing to shut down federal medical databases and to end the Internal Revenue Service's mammoth repository of personal financial data "as we know it" by imposing a simplified flat tax.

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

Privacy advocates say the candidates are, in general, playing to the industry, many of whose leaders have opened their checkbooks for individual campaigns.

"Privacy could clearly be one of the critical issues of the first campaign of the 21st century," warns 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."

In their efforts to court the high-tech community, the candidates have adopted remarkably similar postures. Most of the leading candidates favor loosening export restrictions on encryption policy. Most are for an international ban on tariffs on Internet purchases and services. Most support letting the market - not federal regulators - ensure that consumers have a choice of high-speed Internet service providers.

Some candidates do differ on the question of federal efforts to bridge the "digital divide." The Gore camp takes credit for pushing a federal surcharge on telephone service that helps wire public schools and libraries for the Internet. In fact, opponents labeled the program "the Gore tax". But even Bush supports the program, although his advisers say he might make some changes. Forbes, on the other hand, would repeal the surcharge, which has provided wiring and Internet service for thousands of schools and libraries.

McCain in 1998 criticized the program, noting that many more schools asked to participate than possibly could be accommodated, and because the program didn't give priority to poorer schools. His representatives say he now fully supports the program, in part because it now gives priority to the neediest districts.

The McCain camp clearly believes that his efforts to keep children away from online pornography and other potentially offensive Internet content will find support in South Carolina; that's why he is running ads touting his support of the controversial Child Online Protection Act, which seeks to criminalize Web sites that "knowingly" make harmful material available to minors. The act is currently under review by a federal appeals court. McCain has 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.

The question remains whether the electorate at large will care where a candidate stands on Internet issues.

"We believe that Internet users are the soccer moms of the 2000 election," says Ron Nehring, director of the national campaign for Americans for Tax Reform, which asked the presidential candidates to sign their names to a declaration opposing 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."

Some skeptics say, however, that the Internet's time has not yet come - at least politically. "The issue of export controls on encryption technologies or even the tax issue is not broad-based enough," says 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."

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