Don't Tread on IT

Damn that Internet. The federal government managed to pretty much keep its mitts off the technology business for two generations.

Then along came the Web, and computers turned sexy all of a sudden. Soccer moms were surfing the Net. Billionaires were popping up in this poky little not-quite-San Francisco section of California. One morning, sometime around 1997, every congressman in Georgetown woke up, took a deep breath and smelled the irresistible aroma of an industry throwing off wealth like nobody's business. And thus, an era came to an end.

The result: The federal government has rushed into technology in a big way, complete with laws, regulations, subcommittees and the Washington seal of authenticity: congressional hearings. And don't forget the antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., which could cause big changes for the information technology world. It doesn't get much more legitimate than that.

We were wondering which political issues are most important to IT leaders and what - if anything - the feds ought to do about them. So we asked you. At the June Computerworld Premier 100 Conference for IT Leaders, 71 attendees completed a survey on government and IT. Not surprisingly, security topped respondents' list of concerns, followed by data privacy and staffing issues.

But whether Uncle Sam ought to worry about these issues is another question.

Generally, IT leaders prefer a limited role for the feds.

Security

Security was respondents' No. 1 issue, with 89 percent saying they are "very" or "extremely" concerned. Brian House, MIS operations manager and senior vice president at Greenville, N.C.-based Regional Acceptance Corp., says, "The business world in general is starting to take note that the information IT presides over is a mission-critical part of any organization and [that] the loss of revenue generated by theft could ... send any company into a tailspin."

Despite this extreme concern, respondents called for the feds to play only a limited role (62 percent) or no role at all (14 percent) in addressing the security problem; only 21 percent called for a heavy role. Linda Rossetti, CEO of Boston-based eMaven Inc., an Internet strategy consulting firm, expressed IT's skepticism and posed the critical question.

"We're delighted for the [feds'] interest," she says. "But how solvable is the issue politically?" Rossetti says the data security problem is "less about control than it is about education" and adds that this education - on security practices and tools - is best left to organizations and IT departments.

Don McNamee, CIO at Lexmark International Inc., a Lexington, Ky.-based manufacturer of printers, says security has become one of his top concerns in the past year. "The government needed to recognize that security is a national problem," he says. "And they've done that." But McNamee says he doesn't believe the government ought to unleash legislation or create a bureaucracy. "[Federal] laws would just be another overhead position. And when you look at Los Alamos [the nuclear research laboratory in New Mexico, where recent security breaches occurred], they've proven that they have much to learn themselves."

But many respondents say the security problem poses so much risk that federal involvement is both necessary and inevitable. "Basically, I'm a free-market person," says Lew Leeburg, director of the information systems research program at University of California, Los Angeles' Anderson School. "But I recognize that we need government help against unscrupulous or criminal activities and people."

House agrees: "One of the main issues [facing IT] is the inability to prosecute hackers," he says. "Information theft must be stopped. Until we have laws in place ... it will continue to be a problem."

And any such laws would have to be enacted and enforced at the federal level, respondents agreed; a state-by-state approach would be pointless. Alvin Boynton, manager of IT at Intranets.com Inc. in Woburn, Mass., a provider of free intranets to small businesses, says, "In [denial-of-service] attacks, the attacker might be in a different state or country, so to work, laws would have to be federal." Others joined Boynton in calling for more international laws and agreements. They point to the Love Bug, which caused an estimated US$8 billion in damage worldwide in May, as an example; after college dropout Onel de Guzman was arrested in connection with allegedly writing the virus, the Philippines could charge him only with illegal use of passwords. Soon afterward, the Philippines enacted sweeping computer-crime laws. (All charges against de Guzman were dropped last week.)IT leaders asking for federal and international data-security laws are apparently being heard. In June, Attorney General Janet Reno called for increased cooperation between law enforcement and industry, acknowledging the feds' shortcomings, according to a Computerworld report. On the international front, various global groups, including the Group of Eight nations and the Council of Europe, are pressing for treaties that address data and computer crimes. IT leaders applaud such global efforts.

Privacy

Online privacy is a solid-gold issue for election-year pols. This may explain a recent flurry of proposals and photo ops. Despite being several years old, Carnivore - an e-mail surveillance tool developed by the FBI - has recently come under fire from a group that includes the American Civil Liberties Union and some Republicans.

A bipartisan group of congressmen recently introduced legislation in the Senate and House that would keep businesses from secretly monitoring employees' e-mail, Internet surfing habits and other computer use. And in June, a House subcommittee created a 17-member commission to study, among other things, consumer privacy on the Internet.

A month later, four senators - two Republicans and two Democrats - filed legislation that would require all commercial Web sites that collect personally identifiable information to provide consumers with clear and conspicuous notice about their information collection practices.

For IT leaders, privacy is not as pressing an issue as data security - but it's pressing nonetheless: 66 percent of survey respondents said they're "very" or "extremely" concerned about privacy. Fifty-five percent of respondents said the government should play a "limited role" in addressing the issue, 27 percent would prefer a "heavy role," and 15 percent said the feds should play "no role." Many echoed McNamee, who says, "I'm not sure the feds should be doing much about [privacy], but they could provide guidance. The government should embrace and incent - but not execute."

"When it comes down to it, there has to be a base level of regulation for this," says Boynton. Referring to the practice of monitoring employees' computer use, he says, "I spend 12 to 14 hours a day in this office. With your best employees ... if you expect dedication, it's not fair to look over their shoulders." Boynton says he believes that at least some moderate federal involvement to prevent such snooping is reasonable.

Rossetti often runs into privacy issues because some eMaven clients are large health care companies. She, too, says she believes some regulation is acceptable. "We need specific rules of engagement for companies that are collecting and using online information [about consumers]," she says. "There need to be some boundaries set."

Rossetti says lawmakers should practice restraint by asking this question: "Are we putting restrictions on digital-world companies that aren't on physical-world companies?" Experts point out that even in the off-line world, there's voluminous demographic and purchasing history available on just about any cross-section of consumers you can name. It would be unfair, they say, to hobble online data-gathering while ignoring the off-line component.

But many IT leaders say they don't trust the government and add that industry can do at least as good a job at discouraging invasions of privacy.

"That policing authority is scary," says Don Halverson, president of Salt Lake City consulting firm Systems West Computer Resources Inc. "You get info passing through a lot of hands - that's another opportunity for loss."

Those who adopt this skeptical view look at recent losses of Department of Energy laptops, complaints that Internal Revenue Service audits have been used as weapons against the political enemies of those in power and a general mistrust of those inside the Beltway and conclude that the feds are the last people to be trusted with sensitive data.

"If you have the authority to get information from someone, you have the responsibility to take care of it. If you abuse the privilege, you've got to get your hand slapped. Same goes for the government," Halverson says.

Taxes

When asked whether Internet transactions ought to be taxed, a full 68 percent of the survey respondents said no.

"I would be for minimum government intervention on the commerce side, including no taxation," says Leeburg.

"I think taxes are evil," adds Halverson, only half-joking. He softens that - sort of - by adding, "I know the government needs to get money somewhere, and I know the government does things for me. I think they do a little too much."

"We have all these surpluses now, so much prosperity, and it's driven by the Internet," Boynton says. "Add it all up, [and] it seems the lack of tax is helping the economy, not hurting it."

The U.S. has a moratorium on Internet sales taxes at least until October of next year. Backers (and would-be extenders) of the moratorium say it will help speed the growth of e-commerce. Opponents argue that it amounts to an unfair penalty on traditional stores and that states should be free to form their own policies.

IT leaders generally think an unlevied tax is the best tax of all. Several point to jurisdictional issues. "It would put U.S. sellers at a big disadvantage," Halverson says. "People can go outside the U.S. for goods and services."

Rossetti is sympathetic to both points of view, because eMaven clients tend to be large corporations that feature both brick-and-mortar channels and Internet operations. "It's tough for companies with multiple outlets," she says. "We should avoid taxation of commerce as long as possible to get more people to jump [into e-commerce]. But what message is nontaxation sending them? I mean, do you want companies to shut down stores?"

Some IT leaders call for the government to stop thinking about the revenue side - that is, taxes - and instead focus on using IT to trim costs. "I don't think the government is motivated to control their costs the way we [in industry] are," says McNamee. "They should embrace technology to realize operational efficiencies. If they do that, the tax issue goes away."

Elections

The 2000 political season is rare in that both the White House and majority control of Congress are up for grabs. The race for the White House between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush is expected to be tight, and the Democrats, though facing an uphill battle, hope to recapture the Senate and House after six years of Republican control.

For their part, IT leaders surveyed expressed no strong tilt toward either party. Rossetti sums up the attitudes of many when she says, "The Net is such a motherhood-and-apple-pie topic, we're not worse off either way."

Conventional wisdom holds that a prosperous economy bodes well for an incumbent administration. And despite this year's roller-coaster stock market, you'd be hard-pressed to find a field more prosperous than technology. Boynton, who says he's registered as an independent voter, says: "As a Gen Xer, in the last eight years, I've had opportunities I never thought I'd have in my life. ... The past five or six years have been very good for me and for everybody I know."

On the other hand, many survey respondents said they would prefer the laissez-faire approach associated with the Republican Party. "I think that if Bush is elected, we will see fewer laws, but these laws will certainly be more effective," House says.

Traditionally, the technology world hasn't had much patience with politicians from either side of the aisle. In the final analysis, many IT leaders say they would prefer that the feds simply stay out of the way.

John W. Oster II, a vice president at ADP Dealer Services in Rockville, Md., a provider of transaction systems for the auto industry, says, "The government really needs to become introspective with respect to problem solving to avoid becoming a hindrance to the implementation of technology."

Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southboro, Mass. Contact him at sulfelder@charter.net.

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