Congress Comes to the Valley

SAN FRANCISCO (06/05/2000) - Nearly two dozen Democratic members of Congress, energized by the rapidly changing New Economy, gathered today in San Francisco for the fourth California retreat of The NDN, a group of politicians and Democratic activists dedicated to better understanding of technology and the Internet, has evolved into an increasingly influential political force in Washington. The conference unites the lawmakers with representatives of Technet, a network of senior executives from leading technology companies.

Technet was founded in 1997 by Jim Barksdale, the founder of Netscape; John Doerr, one of Silicon Valley's most influential venture capitalists; and John Chambers, CEO of Cisco. "I like to call it cross-cultural communication," Technet CEO Roberta Katz, says of the relationships that have been forged between the engineers and business executives and the politicians. The NDN conference began Thursday with discussions on issues such as online privacy and biotechnology, particularly genome projects, which have generated a mix of excitement and concern.

This morning, congressional representatives, along with a number of state and local officials, attended panels on the future of the Internet economy and the challenges of breaching the digital divide. Marc Andreessen led a lively discussion at lunch during today's session, arguing that all immigrants qualified to work in high technology should be granted visas and that parents of public school students should receive vouchers. The politicos in Washington, he said, spend far too much time discussing Internet taxes and, as a result, ignore more vital issues.

"Potential is just being wasted across the board," Andreessen said of students in faltering public schools. But the congressmen and women, not people to move at Internet speed, were cautious about embracing his controversial -- and, in the case of vouchers, decidedly anti-Democrat -- proposals. Andreessen's talk was briefly interrupted by a small cluster of twentysomething protesters.

Members of the Global Democracy Project, one of the groups that protested the World Trade Organization in Seattle and, more recently, the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., called on Andreessen and his audience to stop focusing on making big bucks and to focus instead on more-pressing global concerns. Attendees repeatedly extolled America's technological prowess, but they also emphasized that national borders are becoming increasingly porous.

Without more basic research, they agreed, the U.S. risks losing its lead in tech innovation.

The lawmakers, striking a tone different from that of previous generations of American politicians, affirmed a belief in opening up to other countries.

"This world is shrinking," Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., said in an interview.

Dooley, who supports visas to let foreign nationals work in high-tech companies, said immigration "should not be viewed as a threat to domestic interest, but should be viewed as complementary." This particular group of politicians has come a long way in connecting with Silicon Valley and other technology centers across the country.

They mingled with executives amid educational puzzles and stuffed elephants in San Francisco's Metreon Center, which is also home to a Sony IMAX theater and a Microsoft-sponsored area with a wall of laptops. Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., is among the newest members of the NDN, and today's event marked his first trip to the San Francisco Bay Area. Hill, who hails from a rural area in southern Indiana, said he hopes that the knowledge he gains from working within the NDN would help him attract tech companies to his state.

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