A Different Notion

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-07-23 Print this article Print

A Different Notion

The economy was key during Clintons first run for high office in 1992, when the country was foundering in a recession. The entire campaign battle between Clinton and the current presidents father, in fact, is remembered by four words: "Its the economy, stupid."

Fueled by the technology enthusiasms of Gore, Clinton embraced the idea that a muscular technology industry might succeed in wresting the country from its economic funk, former Clinton aides said in recent interviews. And as information technology industries and the Internet strengthened throughout the 90s, technology policy evolved swiftly.

Clinton nominated John Gibbons his first director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy before he took office. Irvings appointment to head Commerces National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was announced shortly after the president took office in January 1993. And Gore, a former senator, brought a team of veteran high-tech advisers with him from Capitol Hill to the White House.

"We hit the ground running because we had an agenda," said Irving, who served as director of the NTIA until 1999. "You had a vice president who cared passionately about this. [Technology] was what energy is to this administration. It mattered. You had access to people."

Said Jim Kohlenberger, senior domestic policy adviser to Gore, now a technology consultant: "The most important first decision a new administration makes is the budget, and we made a whole bunch of early budget decisions that were critical for laying the groundwork of where we would go." Those, he said, included increasing funding for science and technology R&D, and boosting the budget for the Advanced Technology Program — a controversial office of the National Institute of Standards and Technology that serves as a venture capital firm for high-tech companies.

By September of Clintons first term, Gore had done enough work to release "The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action." That agenda guided how the administration would approach telecommunications reform, and claimed that the NII initiative would "help unleash an information revolution that will change forever the way people live, work and interact with each other."

The meat of that document was developed during weekly telecommunications breakfasts that Gore held in his personal office.

"We had meetings every Tuesday morning for 90 minutes for 4 years," Irving said. "I was up at six oclock in the morning going to the vice presidents office for four years."

From 10 to 15 senior officials attended the meetings. The discussions laid the foundation for the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the most sweeping piece of telecommunications law in decades.

During Clintons second term, as the Internet and e-commerce exploded, Clinton also named senior adviser Magaziner to oversee technology policy. Magaziner wrote the 1997 "A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce," which laid out the administrations laissez-faire approach to everything from taxes to privacy to governance of the heart of the Internet — the domain name system. Magaziner, along with key Commerce department officials, traveled the world to push for treaties and alliances that would develop complementary policies of self-regulation for the Internet age.

When Magaziner returned to private life in late 1998, Clinton and Gore formed the Electronic Commerce Working Group, chaired by Gores domestic policy chief David Beier and run day-to-day by attorney Elizabeth Echols, who left a big Washington law firm to take the position.

"The goal of the working group was to take the vision of the vice president and Clinton, and develop policies and implement policies consistent with that vision. So all of the things you hear about — in terms of Internet taxation, consumer protection, broadband deployment, privacy — we dealt with all of these issues," Echols said.

"There were new issues every day that you had to grapple with, and you had to find ways to grapple with them consistent with our laws and philosophy." She said she barely was able to get home from work each night before the 11 p.m. news.

Greg Simon, Gores first chief domestic policy adviser, said the Clinton administration put in place "good processes . . . and communication" on technology policy. "I dare say that has not yet risen in this administration. I dont think two people in town could tell you what the team is on information technology," Simon said.

Still, others believe that will soon change.

"They are working through their agenda the president campaigned on — taxes and education," said Grant Seiffert, vice president of external affairs and global policy for the Telecommunications Industry Association, during a phone interview conducted as he drove to the White House for a meeting about telecommunications.

"Now you have health care issues. Those are moving off the front page, though, and I believe the technology agenda, while not visible every day, is still part of the White House daily meetings. . . . I think sometime in the next six months, youll see a more aggressive White House promoting their agenda."


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