Moving Forward Into History:

A Call for the Clinton Doctrine

By Jason Chervokas

It was a little strange this week hearing House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt talk about the international economic opportunities that the great Internet expansion is opening for the United States. The Missouri congressman stood before the virtual warmth of an artificial hearth, speaking to a cozy gathering of Net heads assembled by the Association of Internet Professionals in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

There, in a room full of mostly cyberlibertarians, the foremost advocate of economic protectionism among American politicians and a perpetual candidate for president argued for First Amendment preservation and Internet free trade.

After Gephardt and his retinue bolted for a high-ticket, soft-money Democratic fundraiser downstairs what little talk of politics remained in the rooms was all about protecting children, Federal regulatory action on data privacy, and other ways the Feds could, should, and are mucking around with Net-related regulatory policy.

The widely divergent opinions of people in the room and the jarring juxtaposition of an advocate for protectionist policies addressing a room of cyber-free marketers was perfect symbol of the legislative chaos about to engulf all of us in the Internet business.

Federal Internet policy so far has been a politically opportunistic hodgepodge of legislative initiatives that are absolutely at odds with one another. On the one hand, the Department of Commerce argues that the Internet should be a tax-free, free trade zone. On the other hand, the Federal Trade Commission drafts regulations that will tightly control how Internet marketers, retailers, and others sell, market, and advertise online; and encryption technology that U.S. companies could "productize" internationally to great economic effect, remains classified as a dangerous munition, illegal for export.

In a classic waffle, President Bill Clinton has flopped back and forth on Internet speech issues--signing the Communications Decency Act into law, then defending it in the courts with a wink and a nod by saying that his administration really didn't intend to enforce the now-defunct measure's most onerous elements. Now the Administration says it favors a high level of free speech protection, but it's working closely with software companies and big media players to find a way to use technology to regulate what you see in a way that will clearly have a chilling effect on new content creation.

And while the Federal Communications Commission seems poised to use the Internet explosion to begin reshaping the way it regulates all telecommunications, it's not at all clear what that means. All that remains clear is that the industries that have the best-connected lobbyists--the big telecos--will have the greatest effect on whatever the FCC decides to do.

By all accounts Bill Clinton is obsessed with his legacy. How will history remember Clinton? By and large as an Eisenhower-like do-nothing who at his best didn't screw anything up and presided over a slow but steady economic expansion. Presidents are often remembered for how they react in times of great turmoil, or when great moment present themselves. And conventional wisdom has it that Clinton has no moment to latch onto.

But the great Internet expansion of the 1990s is a defining moment in American history. It has helped catapult the United States once again into the lead globally in key matters of economy and technology. It is forcing us to rethink everything from the nature of money and the national bank structure, to interstate taxation and the future of free speech in America. Like the westward migration of 150 years ago it is being led by a few evangelists--setting up communities among formerly inhospitable buttes and ravines--and a pile of gold diggers and claim jumpers--let's call 'em '95ers. It's the kind of moment that a smart, forward thinking president who wants to build a "bridge to the 21st century" should jump all over, not by tailoring two-bit, gee-whiz, and ultimately unconstitutional speech legislation for a cheap short term political payoff among conservative voters; but by providing leadership in the form of guiding principals that will overarch U.S. policy during this new cyberspace migration, the kind of leadership James Monroe provided when in 1823 he called for the self-determination of people to be a guiding principal in the creation of states in the new world, away from European imperialism.

Argue if you want that the U.S. routinely interferes in the affairs of other states in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. That is true. But the idea that there is a principled set of standards that we try to live up to personally and legislatively are the essence of America. If President Clinton really wants to be remembered in history, it is time for the Clinton Doctrine -- a set of principled standards to guide future government action during the next two generations of what is sure to be an extended cyberspace migration. That Doctrine would turn "building a bridge to the 21st Century" from a cheap piece of political sloganeering into a national goal.

Jason Chervokas is the editor and publisher of @NY, a weekly newsletter about the New York new media scene.