Rep. Rick White: Congress' Internet Guru

As a representative of Washington state's First Congressional District since 1995, Rick White gained national attention for his efforts on issues related to the Internet and technology. He was also one of a handful of members selected to develop the final Telecommunications Act of 1996. As the founder of the Congressional Internet Caucus, he has not only worked to educate other members of Congress about the Internet but also to create -- through its use -- a more open and participatory government. White talked with Editor at Large Blake Harris about his past efforts and new initiatives.

by / November 30, 1997
As a representative of Washington state's First Congressional District since 1995, Rick White gained national attention for his efforts on issues related to the Internet and technology. He was also one of a handful of members selected to develop the final Telecommunications Act of 1996. As the founder of the Congressional Internet Caucus, he has not only worked to educate other members of Congress about the Internet but also to create -- through its use -- a more open and participatory government. White talked with Editor at Large Blake Harris about his past efforts and new initiatives.


Q:I'd like to start off with a little information about the Internet Caucus, since many people may not know about it.


A: The Caucus was an interesting development. After the big debate about the Communications Decency Act, a handful of us recognized that the discussion really was not quite at the level we would have hoped. Congress generally just didn't seem to understand what the Internet was all about. And we recognized that Congress was facing five years of having to deal with lots of issues concerning the Internet. So we formed the Internet Caucus really with the goal of educating members of Congress on what the Internet was all about. That has been the primary goal for the last year and a half.

We purposely decided to make it bipartisan, for Republicans and Democrats, and -- perhaps even more difficult to deal with in Congress -- for both houses of Congress. That sort of guarantees that we don't agree on anything, but you don't have to agree on too much if you are simply trying to educate people. And that's really what the whole purpose of the Internet Caucus was.

A lot of our mission, I think, has been accomplished. I do think the level of understanding has gone up quite a bit. And there is some talk now in the Caucus that ... we need to start focusing on policy more than we have. But we will just have to see how we deal with that.

Q: As part of this process of
getting Congress up to speed and more familiar with the Internet, I believe you urged all members of Congress to begin using e-mail. This raises the issue of the technological haves and have-nots. Members of the general public who have e-mail might be seen to have better or more privileged access to their elected officials than others. Is this something you have thought through?

A:It's probably too much to say we have thought it through. You know, Congress is substantially behind the curve compared to private industry use of e-mail and all this technology, and that is always the way that life is going to be. Congress is not the sort of institution that is going to find itself in the forefront of any technological development, but it does need to be at least conversant with the new technologies. And so I think with the prevalence of e-mail in the rest of the business world, I think it is appropriate for Congress to try to catch up.

On the issue of universal access, though, you wouldn't want a situation where Congress couldn't be reached by certain segments of society, but I don't think e-mail raises that problem. It just basically says someone with access to e-mail can reach Congress that way among other ways. And I also think there are ways to solve the universal
access problem other than just
making sure that everyone has a computer in their home. My sister, for example, has an e-mail account at the local library. And I think there are other ways to deal with it. So I don't think it really raises a problem of one sector of the society not being served by Congress.

Q: You are now introducing new Internet legislation to help ensure that it remains unregulated. Can you elaborate on this?

A: There was definitely a recognition by many of us, when we passed the Telecommunications Act, that we had only taken some initial steps and there would be a five-year transition in the competition, and that was a good thing. But we hadn't really thought way beyond the horizon about how to deal with some of these emerging technologies, like the Internet. One of the five last issues that remained, when we had our conference between the House and the Senate on the Telecom bill, was my amendment -- which was in the House Bill -- which said the FCC did not have authority to regulate the Internet. That was controversial and so it was dropped out of the final bill and didn't get into the Act. That was one of the things I wanted to move ahead on. But as we thought about it in the last year, we realized that maybe we could go a little beyond that, and instead of just protecting the Internet, maybe we could let the Internet show us the way to have a more modern approach to regulating telecommunications in general. So the idea developed of saying -- number one -- you can't regulate the Internet.

In some areas, the Internet will be able to compete with existing people who are regulated. So, instead of just dragging the Internet back into the morass of rules the others are subject to, we are going to take exactly the opposite approach and say, "if you are an industry that is regulated, and the Internet is providing comparable services and competing with you in a substantial way, then you get to petition the FCC to get unregulated yourself." It is kind of a backdoor way of moving things in the right direction. This was a couple of members of Congress trying to put something together.

I think we are taking some initial steps down the right road, but we have a lot of additional thinking to do. We need a lot of advice and help from people. But I think it is a positive move.

Q: Among people very familiar with the Internet and other new technologies, there is sometimes a feeling of frustration because Congress seems to move too slowly, or that it often does not seem to understand the real issues.

A: I've only been in Congress two and a half years. But one of the things that I've discovered is that it really is not the job of Congress to know the details about most of the things it is involved in. Now there are a few people in Congress in every area who really do delve into it and understand what is going on. But really, the job of Congress is to set national policy -- very broad rules -- and let people who are really involved in an issue, day-to-day, really figure out what is going on. That's true with computers; it's true with the Internet; it's true with foreign policy; it's true with the budget, with everything.

Whether it is just because they don't have the time, or there are so many issues, I don't know what it is. But there is no area where Congress really understands what it is regulating as well as the people who deal with it on a day-to-day basis. If the people who do work in these industries, or understand it well, can come and suggest a solution that makes sense, often that is a better solution than Congress will come up with itself. Congress sets the policy, but if you can take that policy and translate it into details that make sense, you really end up with a better bill. And I think that is the right model
to use.

Q: One of the predominant characteristics of the Internet is its international nature. Many of its users think of it as an international force that is beyond any one government. Yet discussions about the Internet and new communications policy in America tends to be very U.S.-centric. Are we missing something because we focus so much on things just from the U.S. perspective?

A: Probably not. The thing about the Internet is that it is an international phenomenon and it has all sorts of promise. But you know, it is a U.S. invention. It really builds off American technology and American computers, and really, American philosophy about what the world is supposed to be like. It is individual, decentralized and focuses very much on free and open communications. So it is very consistent with all the principles that our country is based on. The United States is going to occupy one end of the political spectrum in the international position of what you are going to want to do with the Internet. We are going to have a much more open approach to it, a much freer approach -- that is just the way our country is. That will change over time as more countries become involved. But I think we are so much at the forefront of it now, it is appropriate for us to figure out in the United States how are we going to resolve these issues. And then we will be in a position to go out and negotiate with other people about how we should do it on a worldwide basis, recognizing that we are probably going to be at one end of the political spectrum.

That is really going to be an interesting phenomenon when we really start getting into some of the treaties that need to be negotiated. And our Internet Protection Bill kind of directs the administration to take a private-enterprise approach to that. I think it is the administration's desire too -- to approach it in that way. So I am actually pretty optimistic about the way that will work out.

Q: In the past, you have brought up a number of issues that are going to be emerging -- encryption, copyright protection, privacy issues -- and you have pointed out that America's concerns about the Internet are very different than European concerns.

A:That's probably right, and I probably should not overstate that. I think ultimately, we will all probably get to the same point. As the Internet is still new, it is interesting to see what issues jump to the fore in different countries. During the whole debate about the Communications Decency Act, our prime concern was what was coming into the home from the Internet -- what was coming into us. That didn't seem to be so much of an issue to the Europeans we talked to when this debate was going on. Their concern was much more what information is going out from the home onto the Internet. It was much more focused on privacy. "What can people find out about me because I am hooked into the Internet?"

In other words, the level of concern in America about what was going out from the home had not risen to the level it was in Europe, but I suspect that is starting to happen how. And conversely, I suspect that concerns about what is coming in is rising in Europe.

Q:Based on your experience in working to bring Congress up to speed and in developing hands-on familiarity with the Internet and e-mail, is there any advice you might offer other state or local legislative bodies?

A: In fact, the Internet Caucus has a state counterpart, which is known as the Internet Council. This basically consists of state legislators from around the country who have gotten together with the same idea we had of educating their colleagues about what the Internet is
all about. So I think they have done
a good job of focusing on some of
these things, really taking the same approach we have. They have a lot more people they have to deal with, and probably a lot more variety in how much people know about the Internet. But I think that has been a good approach.

Q: So what's next? Where do we go from here? You seem to have a vision, or at least an idea of where we are trying to get with regard to the Internet and telecommunications in general.

A: We have a ton of ideas. We also know that we don't know yet about what all the potential is. But I think it is safe to say a couple of things. We do have to be careful of not falling into the trap of thinking that all the wonderful things you can conceive of are actually going to happen. The potential is there, but whether we realize that potential is still up in the air. There are obstacles we don't know about yet. Having said that, I think there are all kinds of things we can do. I really do hope that, if the Internet takes off and if we are able to resist the temptation to regulate it, it will not only flourish itself but will also help us come up with an idea of how, in the 21st century, we deal with technology at a government level. How do we promote it without putting the heavy hand of government that slows everything down and creates problems? I think the Internet can help us do that. And I think that the Internet has some real possibilities in terms of making government more open.

We have this process now, the Freedom of Information Act, where you file a request for documents and three years later they might produce some with a lot of black lines on it. That is really an inefficient way to do things. What we ought to be doing, and we are drafting a bill right now that would say that, at the time you create a document, you have to make a decision about whether it should go online or not. And if it is online, there is no more Freedom of Information requests you have to worry about. So we are calling it Freedom of Information Act II, which is a new approach that I think would be a very good thing.

We have tried to do that in the legislative branch in Congress -- to make committee reports and other internal documents, that aren't confidential, available online. And to expand that to the executive level, I think, would be a very positive thing.

I think campaign finance reform and the way we run campaigns lends itself to Internet solutions. I have a bill, which I think has a decent chance of passing, that would direct the Federal Elections Commission to develop software that could be given to every candidate so that within a very short period of time, 24 or 48 hours, when you receive any contribution of any kind, you have to disclose it on the Internet in a database, which is searchable by the average citizen.

You go on the Internet and type in "Rick White," find out how much money I've gotten, what votes I've taken, all those sorts of things. And I think that is a positive thing that can come from the Internet. We have five or six things like that which we are hoping to move forward.
mputer in their home. My sister, for example, has an e-mail account at the local library. And I think there are other ways to deal with it. So I don't think it really raises a problem of one sector of the society not being served by Congress.

Q: You are now introducing new Internet legislation to help ensure that it remains unregulated. Can you elaborate on this?

A: There was definitely a recognition by many of us, when we passed the Telecommunications Act, that we had only taken some initial steps and there would be a five-year transition in the competition, and that was a good thing. But we hadn't really thought way beyond the horizon about how to deal with some of these emerging technologies, like the Internet. One of the five last issues that remained, when we had our conference between the House and the Senate on the Telecom bill, was my amendment -- which was in the House Bill -- which said the FCC did not have authority to regulate the Internet. That was controversial and so it was dropped out of the final bill and didn't get into the Act. That was one of the things I wanted to move ahead on. But as we thought about it in the last year, we realized that maybe we could go a little beyond that, and instead of just protecting the Internet, maybe we could let the Internet show us the way to have a more modern approach to regulating telecommunications in general. So the idea developed of saying -- number one -- you can't regulate the Internet.

In some areas, the Internet will be able to compete with existing people who are regulated. So, instead of just dragging the Internet back into the morass of rules the others are subject to, we are going to take exactly the opposite approach and say, "if you are an industry that is regulated, and the Internet is providing comparable services and competing with you in a substantial way, then you get to petition the FCC to get unregulated yourself." It is kind of a backdoor way of moving things in the right direction. This was a couple of members of Congress trying to put something together.

I think we are taking some initial steps down the right road, but we have a lot of additional thinking to do. We need a lot of advice and help from people. But I think it is a positive move.

Q: Among people very familiar with the Internet and other new technologies, there is sometimes a feeling of frustration because Congress seems to move too slowly, or that it often does not seem to understand the real issues.

A: I've only been in Congress two and a half years. But one of the things that I've discovered is that it really is not the job of Congress to know the details about most of the things it is involved in. Now there are a few people in Congress in every area who really do delve into it and understand what is going on. But really, the job of Congress is to set national policy -- very broad rules -- and let people who are really involved in an issue, day-to-day, really figure out what is going on. That's true with computers; it's true with the Internet; it's true with foreign policy; it's true with the budget, with everything.

Whether it is just because they don't have the time, or there are so many issues, I don't know what it is. But there is no area where Congress really understands what it is regulating as well as the people who deal with it on a day-to-day basis. If the people who do work in these industries, or understand it well, can come and suggest a solution that makes sense, often that is a better solution than Congress will come up with itself. Congress sets the policy, but if you can take that policy and translate it into details that make sense, you really end up with a better bill. And I think that is the right model
to use.

Q: One of the predominant characteristics of the Internet is its international nature. Many of its users think of it as an international force that is beyond any one government. Yet discussions about the Internet and new communications policy in America tends to be very U.S.-centric. Are we missing something because we focus so much on things just from the U.S. perspective?

A: Probably not. The thing about the Internet is that it is an international phenomenon and it has all sorts of promise. But you know, it is a U.S. invention. It really builds off American technology and American computers, and really, American philosophy about what the world is supposed to be like. It is individual, decentralized and focuses very much on free and open communications. So it is very consistent with all the principles that our country is based on. The United States is going to occupy one end of the political spectrum in the international position of what you are going to want to do with the Internet. We are going to have a much more open approach to it, a much freer approach -- that is just the way our country is. That will change over time as more countries become involved. But I think we are so much at the forefront of it now, it is appropriate for us to figure out in the United States how are we going to resolve these issues. And then we will be in a position to go out and negotiate with other people about how we should do it on a worldwide basis, recognizing that we are probably going to be at one end of the political spectrum.

That is really going to be an interesting phenomenon when we really start getting into some of the treaties that need to be negotiated. And our Internet Protection Bill kind of directs the administration to take a private-enterprise approach to that. I think it is the administration's desire too -- to approach it in that way. So I am actually pretty optimistic about the way that will work out.

Q: In the past, you have brought up a number of issues that are going to be emerging -- encryption, copyright protection, privacy issues -- and you have pointed out that America's concerns about the Internet are very different than European concerns.

A:That's probably right, and I probably should not overstate that. I think ultimately, we will all probably get to the same point. As the Internet is still new, it is interesting to see what issues jump to the fore in different countries. During the whole debate about the Communications Decency Act, our prime concern was what was coming into the home from the Internet -- what was coming into us. That didn't seem to be so much of an issue to the Europeans we talked to when this debate was going on. Their concern was much more what information is going out from the home onto the Internet. It was much more focused on privacy. "What can people find out about me because I am hooked into the Internet?"

In other words, the level of concern in America about what was going out from the home had not risen to the level it was in Europe, but I suspect that is starting to happen how. And conversely, I suspect that concerns about what is coming in is rising in Europe.

Q:Based on your experience in working to bring Congress up to speed and in developing hands-on familiarity with the Internet and e-mail, is there any advice you might offer other state or local legislative bodies?

A: In fact, the Internet Caucus has a state counterpart, which is known as the Internet Council. This basically consists of state legislators from around the country who have gotten together with the same idea we had of educating their colleagues about what the Internet is
all about. So I think they have done
a good job of focusing on some of
these things, really taking the same approach we have. They have a lot more people they have to deal with, and probably a lot more variety in how much people know about the Internet. But I think that has been a good approach.

Q: So what's next? Where do we go from here? You seem to have a vision, or at least an idea of where we are trying to get with regard to the Internet and telecommunications in general.

A: We have a ton of ideas. We also know that we don't know yet about what all the potential is. But I think it is safe to say a couple of things. We do have to be careful of not falling into the trap of thinking that all the wonderful things you can conceive of are actually going to happen. The potential is there, but whether we realize that potential is still up in the air. There are obstacles we don't know about yet. Having said that, I think there are all kinds of things we can do. I really do hope that, if the Internet takes off and if we are able to resist the temptation to regulate it, it will not only flourish itself but will also help us come up with an idea of how, in the 21st century, we deal with technology at a government level. How do we promote it without putting the heavy hand of government that slows everything down and creates problems? I think the Internet can help us do that. And I think that the Internet has some real possibilities in terms of making government more open.

We have this process now, the Freedom of Information Act, where you file a request for documents and three years later they might produce some with a lot of black lines on it. That is really an inefficient way to do things. What we ought to be doing, and we are drafting a bill right now that would say that, at the time you create a document, you have to make a decision about whether it should go online or not. And if it is online, there is no more Freedom of Information requests you have to worry about. So we are calling it Freedom of Information Act II, which is a new approach that I think would be a very good thing.

We have tried to do that in the legislative branch in Congress -- to make committee reports and other internal documents, that aren't confidential, available online. And to expand that to the executive level, I think, would be a very positive thing.

I think campaign finance reform and the way we run campaigns lends itself to Internet solutions. I have a bill, which I think has a decent chance of passing, that would direct the Federal Elections Commission to develop software that could be given to every candidate so that within a very short period of time, 24 or 48 hours, when you receive any contribution of any kind, you have to disclose it on the Internet in a database, which is searchable by the average citizen.

You go on the Internet and type in "Rick White," find out how much money I've gotten, what votes I've taken, all those sorts of things. And I think that is a positive thing that can come from the Internet. We have five or six things like that which we are hoping to move forward.

Q: So a lot of this really is simply harnessing the Internet as
an efficient means of providing better, more open and more accountable government?

A: Yes, although the one thing I think we need to caution people about is to not get so enamored with all the things that are possible, to think that it is all a foregone conclusion. Because I don't think that is true -- even the idea that the technology is going to develop as fast as it might. I think the potential is there for the Internet to become a mass phenomenon, but I think it is going to take more than a few years for everybody in society to become comfortable using it. I just don't think it is going to penetrate the way VCRs did. It is just more complicated.

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