Taking on Big Internet

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, a day for telling tales of courage. (It takes more courage than I have to drink green beer.) So today, when the last thing you want to think about is politics, I’ll tell you a story of political courage.

In today’s story, Al Gore is taking on what I call “Big Internet,” the Internet business community that over the last four years has spawned more billionaires than most decades.

Big Internet hates the idea of government regulation. They don’t mind being told it may be, might be coming, some time in the deep, dark future. But if you threaten them directly, most Internet billionaires will react badly.

When Gore became Vice President, Big Internet didn’t exist. Big Internet meant small companies dependent on Big Government, like UUNet and Network Solutions, mostly based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Today Big Internet is a dominant force in the nation’s political culture. And most of Big Internet is squarely in the camp of Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Take a good look at the members of Bush’s Technology Advisory Council, created way back in July. Leaders include Cisco CEO John Chambers, Texas Instruments President Tom Engibous, Microsoft COO Robert Herbold, and Oracle President Ray Lane.

Bush won their support early with proposals like increasing quotas for H-1B visas (foreign engineers and programmers), making permanent the industry’s research tax credit, and (his hallmark) reducing Americans’ access to the civil courts.

Risking the wrath of the rest of Big Internet doesn’t sound politically bright, but Gore’s doing just that. Just in time for the spring TV campaign season, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is about to put the hammer down on web sites catering to children that don’t respect privacy. Both the FTC and FBI are threatening more government action on privacy and security issues, and sooner rather than later.

Republicans are ready to pounce on any disquiet among members of Big Internet and seal the deal for Big Power. Despite the fact that his real opponent in the Internet sales tax argument is Utah Republican Governor Mike Leavitt, Virginia Governor James Gilmore was quite ready to claim Gore’s behind the Internet sales tax effort.

The charge has some merit. Administration representatives on Gilmore’s panel have been actively exploring sales tax mechanisms. But this is mainly a bipartisan argument, with local (often Republican) government and physical stores (Wal-Mart) on one side, and e-tailers (as well as most voters) on the other.

The Bush campaign says it is giving you the chance to track this story, in the form of a search engine of Bush donors. Input some technology names over the next few weeks to see if they pop up.

And if high-tech money makes George W. Bush President, you heard it here first.

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