Events shake up the relationship between govt. and the Internet
By Shawn P. McCarthy
Events of the past couple of months are evidence of growing pains in the federal government's relationship to the Internet.
The Federal Election Commission has decided to extend matching funds to campaign contributions charged to credit cards and made over the Internet or by telephone. Previously, donations had to arrive by check to qualify. FEC matches contributions up to $250 for presidential candidates who adhere to spending limits.
The change will give the Internet a larger role in campaign planning and financing for the 2000 election. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley was one who pushed for the FEC ruling.
But rules say a paper record must be created when a donation is made, and only candidates with complete paperwork can receive matching funds. Considering the wide availability of digital certificates and public-key verification, you'd think the FEC would eliminate the paper. Perhaps the commission did not want to risk scaring away potential donors with complex online forms.
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While the rest of the government was dreading a visit from the notorious ExploreZip worm, which copies itself from computer to computer via e-mail messages, Capitol Hill was dealing with a different e-mail headache: public outcry over a phony Senate bill.
The rumored S 602p is a prime example of how an e-mail hoax can be nearly as big a pain as a real virus. The bogus bill proposed letting the Postal Service charge users 5 cents per e-mail to recoup revenue it has lost to e-mail. Even though the reports were false, that didn't stop people from feeling outraged at the very idea.
If you ever suspect that an e-mail you receive might be a hoax, it's worth visiting the Don't Spread That Hoax Web site, at www.nonprofit.net/hoax/hoax.html. It tracks known bogus mail chains and lists them for everyone to see.
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Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard was only partially correct when he said recently that letting local authorities regulate broadband services will produce chaos and limit Internet growth. His comments were aimed at a Portland, Ore., court decision allowing a locality to force AT&T Corp. to open its cable networks to competing service providers.
Chaos could result if local franchises develop their own technology standards for the cable infrastructure. But jurisdictions are tired of waiting for Washington to take the lead. Without a national framework for extending broadband services, promoting competition and limiting monopolies, there could be other rulings like that in Oregon.
Heavy-handed regulation isn't the answer. Instead, look at how FCC will handle the convergence of different types of data services. Kennard has made some positive moves.
Reports say he is planning a summit of chief executive officers to assure rural citizens that they will not be left out of the race for better access. Senators from rural states are pressing FCC to make good on provisions for universal service as outlined in the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
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For a peek into the behind-the-scenes politics of domain name registration, visit www.icann.org/nader-questions.htm. You'll read some tough questions posed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader and an angry response from Esther Dyson, interim head of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
For the past six years, Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon, Va., has been the central registrar for the Internet's Domain Name System. Several months ago the Commerce Department appointed ICANN to take over administration of the Net's navigational infrastructure and to foster competition among registrars.
Dyson's response portrays Network Solutions as a monopoly that still controls the coveted .com names, regardless of Commerce's directive. Trouble clearly is brewing. Time will tell whether Commerce officials will have to step back in to referee.
Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at email@example.com.