Clinton’s “Progressive” Tech Policy Still Wise Today

by on January 25, 2018 · 0 comments

Co-authored with Adam Thierer

Why would progressives abandon the most successful progressive technology policy ever formulated?

In a recent piece in The Washington Spectator, Marc Rotenberg and Larry Irving have some harsh words for progressives’ supposed starry-eyed treatment of Internet firms and the Clinton Administration policies that helped give rise to the modern digital economy. They argue that the Internet has failed to live up to its promise in part because “[p]rogressive leaders moved away from progressive values on tech issues, and now we live with the consequences.”

But if the modern Internet we know today is truly the result of progressive’s self-repudiation, then we owe them and the Clinton Administration a debt of gratitude, not a lecture.

Unfortunately, Rotenberg and Irving take a different perspective. They criticize progressives for standing aside while “a new mantra of ‘multistakeholder engagement’” replaced traditional regulatory governance structures, unleashing a Pandora’s Box of “self-regulatory processes” that failed to keep the private sector accountable to the public.

Rotenberg and Irving are also upset that the First Amendment rights of Internet companies have received stronger support following the implementation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

All of this could have been avoided, they argue, if the Clinton Administration had instead embraced the creation of a National Information Infrastructure (NII) to govern the Internet. As part of its 1993 proposed “Agenda for Action,” the Clinton White House toyed with the idea that “[d]evelopment of the NII can help unleash an information revolution that will change forever the way people live, work, and interact with each other,” citing specific examples of how it would: empower people to “live almost anywhere they wanted, without foregoing opportunities for useful and fulfilling employment”; make education “available to all students, without regard to geography, distance, resources, or disability”; and permit healthcare and other social needs to be delivered “on-line, without waiting in line, when and where you needed them.” Luckily, all these things came to pass precisely because the Clinton Administration went a different route, ignoring the heavy-handed regulatory approach offered by early tech policy wonks and opting instead to embrace a different governance framework: The Framework for Global Electronic Commerce.

The 1997 Framework outlined a succinct, market-oriented vision for the Internet and the emerging digital economy. It envisioned a model of cyberspace governance that relied on multistakeholder collaboration and ongoing voluntary negotiations and agreements to find consensus on the new challenges of the information age. Policy was to be formulated in an organic, bottom-up, and fluid fashion. This was a stark and welcome break from the failed top-down technocratic regulatory regimes of the analog era, which had long held back innovation and choice in traditional communications and media sectors.

“Where governmental involvement is needed,” The Framework advised, “its aim should be to support and enforce a predictable, minimalist, consistent and simple legal environment for commerce.” The result was one of the most amazing explosions in innovation our nation and, indeed, the entire world had ever witnessed. It was precisely the flexibility of multistakeholder governance—as well as the strong support for the free flow of speech and commerce—that unleashed this tsunami of technological progress.  

It’s strange, then, that Rotenberg and Irving decry the era of “multistakeholder engagement” that the Clinton Administration Framework presaged, especially because they included similar provisions in their own frameworks. For example, in “A Public-Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure,” the authors specifically called for “democratic policy-making” in the governance of the emerging Internet, arguing that “[t]he public should be fully involved in policy-making for the information infrastructure.” They go even further by citing the value of “participatory design,” which emphasized iterative experimentation and information feedback loops (learning by doing) in the process of designing network standards and systems. These “[n]ew approaches,” Rotenberg and Irving argue, “combine the centralized and decentralized models, obtaining the benefits of each while avoiding their deficiencies.” Embracing “[b]oth participatory design and the experimental approach to standardization,” they concluded, would “achieve the benefits of democratic input to design and policy-making without sacrificing the technical advantages of consistency and elegance of design.”

On this point, Rotenberg and Irving are correct. Unfortunately, it seems their valuation of such processes do not apply to the regulatory structures overseeing these technologies. This is despite the “Agenda for Action” explicitly calling for the NII to “complement … the efforts of the private sector” by “work[ing] in close partnership with business, labor, academia, the public, Congress, and state and local government.” What’s more “multistakeholder” than that?

For all their lamentations of the multistakeholder process, Rotenberg and Irving engaged in that very process in the 1990s. Their proposals had their shot at convincing the Clinton Administration that a national regulatory agency governing the Internet was necessary to usher in the digital age. And in one of those ironic twists of history, they failed to get their agency, but nevertheless bore witness to the emergence of a free and open Internet where innovation and progress still flourish.

We shouldn’t lose sight of this miraculous achievement and the public policies that made it all possible. There’s nothing “progressive” about rolling back the clock in the way Rotenberg and Irving recommend. Instead, America should double-down on the Clinton Administration’s vision for innovation policy by embracing permissionless innovation, collaborative multistakeholderism, and strong support for freedom of speech as the cornerstones of public policy toward other emerging technologies and sectors.

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