Vouchers To Expand 'Net Access?

Director and actor Steve Buscemi introduces his film, "Interview," prior to a screening at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 20, 2007. After a fallout with his editor, a fading political journalistt (Buscemi) is forced to interview America's most popular soap actress (Sienna Miller.)
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Surveying the future of cyberspace, a scientific advisory panel on Wednesday suggested that Congress consider a voucher program to help needy families get connected to the Internet. The group also proposed a flat-tax for states to collect revenue from Web sales.

The advice runs contrary to some of the GOP-led Congress' recent regulatory efforts that have tried to mandate specific solutions to concerns such as privacy, encryption and pornography.

In its new report, "The Internet's Coming of Age," the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, which advises Congress, urged lawmakers not to force the Internet to change the way it operates in an effort to address concerns such as pornography and gambling. Such prevention should focus on laws and enforcement that target individual responsibility, one of the authors said.

"If gambling is illegal in a state, and people in that state choose to gamble, we shouldn't hold the Internet responsible for the activities of its users," said Andrew Blau, a member of academy's National Research Council.

"Legal responses should be directed at the activities of people, rather than trying to change the Internet and its underlying architecture in order to respond to a series of social policy questions," he said.

An Internet policy group cheered the recommendations.

"We don't want a backlash that destroys the fundamental structure (of the Internet)," said Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology. He said his group wants to avoid laws that "censor from a national level" and prefers "a global solution that puts the individual in control."

Weighing in for the first time in three years, the panel said the Internet was "healthy" in its "adolescent" stage but cautioned that lawmakers still faced many thorny issues tied to its growth.

It identified several possible solutions to the pressing issues but stopped short of endorsing any particular one.

For instance, the panel addressed the "digital divide" that has kept many low-income, rural and minority Americans from using the Internet -- and suggested the nation should try to make Web access as widespread as telephones.

"Equity in access to and use of the Internet is a matter of values and social policy," the report said.

It laid out several possible options for Congress, including a tax on phone service to help schools, libraries and hospitals pay for Internet access, or the creation of a subsidy program to help needy Americans get onto the Internet.

Such a program would be "something more akin to food stamp programs," the scientists wrote.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he had not seen the report and could not comment.

The report also addressed possible solutions in the battle between states and localities that want to collect taxes on e-commerce purchases and those who fear such taxes would jopardize growth of the Internet. Congress has imposed a moratorium on such taxes.
One solution offered by the committee would create a flat tax on Web purchases, no matter where the buyer or seller resides, which would be administered by the vendor.

The committee counseled Congress to ignore "Internet fads" fueled by public outcry or political battles, and refrain from blaming the Internet for problems that occurred long before the global network was created.

"The Internet has re-raised certain social tensions about things like privacy, anonymity or the role of taxation," Blau said. "The message for legislators is: 'Let's not ask the Internet itself to solve the non-technical problems that it has raised.' There are lots of benefits generated by the Net, let's not undermine those successes by responding to those changes."

By D. Ian Hopper