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The day America married the Internet

By LARRY IRVING, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Sept. 19, 2013 at 12:04 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- On Sept. 15, 1993, with the release of an interagency report, "The National Information Infrastructure, An Agenda for Action," the Clinton administration stated its vision for the then-nascent Internet and provided a road map for how it intended to get there.

Effectively, the administration wed itself, and the American people, to an Internet future much like the one we have today.

In 1993, the Internet was the province almost exclusively of scientists and hobbyists, with only about 2 million users worldwide. U.S. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore saw huge potential in connecting all of the United States to the Internet.

They believed that a robust Internet would provide immeasurable benefits to the U.S. economy, would create jobs and would improve the provision of critical services to the American public, including education, healthcare, library services, public safety and government information and data.

As importantly, they believed that the Internet could spur needed private-sector investment and innovation in both the underlying infrastructure and in the platforms, applications and services that would ride on that infrastructure.

They were right on all counts.

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The vision

"Imagine you had a device that combined a telephone, a TV, a camcorder and a personal computer. No matter where you went or what time it was, your child could see you and talk to you, you could watch a replay of your team's last game, you could browse the latest additions to the library, or you could find the best prices in town on groceries, furniture, clothes -- whatever you needed."

The above paragraph was the opening paragraph of the Agenda for Action -- 20 years ago. It was an eerily accurate vision of a then-distant future. Sometimes having a coherent vision helps propel progress. The administration knew where it wanted to go and knew it needed a plan to drive the progress required to get there.

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The plan

The Agenda for Action laid out a series of principles and proposed actions to support them. Virtually all of those principles remain the cornerstones of the United States' domestic and international technology policies today.

The Agenda for Action stated a strong preference for private-sector development and deployment of the Internet. The administration felt it important to state that preference clearly and unequivocally because of fears that the government would attempt to build the Information Superhighway using public dollars.

In light of the U.S. government's efforts at that time to encourage increased investment in our domestic infrastructure and to promote privatization of telecommunications networks abroad, the administration clarified its preference for private-sector investment to build the Internet, supported by tax and regulatory policies that would promote an investment-friendly environment.

The Agenda for Action presaged virtually every major policy debate surrounding the Internet and delineated a comprehensive policy approach that protected the rights of consumers while also providing increased certainty for industry and innovators by calling for the following: extending our historic commitment to universal service to the Internet; seamless, interactive user-driven operation of the Internet; information security and network reliability; improved management of wireless spectrum; protection of Intellectual property rights; and increased coordination with state and local governments and with other nations to ensure that the Internet would be fully global.

Looking back today, President Clinton and Vice President Gore got much right. Their vision for the Internet was realized more quickly and more completely than any of us had any right to expect.

Reading the Agenda for Action today, the administration accurately predicted the power of the Internet to increase access to information and to be a key economic driver. As importantly, the administration provided a forward looking and flexible policy template that would underscore the growth of the internet over the following decades.

The astonishing growth of the Internet in the mid-1990s was driven in large part by the innovation, talent, ingenuity and passion of many in the private sector, principally the Internet pioneers in Silicon Valley and other creative centers, as well as the Internet service providers who built the physical networks.

It is unlikely that the Internet's growth would have been as explosive or that we would have seen as much early acceptance and adoption domestically and internationally without the administration's leadership and use of the bully pulpit to drive policy prescriptions and procurement efforts designed to support and encourage private-sector investment and innovation.

At a time of increased skepticism about the role of government and widespread derision of visionary leaders, it's important to note that sometimes the government and its leaders get it right. The United States and the world is at another inflection point today as wireless technology, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, social networks and data analytics become drivers of economic and societal changes.

Revisiting or restating fundamental policy principles to ensure that they provide an environment that will promote investment while also protecting the rights of consumers would seem to be as necessary today as it was 20 years ago.

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(Larry Irving served as assistant secretary for communications and information and administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration during the Clinton administration.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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