Commentary

Pork Barrel Invades the Internet

The Clinton administration recently announced a plan to upload pork-barrel politics onto the Internet. The White House called for taxpayers to pump $100 million a year into the Next Generation Internet Initiative, a program designed to upgrade computer networks used by universities and government agencies. Congress caved, giving the NGII $95 million in the 1998 budget. Despite the benefits that the NGII will bestow on certain favored insiders, the overall and long-term costs of the project make it bad news for the rest of the Internet.

Just a few years ago, the federal government wisely decided to get out of the business of funding Internet infrastructure. The National Science Foundation defunded the NSFNET backbone in 1995, clearing the way for the private sector to upgrade the Internet. Since then, the Internet has enjoyed decreasing costs, increasing access and exploding popularity. Why, then, has the Clinton administration now decided to reverse course?

Clinton’s support of the NGII reveals characteristic political genius. It will allow him — or, in his stead, Al Gore — to expand federal power over the Internet while avoiding an open fight like the one the Communications Decency Act or the Clipper Chip aroused. Rather than a stick, the NGII wields a carrot. It updates a time-tested Washington strategy: bribe major players into submission, create a new class of bureaucratic overseers and chip away at any civil institutions that resist federalization.

By creating new networks with federal funds, Clinton ensures that federal control will follow. Thanks to its power to spend our tax dollars selectively, the federal government already dictates such purely local concerns as the legal drinking age, the size of billboards near interstate highways and whether high school students must “accept offered foods which they do not intend to consume.” Federal funds come not with just strings, but with chains, attached. Congress has already toyed with bills, such as the McCain-Kerrey Secure Public Networks Act, that would outlaw the free use of encryption on “networks created using Federal funds.” To paraphrase an old saying, the politician who pays for the pipeline will call the tune.


The NGII illustrates what we might call “Gore’s Law”: Politicians try to double their power over the Internet at every opportunity.


The pursuit of power demonstrates why politicians support NGII, but it does nothing to excuse their scheme. Government agencies and universities buy other transport and communications systems on the open market from specialists who constantly improve their services under pressure of competition. With the NGII, politicians threaten to create the digital equivalent of the Soviet Union’s nomenklatura highways. If government agencies and universities need better Internet access, they should pay private parties to provide it.

Advocates of the NGII argue that they cannot count on the private sector to improve the Internet because the effort will generate uncaptured benefits. But in their pursuit of profit, private firms routinely do good for the world at large. The Internet revolution, for instance, resulted largely as an unplanned side effect of competition among computer hardware and software firms. Some firms, such as Netscape and Real Audio, even gave away products!

Supporters of the NGII also demand public funding on the grounds that the private sector will not invest in speculative and expensive research. But venture capitalists would love a chance to fund the next Yahoo! or Microsoft systems. Projects like @Home and the Java coalition demonstrate the willingness of private parties to invest in long-term, high-risk, collaborative projects. But, to the chagrin of would-be Internet bureaucrats, private parties turn down truly hare-brained schemes — or at least let them go bankrupt.

Paradoxically, the NGII runs the horrible risk of not failing. It would doubtless rack up some tangible achievements, since even just burning cash will cast a little light. But the tangible benefits of the Next Generation Internet would inevitably displace private initiatives that, driven by profits and tested by competition, would carry us further and faster into the future. Meanwhile, the Next Generation Internet would quickly become the Old Generation Internet without ever facing demotion, firing or even retirement. Rather than bankruptcy, its failures will most likely result in increased funding.

Much of the credit for the Internet’s astounding success goes to Moore’s Law, which posits that computer chips double in power every 18 months. In contrast, the NGII illustrates what we might call, in honor of the current administration’s point man on high-tech issues, “Gore’s Law”: Politicians try to double their power over the Internet at every opportunity. Fortunately, Moore’s team has thus far kept ahead of the politicians. By upgrading and uploading porkbarrel politics, however, the Clinton administration has devised a clever new snare for the free Internet.

Tom W. Bell is director of telecommunications and technology studies at the Cato Institute.