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.