Originally published on January 21, 2001 and brought to you today as a time capsule.
It turns out that I was instrumental in developing the World Wide Web. I didn’t know this until the Administration of outgoing U.S. President Bill Clinton took credit for the explosion in Internet use and e-commerce.
By their standard, if you are around when something good takes place, you’re at least partly responsible. So, because I was alive and kicking around in 1990, when Tim Berners Lee was working away in his labs, developing the precursor to today’s browsers, I helped set the stage for the development of the Web.
It was nothing, really. All I did was — well, nothing. All the Clinton administration did was, well, little more than nothing. The online shopping boom exploded during Clinton’s time in office for a host of reasons, few of which have anything to do with his policies. The fact is when the Internet’s time came, nothing was going to get in its way.
This is the same administration, don’t forget, that gave us Al Gore, who was “instrumental” — according to his own description — in bringing the Internet to life. So we shouldn’t be surprised by the latest claim. But listen to the explanations for how Clinton and Gore guided the Web into the powerhouse it is:
“One way was to establish a legal framework for e-commerce and Internet use, another was to promote competition and finally, to promote confidence of Internet users.”
Huh? Talk about generalities. Why not include promoting world peace as a way of revving up the e-commerce engine? When Clinton signed the digital signature law last summer, he gave e-commerce transactions another vehicle, but the Superhighway was moving along just fine with credit cards and secure shopping sites long before the E-Sign Act came along.
The Web explosion, and the concurrent economic boom built largely on the growth of technology, came with their own force, one that Clinton’s administration would have been powerless to stop.
Clinton actually got it right when he said in a statement that “America’s economy and society has been transformed by new information and communications technologies.” True enough. Leave it there and you have an accurate depiction of what happened.
But he had to go one step further, saying he and Gore helped Americans make the most of these advances.
Back to those reasons cited by an administration official. “Establish a legal framework for e-commerce?” Do tell. Last time I checked, states were still determining whether online sales were subject to sales tax.
Look again, and you’ll see that state policies still regulated what can and can’t be delivered from online merchants, such as alcohol. In fact, a lack of federal legal framework is what we have — and if e-commerce is lucky, such a framework will be built under a truly pro-business administration.
Reason No. 2: “Promote competition.” Well, OK, the Clinton administration did launch the war on Microsoft. While the battlefields are bloodied, the pro-competitive gain is much less clear. The fact remains that users haven’t suffered much from the Microsoft monopoly.
Indeed, consumers were all but forgotten in the rush to run Bill Gates and Co. off a cliff. But what truly promoted competition in the Internet arena was the risk-taking of venture capitalists who bankrolled scores of startups, in the hope that the ones of the many companies their money was riding on would break out of the pack.
Lastly, there’s this one: “promote the confidence of Internet users.”
Maybe there have been some small steps taken to boost consumer confidence, such as federal agencies slapping fines on companies that did not deliver goods on time to holiday shoppers in 1999. But for the most part, the confidence Web users now have comes more from the quality of the companies they buy from, and a lot less from government intervention. It comes, frankly, from e-shoppers jumping into the game and scoring their own hits and misses with e-commerce.
Online shoppers learned what they know by doing, gaining their skills and honing their preferences while running alongside the Internet companies on the forefront. So far, the federal government has failed to promote e-commerce by enacting legislation that will guard individual Web shoppers privacy. Quite the contrary, the federal government has eroded confidence by unleashing the one of the most highly criticized privacy threat to date: the FBI’s Carnivore e-mail spying system.
I dont begrudge Clinton the roses that will be tossed at his feet as he walks away from the Oval Office. He served the country well, steering it through an economic boom and keeping us out of major wars. But to take credit for the explosion of e-commerce is to grossly overstate the role that government had, and misunderstand the role the government will play in the maturation of the Web.
It’s true that e-commerce has an impressive start. But the Internet Titanic is cruising at full speed due to more than a few hands on deck.
Maybe government supplied the shovels used down in the ship’s boiler room, but the venture capitalists and private investors like you and me provided the coal that’s fueling the fire.
Thankfully, the private sector is still holding the steering wheel. If government actually had the strong hold on the tiller that Clinton claims it does, the good ship e-commerce would have plowed into one of the icebergs it has deftly steered around so far.
At the end of the day, that’s the credit Clinton and Gore deserve. They didn’t let government get in the way of the fastest-moving ship ever seen on the planet.
For that, they deserve our thanks. No more and no less.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.