Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Keywords Telecommunications, Internet, Federal government, Government departments
As we move into year three of e-rate funding, attacks on the program as well as focus on perceived moral perils of surfing the Internet have not abated, nor have attacks on universal service programs. Clearly how these issues play out in Congress - and possibly in presidential campaigning - will have a profound effect on local budgets.
Attempting to use the e-rate as a carrot (or perhaps as a stick) to promote filtering, Rep. Ernest Istook, Jr (R-OK) sponsored an amendment identical to his HR 2560, the Child Protection Act of 1999, that would require public libraries and schools - as a condition of receiving funds from any federal agency for the acquisition or operation of computers - to install filters to protect children from obscenity and child pornography. However, there is good news for those requesting funding; the filtering amendment has been removed from the Labor-HHS-Education conference language. Although supporters of the Istook amendment may try to reattach the filtering provision during floor debate, it appears that the efforts of library supporters have helped effect this change.
In the Senate, there are also efforts to withhold funding from schools and libraries that do not install filters. On August 5, S. 97 was reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee. This was Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) bill requiring libraries and schools to install and use filtering or blocking technology for computers with Internet access to be eligible to receive e-rate discounts. It is now procedurally ready for debate and/or vote by the full Senate, alone or as an amendment to another bill.
On August 8, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced S. 1545, a bill to require libraries and schools receiving e-rate discounts to install blocking or filtering systems or to implement Internet-use policies. The bill would also require a study of available Internet blocking or filtering software. Because S. 1545 acknowledges the importance of the local decision-making, many see it as a reasonable alternative to Sen. McCain's more restrictive S. 97. It is still unclear what form, if any, of this legislation requiring filters might go into law, and it has been suggested that filtering might become a presidential campaign issue.
Lynne Bradley, Director of the American Library Association's (ALA) Office of Government Relations, and Claudette Tennant, ALA's telecommunications lobbyist, issued an open letter urging libraries to continue to apply for e-rate discounts, in spite of the threats of filtering that are under consideration in Congress. Although frustrations caused by the continued attacks on the program are discouraging some from applying for year three-funding, they are urged to proceed with their applications. Opting out of the program at this stage would give an easy victory to those who hope to eliminate or reduce the program "when it is obvious they can not win legislatively or constitutionally". On the other hand, numerous applications for funding can strengthen the program politically. Bradley and Tennant urge librarians to keep the following in mind:
It is not clear that any e-rate filtering bills will be passed this year.
It is uncertain that the President would sign such a bill, even if passed. The White House has consistently opposed linking filtering requirements to e-rate discounts.
Even if a bill were signed into law, it is far from clear that such a requirement would survive the Constitutional challenge that ALA would be almost certain to mount.
In a somewhat related issue, The Truth in Telephone Billing Act, H.R. 3011, introduced by Rep. Tom Bliley (R-VA) on October 5, amends the universal service provisions of the Communications Act. Collections for the e-rate as well as other universal service programs would be identified on subscriber's bills with the following detail:
the identity of the governmental mechanism, fund, tax, or program to which the contribution or assessment is made, and the identity of the governmental authority whose rules require or authorize the contribution or assessment;
the basis for the contribution or assessment (such as per subscriber, per line, or percentage of some or all charges or revenues); and
as a separate line-item, the dollar amount that is being attributed to and collected from such subscriber for such governmental mechanism, fund, tax, or program.
However, along with proposing clarification for customers, this bill seems to take also attack universal service in general and the e-rate in particular. Rep. Bliley made introductory remarks that repeatedly referred to the e-rate as the "Gore Tax" and alleged that the "FCC imposed extraordinary and unprecedented political pressure on the Nation's largest long distance carriers to withhold information from their subscribers ...". Bliley's bill was supported by cosponsors Reps Billy Tauzin (R-LA), Michael Oxley (R-OH), and Roy Blunt (R-MO).
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a slightly different bill, the Rest of the Truth in Telephone Billing Act, H.R. 3022. In an introductory statement he explained: "I offer the 'rest of the truth' to point out that a listing of fees and taxes only provides half of the story. The other half of the story is the subsidies in the telecommunications marketplace ...".
Rep. Markey's point is that it is just as important to let customers know what they do and do not pay for when they subscribe to telecommunications services.