July 2006 - A View From the Hill

ERA members meet face-to-face with politicians to voice their concerns about key legislative issues such as net neutrality and data security.

By Paige Muller

Lobbying-it’s how business is done in Washington, D.C., shows like HBO’s now defunct series, “K Street,” offered an inside look at the government’s so-called “fourth branch” and political spin that is as close as most people will ever get to experiencing it first-hand.

On May 23, 2006, 25 ERA members ventured inside the rarefied world of politics and politicians for one-on-one meetings with House and Senate members to advocate issues that affect their businesses for ERA’s first-ever Government Affairs Conference on Capitol Hill. On the agenda: net neutrality and data security.

“Amid the intense lobbying and often highly technical terms of the debate, we must ensure that the voices of entrepreneurs are heard. For the little guy, these are big stakes that could be the difference between making payroll or closing their doors,” says Bill McClellan, ERA director of government affairs. “We’re not talking about abstract issues. ERA’s Government Affairs Conference gave us the opportunity to show lawmakers that these are real concerns that affect real people and real businesses across the country.”

With briefcases and talking points in hand, ERA members met with congressional offices on both sides of the political aisle and those for and against ERA’s position on the issues of the day, including Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Representative Mary Bono (R-CA, 45th), Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

“With Congress weighing important legislation involving our industry, it was important for me to participate. As individuals, we don’t have much leverage in the legislative process, but working together with my peers gives me an opportunity to represent our industry as a whole and, I hope, make a positive impact,” says Toni Knight, founder and CEO, WorldLink LLC.

The jam-packed day kicked off with a keynote speech by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). One of Congress’ leading advocates of fairness and pro-consumer policies governing Internet usage, Wyden has proposed legislation that would ensure equal delivery of content on the Internet. Under the Senator’s Bill, the Internet Nondiscrimination Act of 2006, network operators would be prohibited from charging companies for faster delivery of their content to consumers or favoring certain content over others.

Network neutrality-or “net neutrality” for short-is the guiding principle that preserves the free and open Internet. Net neutrality ensures that all users can access the content or run the applications and devices of their choice. With net neutrality, the network’s only job is to move data, not choose which data to privilege with higher quality service.

The Internet represents the largest share of the electronic retailing marketplace. Thirty-three percent of all consumers who have purchased products through electronic media bought something online, according to ERA’s 2006 Electronic Retailing Buyer Study. A tiered Internet poses a threat at many levels. Service providers could, for example, shut out web sites whose politics they dislike. Even if they did not discriminate on the basis of content, access fees would automatically marginalize smaller, poorer web sites.

The standard sound bite most often heard on the Hill was “Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.”

The fight to preserve equal and open Internet access is certainly making the case that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Just a few days before ERA went to the Hill, techno musician Moby joined Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Internet, for a net-neutrality event. Moby is one of a growing list of musicians pushing Congress to protect the Internet from corporate takeover by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and other telecommunications behemoths.

He and other recording artists and musicians have signed the “Artists and Musicians for Internet Freedom” petition, which joins Internet advocates, political groups on the right and left, consumer advocates and more than 600 diverse organizations on the SavetheInternet.com Coalition. Even the Christian Coalition and Moveon.org have set aside their fundamental differences and added their support to SavetheInternet. com Coalition’s efforts. A joint pro-net neutrality advertisement was recently featured in the New York Times.

D.C. is a town notorious for information leaks. Following just one day after the disclosure by the Department of Veterans Affairs that over 26 million veterans’ identities were lost, ERA couldn’t have picked a better time to advocate for a federal data security bill. In his keynote speech, Senator Wyden commented that “if that breach had been Wal-Mart instead of the government, a fire would have been lit under Congress to pass a data security bill immediately.”

As the string of high-profile data and identity theft incidents in the last 18-months appears to continue unabated, it is not surprising that the American public has little confidence in the security of the country’s digital infrastructure. Fewer than 1 in 5 adults believe that existing laws can protect them from fraud, identity theft and other crimes on the Internet, according to a nationwide poll released by the Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA).

Additionally, CSIA’s survey puts Americans’ overall confidence in the digital state of the union at 57 (out of an index of 100) and finds that 94 percent of citizens believe that identity theft is a “serious” problem, and concluded that loss of faith in the Internet’s overall security is having a serious economic impact.

“A loss of consumer confidence is a billion-dollar problem,” said Paul Kurtz, CSIA’s executive director, in a statement.

ERA research points to consumer concerns about security online as a barrier to industry growth. Just 10 percent of all electronic media buyers feel “completely” safe and secure using a debit or credit card to order online, according to its 2006 Electronic Retailing Buyer study.

Kurtz adds, “While data security alone won’t be a deciding factor in an election, the survey does reveal that voters have serious doubts about candidates opposed to strong data security laws. Consumers are beginning to understand the link between their privacy and data security, and they are looking to their government leader for action.”

ERA believes that self-regulation is preferable to governmental regulation for addressing most privacy concerns. Self-regulatory approaches allow for more rapid and consumer-personalized response to privacy concerns without saddling e-commerce with burdensome, heavy-handed or unnecessary regulations. Moreover, industry segments and consumer groups are exploring technological approaches that may respond more effectively than inflexible laws and regulations to privacy issues.

An informal survey conducted after the Hill Conference found that participants almost unanimously viewed the day as a success. “The highlight for me was that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment knowing that we were doing something that was beneficial, not just for our own companies and day-to-day business, but for our whole industry. It was a great feeling to be involved in coming together as a team and pooling our talent and energy toward a collective goal that is meaningful for all of us,” comments Linda Kalm, executive vice president and general counsel, WorldLink LLC.

The end of the conference has not meant an end to ERA’s lobbying efforts. ERA’s McClellan recently provided testimony before the staffs of the Senate Commerce, House Judiciary and House Energy and Commerce Committees. Additionally, he participated in debates with broadband providers for both the Blue Dog and Rural Member Coalitions in the House.

ERA has also helped form the It’s Our Net Coalition, a broad coalition of consumers, grassroots groups and businesses working together to preserve the Internet and net neutrality. You can visit the web site at www.itsournet.org.

“As we get better and more consistent in our efforts, we can only gain in power and influence relative to our issues. Like it or not, we are affected by the decisions made in our nation’s Capitol. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing can be influenced by us,” remarks Jon Congdon, president of Product Partners LLC.

Now that ERA has made a stand within D.C.’s corridors of power, it intends to keep its seat at the political table.

Paige H. Muller is ERA’s vice president, marketing communications. We would appreciate your feedback. To submit comments to the magazine, please e-mail [email protected].


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