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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mr. Obama’s Internet Agenda

President-elect Barack Obama recently announced an ambitious plan to build up the nation’s Internet infrastructure as part of his proposed economic stimulus package. Upgrading the Internet is a particularly smart kind of stimulus, one that would spread knowledge, promote entrepreneurship and make this country more competitive globally.

The United States has long been the world leader in technology, but when it comes to the Internet, it is fast falling behind. America now ranks 15th in the world in access to high-speed Internet connections. A cornerstone of Mr. Obama’s agenda is promoting universal, affordable high-speed Internet.

Mr. Obama, who had notable success with online fund-raising and voter turnout, spoke during the presidential campaign about the transformative power of the Internet to improve Americans’ quality of life. He argued that it could, among other things, reduce health care costs, create jobs and make it easier for citizens to participate in government decision-making.

In a speech this month about his economic stimulus plan, he said that he intends to ensure that every child has a chance to get online and that he would use some of the stimulus money to connect libraries and schools. It is a critical goal. Children trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide are deprived of a fair chance to educate themselves and to compete for high-skill, high-paying jobs.

Mr. Obama has also been a strong supporter of “network neutrality,” the principle that Internet service providers should not be able to discriminate against any of the information that they carry. Net neutrality laws are necessary to ensure that Internet service providers do not block content they disagree with or give financial breaks to big tech companies, squeezing out smaller competitors and stifling innovation.

Mr. Obama will need to work with Congress — and fight against corporate lobbyists — to accomplish some of his goals. Some he can achieve on his own. With the right appointments to the Federal Communications Commission, he should be able to get good net neutrality regulations.

“This is the Eisenhower Interstate highway moment for the Internet,” argues Ben Scott, policy director of the media reform group Free Press. Restoring America to its role as the world’s Internet leader could be an important part of Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy.

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