Internet giant America Online Inc. of Dulles has over the past year become increasingly intimate with the government forces that could change the way it does business. In short, AOL has gotten political.
With its massive size and close proximity to Capitol Hill, AOL is a natural leader on national technology issues. But it's also getting deeply involved in the politics of its hometown, weighing in on issues like roads, bridges and schools that affect the Washington economy.
AOL is a charter member on the A-list of high-tech lobbying groups in Washington such as Washington-based NetCoalition.com, an all-star group that includes Yahoo, Amazon.com and Inktomi. AOL recently started the OpenNet Coalition, which also has members such as MindSpring and MCI WorldCom, to pressure regulators to let Internet providers have access to high-speed cable lines owned by others.
And along with Washington lawyer Charles Manatt, AOL's George Vradenburg runs CapNet, a Washington region political action committee.
Washington Post staff writer Shannon Henry recently talked with Vradenburg, AOL's senior vice president for global and strategic policy, the first person at the company in such a role, about AOL's plans and political aspirations.
What is AOL's political vision? When did technology policy become as important, or even more important, than technology itself?
[Steve Case, AOL chairman and chief executive] has had the view for some time that policy would be even more important. Policy in terms of the confidence in consumers that they can bring [the Internet] into their home and protect their kids.
Can you tell us what successes you've had within the past six months or so?
[There are] several ways to look at this. One is what happened in the last federal legislative session. There was a broad new copyright act adopted, which reflected not only the traditional interests of publishers but were workable rules for Internet companies. So that was a fairly large culmination of about three years worth of contention about how to reform America's copyright laws in the [age of] digital media.
The other thing that happened was the passage of the Internet Tax Freedom Act, where we said, let's put these things on hold for a couple of years to try and figure out what's the right way for states and localities to apply their sales and use taxes to [the Internet], where frequently you can't tell where your buyer is.
Also, last year we and Congress worked out what we think are wise rules for the protection of children's privacy online. We had adopted here at AOL a policy of parental permission first before you collect any personal information that would permit you to identify a kid. You had to get the parents' permission first, and that basically was enacted into federal legislation.
OpenNet, CapNet, TechNet [a Silicon Valley-based group], how many of these public policy and lobbying councils do you need? And don't some of them overlap?
There is a proliferation. But you know, that's sort of an expression of the Internet, which is not a homogeneous mass or a single thing. It's an Internet industry, so it encompasses a wide variety of different kinds of companies from the Ciscos [that manufacture] the routers to the Amazons that supply e-commerce to the Microsofts who are doing the software thing to just a huge array of different kinds of companies.
And, as a consequence . . . the Internet itself is affecting virtually every industry. So it's affecting financial services, so you'll see financial service industry associations with an e-commerce branch or a new media component.
Every industry now has some voice that reflects its particular perspective on how electronic commerce and the Internet is affecting it, the regulation of it, the treatment of it in some public way. It's beginning to reflect all of American business in different voices.
What's AOL's responsibility as a Washington area company?
We do believe that it's important to be a good citizen and a good neighbor and indeed, to provide for our employees a quality of life in the region in which they live that is solid, attractive, retains them, keeps them, attracts new people to it. But mainly, it's important for us to see a lot of other companies in this region succeed because that will draft some new innovations and new capital. So for both quality of life and our own self-economic interest, we'd like to see the region in which we live flourish.
What specific plans do you have?
[We have a new education policy plan to] build what I would see as a very long-term collaborative relationship between business in the region and education in some school districts in the region. [The group would be called Citizenship in a Digital Age]. The idea is to see whether there is enough support for it yet. In the 21st century, the kids are going to both become citizens and participants.
So you're talking about making technology a natural part of kids' lives rather than having classes that teach them how to use a computer.
This is not a sub-specialty that the nerds over here are going to learn about. This is something that you, as just growing up, learn about everyday life.
It is a challenge because it involves a lot of schools, a lot of school systems, and they have different standards, and because it would entail collaboration among people who make hardware and software for Internet service, so it's an ambitious aim.
What do you need? How much money or how much support are you looking for to start?
I think the initial support is only a couple hundred thousand dollars, because I do think that what we've got to do is do a pilot -- make an effort to devote some extra time to it. We probably need to train some teachers over the course of a few weeks about . . . what's available on the Internet and what kinds of techniques can you use on the Internet so that they can be thinking about how they might be able to use it. [The teachers] are the customers in this effort, and they'll know what makes sense for them.
The obvious problem is that we're dealing with schools that are quite uneven. The idea is to try and get educational opportunity equalized. Not necessarily in performance -- you can never guarantee that. But at least educational opportunities, so that we don't just deal with the wealthiest school district out here in Northern Virginia. We also deal with school districts in D.C.
What about transportation?
The [Woodrow Wilson] bridge has become an important issue for the region, but it's not just the bridge. Transportation gridlock is not a happy fact of life. It prevents people from getting to Little League, school and trying to get to and from work. But at the same time, you don't want to so overlay your communities with asphalt that in fact you've lost green space. . . . Just the aesthetic attracts people to a community, and so you need some balance in how you approach these issues. Telecommuting could be, over a longer stretch, an important component to this. Silicon Valley has begun to do this and have telecommuting as a way of life.
What do you think overall needs to happen? Does Washington need a whole new urban plan?
Our goal in life ought not to be to build roads. It ought to be to build communities, and so if you're trying to build community, you don't vote on a road or a street. You vote on what's best for the community. I'm not sure that AOL has done enough yet in trying to bring that about. It's something that we are committing to. We want to live here. Our people want to live here. It's an important issue for us.
So how do you keep that dialogue, or how do you start that dialogue?
Well, there are a lot of groups that are talking about the issue, and you know, quite frankly, I think part of what's going on right now is a short-term problem of political figures not even being aware that this was such a big issue. This now needs some focus and some attention, and we've gotten that reaction, so I do think now we have the elements of what can be a much more productive dialogue. Public dialogue is a strange and quirky thing. We're still in the middle of this sort of wake-up.