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Yahoo! founder urges govt to keep hands off the Net

"We don't know what we don't know"

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Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang came out firmly, but affably, against government regulation of the Internet in a speech he delivered during a National Press Club luncheon in Washington this week. "We advocate a very strong, hands-off policy towards the Internet by the government," he said, and then gave a simple, rational argument in favour of his position. "We don't know what we don't know....so we don't want to go down any one-way roads that we can't back out of," he said. With this he received a warm response from the Washington press corps, a jaded tribe who toil, with little appreciation, deep in the galleys of a vast political machine which delights in nothing so much as regulating the behaviour, and the pleasures, of citizens. So it was with some refreshment that we listened to a calm voice in a town where carnival stunts, grotesque overstatements and hysterical warnings are generally understood as the minimal prerequisites to making one's views known to one's beloved political representatives. "The Internet is not getting any simpler; it's getting more complicated," he warned. "Policy questions are getting more complicated and more legal than ever. Now you have economic issues, technical issues, trade issues, all bundled up in any of the discussions." The subtext, of course, is that government regulators and political actors, known more for their bureaucratic acumen and rhetorical genius than their deep grasp of the issues upon which they pass judgment, are in over their depth. "Existing laws have done a tremendous job in making sure that the existing world works. Many of the things that we do on the Internet are extensions of what we do in the real world, and we really ought to look at existing laws....rather than invent new ones," Yang said. Certainly on-line privacy is an area where Washington is eager to intervene. The man in the street is uneasy with market-driven solutions, as the recent DoubleClick fiasco demonstrates; and such widespread public disillusionment won't be lost on any politician interested in re-election. Yet privacy can be a competitive tool in a market-driven world, making it possible for the better class of Web site to differentiate itself, Yang believes. Fundamental to maintaining long-term consumer loyalty is "our users' trust in our ability to protect their privacy," he says. And he makes a decent case. "One of the dangers of regulating [privacy] is that you would fix what privacy is at this moment in time, where I honestly believe that all the behavioural aspects of what we do on the Internet are far from being fixed, and any [premature] regulation would endanger the growth of the Internet," he said. And that's fine as far as the more enlightened Web operators are concerned, but it doesn't address the millions of users potentially abused by the plethora of rapacious on-line hucksters for whom a quick score is the chief business motive. While we're charmed by privacy-conscious dot-coms like Yahoo! and AOL, and admire their enlightened response to market forces which they believe guide them inevitably towards privacy protection, we see US government regulation, at least in the realm of consumer privacy, as inevitable, because those same market forces accommodate the bottom-feeders every bit as well as they do the more idealistic operators. ® Related Coverage Yahoo! named in FTC privacy investigation DoubleClick stands tall for on-line privacy rights Wall Street clobbers DoubleClick on news of FTC interest DoubleClick throws in the towel on profiling

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