Virginia considers expansive Internet policy

Friday, December 4, 1998

A Virginia state commission unveiled a comprehensive Internet plan on Wednesday designed to create a haven for online users and to attract high-tech industries to the state.

The Virginia Commission on Internet Technology approved the Virginia Internet Policy Act on Wednesday at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. The 36-member commission included several key technology leaders, among them Steve Case of America Online; Robert McDowell, a vice president at Microsoft; and John Sidgmore, vice chairman of MCI-Worldcom.

Gov. James Gilmore, who assembled the group, praised its work in providing “a private and secure environment for all Internet users.”

“More than half of all Internet access in the world runs through Virginia,” Gilmore said in a statement. “These recommendations will help ensure our success in the areas of Internet policy and the technology sector of the economy.”

Gilmore says he plans to submit the policy to the Virginia Legislature soon after it convenes next January.

If passed, the Virginia Internet Policy Act would, in part, allow authorities to prosecute people who send the unsolicited, bulk e-mail messages some call “spam” and encourage efforts to curb Web content that is illegal or “harmful to minors.”

Approval of the act comes barely a week after U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema struck down an Internet policy in the Loudoun County, Va., libraries that equipped all branch library computers with filters to screen out sexually explicit material. Brinkema said such a policy violated free-speech rights and served no compelling government interest.

The act, too, comes as the federal government defends a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act, a law passed this year that makes it illegal for Web sites to give minors access to “harmful” material. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a similar law last year.

Besides demanding action against “harmful to minors” material, the Virginia act would make “spamming” — the sending of unsolicited, bulk e-mail — illegal. The act would also require online companies to clearly post how they handle personal information collected from users.

The Virginia Internet Policy Act calls on the state to encourage the federal government to allow the sale and use of strong encryption programs, which enable computers to scramble data so they can’t be read without a numerical access key. Current federal law prohibits the posting of strong encryption on the Internet without a license, saying it violates export codes.

Gilmore also announced on Wednesday that the state will sponsor a global summit on Internet policy and will give $1.5 million to the George Mason University Law School to set up a center for the study of Internet issues.

Some say the Virginia act could have far-reaching effects because companies based in the state provide Internet access to nearly half of all online subscribers. The Dulles, Va.-based America Online alone provides service to more than 14 million subscribers.