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A Grass-Roots Revolt against Information-Age Intruders

Even the politically conscious crew in the West Wing had no idea how raw a nerve they would touch when President Bush on June 28 announced the creation of a Do Not Call Registry to protect Americans from unwanted telemarketing. In the first three weeks after the Federal Trade Commission opened the no-call list on July 1, more than 27 million Americans signed up. It's just the latest sign of a growing grassroots backlash against intrusive information purveyors of the New Economy. And politicians across the ideological spectrum are jumping on the bandwagon of technopopulism.

They cast themselves as the defenders of ordinary voters who want to rein in spammers jamming e-mail systems, telemarketers interrupting ever-vanishing family time, and credit companies trading in consumer financial data. "Americans have accepted technology as a piece of their everyday lives, but they're still fighting it," explains Representative Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), co-sponsor of one of the rapidly proliferating anti-spam bills on Capitol Hill.

The movement to block Information Age aggravations is creating strange bedfellows. Conservatives, traditionally focused on Big Government intrusions on individual privacy, are considering joining liberals in the fight against corporate nosiness. "There's so much information available to so many people that you have to rethink how to build the walls," says David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Buoyed by the popularity of the Do Not Call Registry, a broad Left-Right coalition -- uniting the Consumers Union with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- wants an anti-spam bill next. The legislation faces hurdles in the House, where members are squabbling over whether to give consumers the right to sue spammers. But public outcry is pressuring lawmakers to reach a deal this year. While liberals are out to protect consumers from shady operators and commercialization run amok, corporate interests want to ensure the survival of the emerging Internet marketplace. "Spam is making consumers less likely to purchase online," says Joe Rubin, executive director for technology and e-commerce at the Chamber of Commerce.

A Senate bill by conservative Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and liberal Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to combat bulk unsolicited e-mail is moving quickly. It would require e-mail marketers to give consumers the ability to opt out of receiving such messages and impose penalties of up to $3 million on offenders. Because of rising public anger at out-of-control spammers, support for the bill "has achieved critical mass," Burns says.

But concerns about privacy extend beyond the e-mail inbox. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) is preparing a new push for tighter curbs on financial institutions' ability to share customer data with affiliates or outside companies. And a key House panel on July 16 adopted a proposal pushed by Treasury Secretary John W. Snow to combat identity theft, including free annual credit reports for consumers. The proposal is coupled with a measure sought by banking interests: permanent renewal of provisions that bar states from imposing tougher credit-reporting restrictions than the feds.

Just as Teddy Roosevelt wrestled to protect workers and smaller competitors from corporate oligarchs of the Industrial Age, today's technopopulists are trying to write new rules for the Information Age. Progress may be slow and obstacles large, but their momentum appears unstoppable. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell has earned the dubious distinction of being the only federal regulator who is too conservative for the Republican Congress. By championing new FCC rules allowing greater concentration of media ownership, free-marketeer Powell has created a political tempest that puts both President Bush and the House GOP leadership in a no-win situation.

On July 23, House leaders yielded to a populist backlash by leaving unchallenged a spending provision to rein in Powell's FCC. The measure would bar the FCC from implementing its new rule allowing TV networks to own local stations covering up to 45% of the national audience. The FCC's decision to expand the ownership cap from its 35% standard provoked a Left-Right political reaction that united such disparate groups as the NRA and NOW. "The ability of big media companies to harm political opponents by characterizing them in scandalous ways is frightening," says NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre Jr.

So far, Powell's plan to allow cross-ownership of TV and newspapers in the same market will go forward. But unless top House Republicans can engineer a win for Powell in the House-Senate conference committee, prospects for the 45% rule appear dim. Senate leaders, including Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), oppose the 45% cap. But Powell won't go down without a fight. He says the new ceiling would mean sales of no more than 0.5% of stations. "Our democracy is strong," he says in a July 23 statement. "It is not threatened by half a percent."

All of this puts the President on the hot seat. To protect Powell's prerogatives, the White House is threatening a veto. That could anger Bush's base. Speculation abounds that Powell will leave the FCC in coming months.

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