Technology Driven Public Policy

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in December 2003.

There's an old joke about equivalence of Internet years and dog years-the point being that technology seems to change at a pace faster than many of us can digest. If you think you have trouble keeping up, pity our poor democratic system that's built around consensus and operates on a cycle of monthly or quarterly committee meetings. Every week, I see some new IT trend that raises significant public policy questions. Many times, these questions are barely raised before the technology has changed and moved on. Here are two that caught my eye recently.

Its Not Your Father's Telephone

If you haven't been keeping up with Voice over IP (or VoIP), the term might make you think of hackers using their PCs to avoid paying the long distance company 5 cents a minute while putting up with a conversation that makes CB radio look positively high-tech. That image is left over from the 90's; today's VoIP is uses a normal telephone and sounds great.

There are plenty of companies working on VoIP projects, but one that's causing public policy problems is Vonage ( Vonage is based in New Jersey and offers business and residential telephone service over the Internet. I signed up for a Vonage account to see how it works. For $40 per month, I got every phone feature I could imagine and unlimited long distance. The service includes 911 service, so if I were so inclined, I could simply ditch my Qwest line and use Vonage over my Internet service. You're probably thinking this makes Qwest nervous and you're right; but not for the reasons you think.

To understand why Qwest is concerned, consider that Vonage isn't a registered telephone company in Utah (what's called a CLEC in industry parlance). As a result, the phone bill I pay to Vonage doesn't include any pesky Utah assessed fees and taxes, only Federal FCC taxes and a charge for Universal rate. So, if you're a Qwest customer, you're paying about $10 per month in fees, while as a Vonage customer, I'm paying $2.50.

Several states, including California and Minnesota have tried to force Vonage to comply with state rules and start paying state assessed fees. In October, a Federal court in Minnesota ruled that federal law protects information services from regulation and preempts state limits on VoIP services. Minnesota, undoubtedly egged on by Qwest, will likely appeal that ruling.

The public policy issues this raises are important. The taxes that Vonage customers avoid paying are important, funding things like school Internet connections and 911 service. Even so, VoIP isn't geographically limited in the way regular phone service is. When I travel, I can take my Vonage phone with me, plug it into the Internet connection in my hotel room and my Utah number rings wherever I am. When I make calls from that location, I'm not necessarily using any Utah-based facility, so why should Utah have jurisdiction over the service? These and related issues make the Internet Sales Tax question look easy by comparison. That debate has been raging for over six years and still hasn't been resolved.

Oh, You Wanted Privacy With That?

My wife isn't very excited about the fact that you can type our phone number into Google and get a map to our house. This works for your phone number too-try it. But my wife would be downright angry to find out that you can look up all of our mortgage and property information on the Internet and that Utah County is the organization making it possible (

If you live in Utah County, and many others in Utah, your property information is on the Internet too. These Web sites aren't breaking any laws, in fact they're using technology to more fully meet their obligations to make property information public. There are good reasons why property information has historically been public: When I buy land, I'd like to know what its exact boundaries are, what disputes there may have been over it, what rights come with it, and what liens there might be against it. Public records help make that outcome possible.

The problem is that while this information has been public for decades, the reality of paper record keeping systems made it effectively private for most purposes. You had to physically present yourself at the county recorder's office and search through their records to find out about my property. This meant you had to really want it. Now anyone who wants to know what my mortgage is can go look it up online in a few minutes, in their bathrobe, for any purpose whatsoever.

Getting Involved

Collisions between the Internet and public policy are fascinating. Techies have a unique perspective on these issues and can be of great value in public policy discussions. Unfortunately, propeller heads have a tendency to ignore these kind of debates and then get angry when regulators, legislators, or whoever make a boneheaded move. I'm convinced that regulators and legislators want to do the right thing, but they need your help in framing the debate and they need to hear from you when the debate happens. The next few decades are likely to be painful if we don't solve these issues correctly. The legislative season will be starting soon and these and other public policy issues with technical underpinnings will be discussed; I urge you to get involved.

Phillip J. Windley, the former CIO of Utah, is an information technology writer, speaker, and consultant. Windley is writing a book on digital identity and writes a weblog on enterprise computing at Contact him at

Last Modified: Friday, 31-Dec-2004 21:33:50 UTC