The Internet is the first medium that allows anyone with reasonably inexpensive equipment to publish to a wide audience. It is the first medium that distributes information globally at almost no marginal cost.
The Internet's potential is enormous, and the stakes are high. The Internet can raise the quality of political debate, the quality of education, the quality of life. It is precious and important, and we must not take it for granted.
Beginning two decades ago, the PC industry developed in the United States without government control and regulations. The benefits of the resulting PC revolution were far-reaching.
As this computer revolution gives way to an even-more-important communications revolution, governments are getting involved - sometimes with a vengeance.
One example of government involvement is the telecommunications-deregulation bill that President Bill Clinton recently signed into law. It will, among other things, make the "information highway" of the future possible.
Overall, Microsoft and I supported this legislation, in part because it will help create a framework that will encourage aggressive private investment. The result will be faster communications connections and lower costs for people who use interactive networks such as the Internet. This will be good for our economy and way of life.
But not everything about the bill is good. In fact, one part is truly bad.
Microsoft and others in industry and non-profit organizations were deeply involved in trying to block language that would put chilling restrictions on the use of the Internet for the free publication of information. The language, ostensibly aimed at keeping pornography out of the hands of children, goes much too far in restricting freedom of expression.
We had a lot of good company in the fight against this knee-jerk language, but we lost the first round.
Now our hope is that this misguided language will either be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional or else overridden legislatively.
If it is allowed to stand, it will undermine our nation's Bill of Rights - and there is no question that it will interfere with the ability of the Internet to flourish. It is so restrictive that it will scare people who fear they might commit a felony by simply discussing a controversial topic.
We in the United States have a heartfelt interest in keeping pornography and other objectionable material out of the hands of children. We can't turn our heads and ignore that which can damage our kids.
But we also have a national interest in freedom of expression. Throughout history, that freedom has been a hallmark of our nation which has benefited our society, and helped us set an example for the world.
The free exchange of ideas on a global basis is something that is important for the U.S. politically and economically. Let's not undermine the world-wide trend toward free expression by setting a bad example when it comes to free speech on a computer network.
The Bill of Rights is the foundation on which our nation is built. The Internet is an enormously valuable place in which those rights must continue to thrive. Both the Bill of Rights and the Internet are potentially fragile. Mess with either of them too much, and we might ruin them.
We can't let this happen.