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The House Member Who Can Change the Internet

Often overlooked on tech issues, Rep. Bob Goodlatte has a quiet approach that masks his power.

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(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Rep. Bob Goodlatte wasn’t roaming the Capitol on Monday, lawmakers' first day back from Easter recess. Despite looming legislative action on guns and immigration, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee was instead three and a half hours away by car—in Lynchburg, Va.

What interested Goodlatte that day were his district’s small businesses. Many of them are beginning to tap into the Web’s commercial potential in a way that’s often taken for granted in larger urban areas. The sleepy riverside town—home to Liberty University, a private Christian college—might be an unlikely place to find a thriving Internet economy. Indeed, Scarborough Research ranked Lynchburg "dead last" among U.S. metro areas for broadband penetration as recently as 2008. Yet as the rate of Internet adoption picks up, businesses there are quickly learning to compete with better-connected regions.

 

Goodlatte strolled from business to business, sweating slightly in the 82-degree heat. He stopped to visit Sam Stroud, a professional photographer who began working weddings by himself about three years ago. Since then, Stroud has hired nine employees and tripled his workload, using Facebook’s photo-tagging feature.

“If we shoot a wedding on Saturday and tag the bridesmaid, the bride, and the groom,” he said, “we’re now connecting their network with our network, and we see a return on that in terms of new business.”

Thanks to the connections he’s making on the Web, Stroud is expanding into new markets: Washington, D.C.; South Carolina; even Arizona.

 
Goodlatte’s approach may be low key, but as cybercrime, patent trolling, and high-skilled immigration gain visibility, the lawmaker will have a vital say in how those issues get resolved.

When Goodlatte stopped at the Academy of Fine Arts, a local theater, he found a deserted, crumbling concert hall on the second floor that had been vacant since 1958. The theater is being restored, and as its executive director, David Jenkins, told me, Internet donations and crowd-funding will pay for a great deal of the 850-seat project.

“There are millions of people addicted to historic theaters,” said Jenkins. “When I did a similar project in Florida, we had donors from at least 12 or 15 states.”

Goodlatte's visit is part of a broader effort to persuade other lawmakers to pay attention to tech. It's harder work than it seems. Members from districts dominated by agricultural or manufacturing interests are often tempted to write off technology as an issue concerning Silicon Valley, said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association. But technology means more than flashy start-ups in distant places. It's also creating economic value for members' constituents back home. 

 

Goodlatte’s fascination with the spread of technology beyond urban hubs isn’t limited to his home district. He chairs not only the full House Judiciary Committee but also its Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet—making him one of the key members dealing with tech-policy issues. But he doesn't have a high profile on the issue outside the Beltway.

Take the recent spate of legislation that’s been introduced to tackle cell-phone unlocking. Much of the coverage has focused on Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who tweeted his support for allowing consumers to port their devices to new wireless carriers without fear of being sued. Even more attention has been heaped upon the Senate, where Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a staunch defender of existing copyright law, has introduced a much weaker cell-phone unlocking bill.

Goodlatte’s approach to tech policy may be low key, but as challenges such as cybercrime, patent trolling, and high-skilled immigration gain more visibility, the lawmaker will have a vital say in how those issues get resolved.

The Virginia Republican could even become the spoiler on some issues. Last month, the Senate passed a symbolic gesture lending tacit approval to the Marketplace Fairness Act, a bill that would give states the ability to collect sales taxes from online transactions. That’s a good sign for supporters, but it’ll still have to make it past the House Judiciary Committee if it’s to become law—and Goodlatte isn’t yet sold on aspects of the bill. For starters, he said, retailers will suffer if they have to struggle to comply with countless tax jurisdictions across multiple states. And if one state decides to alter its online sales tax, out-of-state vendors will have no say in the matter, because they’re not represented in the state legislature.

Goodlatte's defense of Internet companies earned him Yahoo Internet Life’s “most Internet-friendly member of Congress” ranking in 2000, two years before the Web company’s magazine closed up shop.

It’s been more than a dozen years since Goodlatte received the honor, and in Lynchburg on Monday, he was self-deprecating about the episode—perhaps in recognition of how rapidly the tech-policy environment has changed (or perhaps of how little Congress hasn’t).

“I’ll never forget,” said Goodlatte, laughing. “My son was sitting at his computer, and I said, ‘Bobby, guess what? Yahoo just named me the most Internet-friendly member of Congress!’ and without batting an eye, he said, ‘Yeah, Dad—that’s sad.' "


A previous version of this article reported that Rep. Goodlatte had lost a battle over Internet sales taxes in 2007. In fact, the legislation was about taxes on Internet access.

This article appears in the April 12, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.

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