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Remarks By Al Gore
New York University Commencement

Thursday, May 14, 1998

President Oliva; members of the Board of Trustees; alumni, faculty, and staff; family and friends; and distinguished honorees—I must say, it is a great honor indeed to be included in this group. On behalf of myself and my fellow honorees—thank you for bestowing this honor on us today.

I want to use this occasion to describe what I believe our American self-government should look like in the 21st Century, and propose an electronic bill of rights for the Information Age.

To begin with, as you well know, our government has to change in order to serve us in the future. Your generation is more defined by the future than any other—born in a world of 8-tracks, you are now living in world of PC's and digital audio clips. Linked to the global economy. Driven by ideas and innovation. Networked for the Information Age.

For you, e-mail and the Internet are second nature; starting your own business will probably mean a Website before it means an office lease.

NYU—America's largest private university, and one of its best—is uniquely suited to these times. This is an Information Age university—where leading research in science and technology fuel the information revolution. This is a global university—with the largest number of international students of any American university, and campuses everywhere from Paris to Prague. And NYU is deeply rooted in the community. After all, your campus is Broadway and Astor Place; the West Village and Washington Square. Over 3,000 students here are involved with 160 community service projects.

I'm especially proud that you are running the largest branch of our administration's America Reads program, helping eight-year-olds learn to read; and that you are active in AmeriCorps, to build citizenship through service.

In order to serve American citizens in the 21st Century, I believe we must implement a plan based on five core principles:

First, fiscal discipline. We now have the first balanced budget in 30 years, keeping inflation and interest rates down while wages and job creation are up; we're determined to keep it balanced.

Secondly, within our balanced budget, we're making increased targeted investments in education, job training, research and development, the environment, and fighting crime.

Third, we're using today's good times to tackle tough challenges like reforming the entitlement programs—because we owe that to your generation. That's why we've said to Congress: don't spend one penny of the surplus until we fix Social Security first.

Fourth, we are opening foreign markets, expanding trade, and providing strong American leadership in the world.

Fifth, we have placed a new emphasis on making our self-government work for the 21st Century, through our reinventing government initiative. We call it REGO—that's Gore spelled sideways; I've worked very hard on that.

This last principle—making government work for the 21st Century—is the one I want to make a few points about this morning. We are making good progress, and America is on the right track. But we face a big problem that you can help us with.

If current trends hold true, more than half of you won't vote in this year's elections. I hope you'll change those trends. 33 years ago, when I started college, 60 percent of college students thought it was important to keep up with government and political affairs. I actually thought that was low then. But today, less than 30 percent believe it's important to keep up with what's happening in our democracy. In the 21st Century, self-government will not work for you in America if it does not win back your trust, your interest, and your active participation.

Our founders based America's self-government on a skeptical view of human nature—which is why they gave us a system of checks and balances. James Madison said it best: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

But when skepticism melts into cynicism, we lose our ability to function as one people. In the 70s and 80s, many Americans whose hopes had been lifted by the New Frontier, the Apollo program, and Dr. King's dream felt shattered by the assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. Too many were led by their disappointments to turn their backs on the obligations of self-government. But now, with the successes of our democracy in recent years, we have a growing opportunity to rebuild the trust in one another upon which our self-government is based. But we must do more. And I want to suggest a few ways in which we can redeem the promise of self-government.

It is important to meet this challenge. Because, the truth is, you will encounter government every day—when you step on the subway; when you turn on your faucet to fill a glass with clean water; when you pay back those student loans. You'll certainly need government if you face discrimination, or injustice, in the course of your lives.

But in the 21st Century, we need a government that empowers us, not one that tries to make our decisions for us. A government that is right for the Information Age.

First, in the 21st Century, we need a national government that costs less, and works better. That is why we've worked so hard to reform and reinvent government. The principles are simple: empower employees. Focus on results, not red tape. Measure performance, not process. Use common sense, not bureaucratic nonsense.

Our 21st Century government must be flexible and open to new ideas about how to solve old problems. That's how we eliminated 16,000 pages of regulation, and 640,000 pages of internal rules. And that's how we reduced the size of the federal government by 350,000 employees to make it the smallest it's been since the early 1960s. Smarter, leaner government has saved us money, too—$137 billion so far—and that is a large part of the reason we have now balanced the federal budget.

But for government to work, you've got to engage in it. I ask you today to accept an important bargain: we'll make the national government work for you—but you must make service and citizenship an active part of your lives.

Second, in the 21st Century, our greater interdependence makes it even more important that we use our strength as a nation to lead the world. Increasingly, our great challenges are global challenges. For example, if all nations don't agree to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, then we will all be less safe. We must keep fighting to curb weapons of mass destruction—so that the peace and security we worked so hard to build can be the birthright of your children. The Cold War may be over, but we must stop the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing—especially given the disturbing news from India this week. That is why we immediately imposed tough sanctions on India. And that is why we are taking other steps to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical, and biological.

To take another example, if all nations do not curb the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, then we will all suffer the consequences. The U.S. must lead the world on the environment, to protect our own air, water, and precious natural lands.

And in the midst of Asia's financial crisis, it is obvious why we must support institutions like the International Monetary Fund, to help stabilize the world's economy. And if we fail to support the United Nations and pay our dues, then we will lose our best forum for preventing world conflicts before they start. We must reject isolationism in the 21st Century, and accept the simple fact that the United States must lead the world toward a brighter future in order to secure our own future.

But we can only build and sustain a consensus for American leadership in the world by basing it on strong support for an inclusive society, and a prosperous economy here at home in which all can participate. In the years after World War II, the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan were two sides of the same coin. Today, strong leadership in the global economy must be paired with a strong plan to rebuild our public schools; improve access to health care; clean up our environment; and with an enduring commitment to lift up those who have been left out.

America's principal mission in human history has always been to advance the cause of liberty and to prove that religious, political, and economic freedom unlock a higher fraction of the human potential than any other way of organizing human society.

We should now acknowledge that America also has a second mission: to prove to the world that people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, of all faiths and creeds, can not only work and live together, but can enrich and ennoble both themselves and our common purpose. Our ability to lead the world toward peace—whether in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, or the Indian subcontinent—will be enhanced by the healing of our own divisions at home.

Third, in the 21st Century, our American self-government must do more to strengthen families and empower communities. It is time to leave behind us in the old century the obsolete argument that the only choices are top-down, national solutions on one hand; or leaving individuals to fend for themselves on the other. We know that's a false choice. We live our lives in our families and in our communities—and that is where we find healing; protect our values, and work together to solve our problems and seize opportunities.

I see a 21st Century where government is even more family- and community-based—where all our schools are open in the afternoons, for quality after-school care; where all working families have access to pre-school and day care; where the community police officers who are banishing the fear from New York City walk the beat in every city in America.

Fourth, in the 21st Century, government must do more to protect and empower individuals for the Information Age—to meet new threats to individual liberty. In this Information Age, the key strategic resource is not land or capital—it is knowledge. Your generation will depend not only on seaports and railways and roads—but also on the best information infrastructure. That is why we are investing so heavily in education, in job training and retraining, in the Next Generation Internet, and in the kind of research that happens here every day—to fuel the innovation that is the engine of growth in this new economy.

But for all the benefits of the Information Age—for all the wonders of a technology that can enable you to do research in pure math one moment, and order your favorite brand of hot sauce the next—new technology always raises new challenges.

In his day, Socrates feared that the introduction of Egyptian paper would disrupt human ties, cause our memories to atrophy, and replace spirited public debate with private communication. We now know that he was dead right.

Today, we see the rise of new fears, ones that are very real. In the course of an average day, you may use your credit card to buy groceries. You may visit the doctor for a check up, and have your health information punched into a database.

You may surf the Web, and send an e-mail to a friend. And at every step of the way, you may be leaving a trail of personal data that can be used or abused by others.

New technology must not reopen the oldest threats to our basic rights, liberty, and privacy. But government should not simply block or regulate all that electronic progress. If we are to move full speed ahead into the Information Age, government must do more to protect your rights—in a way that empowers you more, not less. We need an electronic bill of rights for this electronic age.

Let us start with these fundamental precepts: privacy is a basic American value—in the Information Age, and in every age. And it must be protected. You should have the right to choose whether your personal information is disclosed; you should have the right to know how, when, and how much of that information is being used; and you should have the right to see it yourself, to know if it's accurate.

That bill of rights must begin in the doctor's office. Today, there is greater protection for your video rental receipts than for your most intimate medical information. I've seen cases where people's prescription drug histories are sold freely to direct mail companies without their permission; where hundreds of employees at an HMO have access to a patients' records.

Worst of all, some patients and doctors are now afraid to keep full and accurate medical records, for fear that their rights will be violated. Without the confidence to keep full and accurate records, how can you get the best quality health care?

Today, I call on Congress to enact new legislation that will restrict how your medical records can be used, and make sure you are fully informed, and fully consulted, about their use—including the chance to correct them. The Clinton-Gore administration wants to work with Congress to pass this legislation this year; that is our strong preference. However, if they fail to act, it should be noted that we have the authority to act on our own next year.

Today, I am announcing three additional components of our electronic bill of rights, to empower you to protect your own rights and liberties on-line. First, this morning, the Federal Trade Commission is launching a new "opt-out" Website, which enables you to prevent your personal information from being passed on to others. From a single place in cyberspace, you will be able to take steps to stop companies from screening your credit records without your permission; stop direct marketers from buying the information on your driver's license; and stop direct mail companies and telemarketers from using your personal information.

In other words, before your credit card records are used by a direct marketer to solicit you, you should have the chance to say no.

Second, President Clinton is calling on the entire federal government to review its own record-keeping—to make sure we are doing everything possible to protect your personal information, and to make it a permanent priority across the government.

Third, trade and commerce on the Internet are doubling or tripling every year—and in just a few years will be generating hundreds of billions of dollars in sales of goods and services.

But we cannot build electronic prosperity without ensuring electronic privacy. Last year we challenged the private sector to come forward with its own steps to protect our rights and liberties for the Information Age. There's been some progress by industry leaders, companies, and trade associations—but we need to do more. Next month, our Commerce Department will convene a special Summit on these issues, to find new ways to empower consumers and protect our oldest values on-line. I am asking that this summit pay special attention to children's privacy—since we know that our children are the most vulnerable, and sometimes the most willing to innocently disclose information when they are on-line.

That is our electronic bill of rights—new action to protect you from information abuse; new tools to empower you to make your own choices, and safeguard your own rights and liberties. I believe it embodies the approach we must adopt for all of government in the 21st Century—a national government that provides the leadership and security individuals cannot provide on their own, but then empowers you with the tools to do the rest for yourselves.

In closing, after telling you all this, I am reminded that Will Rogers once said, "Every year I've been reading some of the addresses delivered to the graduating classes. . .They tell 'em that they are living in a time of great changes, and that they must prepare themselves for the new civilization that's coming. I bet you there hasn't been a class graduated in the last hundred years that hasn't been told the same old gag."

In fairness to Will Rogers, there is a lot that doesn't change: our belief in family and community. The basic goals and purposes of our government and our nation. Even our eagerness to embrace the future. But your generation really is different, because the changes that have seemed wrenching in the past—from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, from the analog world to the digital world—are part of the fabric of your lives.

I also know that your strengths, your savvy, and your values would serve us well in any age: for you care about each other, you cherish freedom, you treasure justice, and you seek truth. You deserve a self-government that embodies those values, and adapts them to changing times. You deserve a nation that does its best to defeat cynicism—and replace it not with blind idealism, but with the eternal optimism and healthy skepticism that are so uniquely balanced in our national temperament. This is your day—and sooner than you might think, this will be your world. To some of you, still packing boxes and still reeling from those final exams, that may seem a daunting prospect. But for me, there is no better reason to be hopeful about America's future. Thank you and good luck.

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