Week in review: Tech face-lift

A massive communications bill is taking shape in the Senate, and it promises to change the shape of the tech world.

A massive communications bill is taking shape in the Senate, and it promises to change the shape of the tech world.

A U.S. Senate panel narrowly rejected strict Net neutrality rules, dealing a grave setback to companies like eBay, Google and Amazon.com that had made enacting them a top political priority this year. By an 11-11 vote, the Senate Commerce Committee failed to approve a Democrat-backed amendment that would have ensured all Internet traffic is treated the same no matter what its "source" or "destination" might be.

This vote complicates Internet companies' efforts to convince Congress of the desirability of extensive new regulations. Republican committee members attacked the idea of inserting Net neutrality regulations in a massive telecommunications bill, echoing comments from broadband providers such as AT&T and Verizon, which warned the rules were premature and unnecessary.

CNET News.com readers were divided over the need for the legislation and its importance. But one reader voiced the frustration felt by many about the threat of tiered Internet access.

"No surprise here--another Orwellian named bill that does the opposite of what it is titled," one reader wrote in News.com's TalkBack Forum.

The panel also gave its approval to a legislative proposal to revive a controversial anticopying system known as the broadcast flag, despite misgivings from some senators. Members of the Senate Commerce Committee endorsed the idea of requiring digital TV receivers to restrict redistribution--particularly over the Internet--of over-the-air broadcasts. The measure would also allow for similar rules, or an "audio flag," for digital radio receivers.

The entire communications bill won't become law unless it receives final approval by the committee and, later, the full Senate. It must also be reconciled with a House of Representatives version that differs in many respects, including its lack of broadcast or audio flag components.

The committee also moved to prevent states from passing laws barring municipalities from forming their own citywide Wi-Fi systems. Florida, Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania have enacted laws intended to curb those projects, measures that are often backed by telecom and cable companies such as Verizon Communications and Comcast.

That legislative trend has captured the attention of U.S. senators, who voted to prevent state governments from following Pennsylvania's lead. A telecommunications bill that the Senate Commerce Committee approved says that no state may prohibit its own municipalities from offering broadband services.

Sex, the Net and children
The debates over how best to protect Internet surfers from pornography heated up on the Hill as well. The massive communications bill being shaped by the Senate Commerce Committee will require Web site operators posting sexually explicit information to place warning labels on their pages or face prison terms of up to five years.

It says that commercial Web sites must not place "sexually explicit material" on their home pages on pain of felony prosecution. In addition, they must rate "each page or screen of the Web site that does contain sexually explicit material" with a system to be devised by the Federal Trade Commission.

At another hearing before a House subcommittee, politicians served up a dizzying slew of suggestions about what kind of new federal laws should be enacted. The ideas were all over the map, and most were new. Only one or two have actually been turned into formal legislation so far, but politicians are vowing to take action in the very near future.

In an attempt to forestall potentially intrusive new federal laws, a coalition of Internet companies has launched a campaign against child pornography that they say will tip off police to illegal images. The Internet companies--AOL, EarthLink, Microsoft, United Online and Yahoo--are pledging $1 million in cash and technical assistance to develop technology that can "detect and disrupt the distribution of known images of child exploitation" on the Internet.

Because Internet providers are loath to see new laws that could raise privacy and security concerns--and cost them millions of dollars in the process--they hope that their own, self-regulatory proposal will reduce Congress' willingness to impose a mandatory one.

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