What the Democrats' win means for tech

This week's election gives the Democrats control of at least one chamber of Congress. What does it mean for Net neutrality and digital copyright?

It was the narrowest of Republican margins in the U.S. Senate that doomed a crucial vote on Net neutrality earlier this year.

By an 11-11 tie, a GOP-dominated committee failed in June to approve rules requiring that all Internet traffic be treated the same no matter what its "source" or "destination" might be. A similar measure also failed in the House of Representatives.

But now that this week's elections have switched control of the House back to the Democrats--and they appear to have seized the Senate as well--the outlook for technology-related legislation has changed dramatically overnight.

On a wealth of topics--Net neutrality, digital copyright, merger approval, data retention, Internet censorship--a Capitol Hill controlled by Democrats should yield a shift in priorities on technology-related legislation.

Network neutrality is one of the clearest examples of a partisan rift. In the Senate, all the Republican committee members but one voted against extensive broadband regulations. These regulations are backed by Internet companies such as Google and eBay, but are opposed by telecommunications and hardware providers.

"Clearly, we're going to have to address the question of network neutrality," Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, told reporters on Wednesday. Dingell, who has served in the House for more than 50 of his 80 years, is set to be the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which writes telecommunications laws.

Dingell didn't elaborate. But he's previously gone on the record as a staunch supporter of extensive regulations that would prohibit network operators from charging content providers extra for premium placement or faster delivery, dubbing it "private taxation of the Internet." (Network operators say they may need to do this to recoup their vast investments in new broadband infrastructure.)

Net neutrality
Adam Green, a spokesman for the liberal advocacy group Moveon.org, predicted that the election results would be a boon to the enactment of extensive Net neutrality regulations. "Internet freedom should not be a partisan issue. But Republicans have consistently been standing in the way, and there is zero doubt that the increased Democratic control of Congress will be fantastic news," said Green, whose group lobbies on the topic.

"Without Net neutrality, the current experience that Internet users enjoy today is in jeopardy."
--Nancy Pelosi, next House Majority Leader

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat set to be the next House Majority Leader, has also been a strong supporter of more Net neutrality regulations. Pelosi said in June that "without Net neutrality, the current experience that Internet users enjoy today is in jeopardy."

The issue of electronic surveillance represents another partisan divide. House Democrats cast 62 votes against the 2001 Patriot Act, but only three Republicans opposed it. Similarly, not one Democrat opposed a more recent amendment requiring the executive branch to disclose its data-mining technologies, while 165 Republicans did.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington office, said she hoped the new Congress would investigate the National Security Agency's domestic spying program. "The illegal spying program should be a primary focus of congressional efforts to investigate this administration's abuse of power," Fredrickson said. "The president himself has admitted to authorizing this warrantless spying in direct contravention of the dictates of FISA," or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Longtime Washington observers acknowledge that neither party is that principled when it comes to the topic of electronic surveillance. Rather, positions on privacy can become partisan methods of attacking the party that holds the White House. (Republicans, now stalwart defenders of the Patriot Act, were advocates of protecting privacy during President Clinton's time in office. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns said the White House "has no respect for privacy," and House Majority Leader Dick Armey used words like "Orwellian" to describe administration proposals.)

The ACLU is pinning some of its hopes on Rep. John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is set to be the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers has suggested imposing greater controls on government surveillance and is in a key position to lead a high-profile investigation.

"Several of the new committee chairs have already expressed their intention to conduct a thorough inquiry into the unlawful actions of this administration," Fredrickson said.

Digital copyright
Digital copyright is another topic that likely will be heavily influenced by the congressional shakeup--though more because of new committee chairmen than the shift in party alignments.

Hollywood tends to be solidly Democratic: Employees of companies like Viacom, Walt Disney and Vivendi Universal consistently write checks to Democratic politicians over Republicans, by a 2-to-1 margin. (And Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican, famously bashed Hollywood during the 1996 presidential campaign.)

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