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Spending bill becomes law

The $500 billion measure signed by the president includes several technology industry-backed provisions and Net content regulations.

President Clinton today signed a $500 billion spending bill for fiscal 1999 that includes several technology industry-backed provisions as well as controversial Net content regulations.

Despite complaints that the bill was hurriedly assembled and contained too many last-minute additions, the House passed the measure by 333 to 95 yesterday, and the Senate cleared it by a 65 to 29 vote this morning. After extending its session by almost a month, the 105th Congress will now adjourn.

Although the massive appropriations bill ushered into law a handful of provisions pushed by the high-tech lobby, the package also includes the controversial Child Online Protection Act, which calls for commercial Web site operators who offer "harmful" material to check visitors' identifications or face up to $50,000 in fines and six months in prison for each violation.

Civil liberties groups believe that section is unconstitutional and will hinder adults' right to surf the Net anonymously. As reported, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center will file lawsuit tomorrow in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia to challenge what they call the Communications Decency Act II. (News.com publisher CNET: The Computer Network is set to be a plaintiff as part of the Internet Content Coalition.)

Although the Justice Department warned that the bill would be challenged because it is vague and could hinder adult access to constitutionally protected speech, President Clinton gave in and signed it as expected because the Net content bill is part of the critical legislation to keep the government funded.

The "omnibus" spending bill, which provides for 8 of 13 federal departments, also includes the following high-tech proposals:

  • The Workforce Improvement and Protection Act will increase the number of visas for skilled foreign workers.

  • The Internet Tax Freedom Act, which establishes a national three-year moratorium on "discriminatory" taxes. Sites that offer "harmful" material would be exempt from the time-out. The provision requires Net access providers to offer customers products to screen out this material.

  • The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act requires Web sites to get parental consent before collecting information from children aged 12 or younger.

  • The Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which will make it possible to use electronic signatures for federal forms submitted via the Net.

    Each of the five Net bills were added during the end-of-the-term rush, although three other high-tech bills (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Secuities Litigation Uniform Standards Act, and the Child Protection and Sexual Predator Punishment Act) made it through Congress on their own and are awaiting the president's signature.

    On Friday, Clinton signed into law Rep. Constance Morella's (R-Maryland) legislation to create an 11-member Commission on Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development that will determine whether employers recruit, promote, pay, and retain women at the same rate as their male counterparts. The commission then will issue recommendations to government, academia, and the corporate sector based on its findings. The bill passed Congress earlier this month.