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Congress deals with high tech

While it is back in session until April, Congress is facing a slew of bills regarding the Net and the computer industry.

Congress will only be in session until April, but that's just enough time to jump-start some major high-tech legislation.

There are a slew of bills on federal lawmakers' plates concerning the Net Congress shapes high-tech, Net policy and the computer industry this year. Only a few proposals from 1997 have garnered attention so far, including legislation to ban Internet gambling and curb children's access to indecent Web sites as well as proposed standards for limiting securities lawsuits against technology companies.

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime took up the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which makes it a felony to place or accept online bets. The more controversial Senate version of the bill supersedes states' rights to ever legalize or regulate the practice within their borders--overhauling the way gambling has been regulated historically.

Unlike Senate hearings about the bill, the House subcommittee invited opponents of the plan to air their views. The complaints echo other regulatory debates over Net activities, such as how this law could be enforced, given that the medium ignores international and state boundaries.

Some feel online casinos should be licensed and regulated by states. In other words, consumers would be allowed to place bets from states where the practice is permissible, to sites run in territories where accepting that type of wager also is legal. Even with such a plan, the issues are still thorny.

"A lot of the questions focused on how to deal with underaged gambling. Or how to ensure that operations will pay the [winning] players," said Sue Schneider, editor of gambling e-zine Rolling Good Times Online, who testified before the subcommittee. "The debate is really about prohibition vs. regulation."

The bill is not expected to gain much ground in the House, but could move forward in the Senate, according to both Schneider and staffers for Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-New Jersey), who cosponsored the bill with technocrat Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R- Virginia). "I would be cautiously optimistic that it's going to move. But the chairman of the [House Subcommittee on Crime] seems like a pretty strong supporter of the bill," John Scofield, LoBiondo's spokesman, said today.

Another sexy political issue that won't die is the move to bar minors' access to "indecent" material on the Net. Despite the Supreme Court's June rejection of Congress's first attempt to address the issue--the Communications Decency Act--lawmakers are working on new laws with the same flavor.

On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will hear testimony about how "easy" it is for children to download online pornography and indecent material. According to foes, barring or criminalizing "indecent" speech could be defined to include sites about safe sex or women's rights, and could apply to chat room discussion about these topics. The high court agreed when overturning the CDA, stating that by making "indecent" online speech to minors illegal, Congress infringed on free speech rights under the Constitution.

The focus of next week's Senate hearing will be Sen. Dan Coats's (R-Indiana) bill to prohibit commercial Web sites from distributing to those under age 17 any material that is "harmful to minors," which includes messages or Web sites that depict actual or simulated sexual acts, not including material with social or artistic value. If passed, violators could be fined up to $50,000 and imprisoned for six months.

Coats says the bill has been carefully tailored to survive First Amendment scrutiny, while answering parents' concerns about their children's access to adult content. But critics of the proposal strike the same chord as those who take issue with the plan to ban online gambling.

"People involved in these controversies tend to lose sight of the bigger picture--how does the government get its arms around the Net?" said Tony Cabot, a gaming attorney in Las Vegas who is studying the Net wager industry. "It's a general theme when it comes to things like online copyright theft, bank fraud, and child pornography--gambling is no different."

The complications stirred by Net governance will likely not affect another hot issue for Congress this session--securities litigation. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) promised to pass legislation by Easter that would impose "uniform standards" regarding shareholder lawsuits filed in state courts against high-tech companies.

The bill Lott is pushing would require that class action shareholder suits brought against companies for failed earnings be filed in federal court. This would reduce the current risk that companies can be sued in every state. Numerous lawsuits stifle the industry's growth, proponents of the bill say.

"The high-technology industry is the nation's largest creator of jobs--the engine that is driving America's economic expansion," Lott said in a statement.

Lobbying for passage of the legislation are groups such as Silicon Valley's Technology Network, whose founder drove the stake in a similar California initiative in 1996.