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Congress tackles high-tech issues

Congress is back from spring break, and several high-tech issues are topping its agenda--from speeding up Net access to computer industry employment issues.

Congress is back from spring break, and several high-tech issues are topping its agenda--from speeding up Net access to computer industry employment.

Both houses are considering numerous bills aimed at regulating the Net, such as a proposal to prohibit online gambling and another that makes it a felony to supply minors with digital material deemed "harmful." Other plans on the table aim to liberate technologies, such as bills to ease export limits on strong encryption products (which secure digital communication).

Since reconvening Congress shapes high-tech, Net policy in January, the technology issues on Congress's plate haven't changed.

And although lobbyists, policy think tanks, and lawmakers have their own agendas, there is some consensus about which bills are expected to make notable progress--or even become law--by October when the 105th Congress plans to adjourn.

There even is talk of a "high-tech" week in May when bills that hit home from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley are expected to take center stage and possibly be taken up for full votes in both houses. Congress already is tackling some proposals.

Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee took up immigration and employment issues--including the high-tech industry's plea for a lift on the cap of the number of annual employment-based visas, which would allow companies to recruit more foreign engineers and information technology specialists.

And the Senate Commerce Committee today is holding a hearing about Net bandwidth. The focus will be a section in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that called for telephone companies to more widely deploy high-speed, high-capacity Net access. The committee will check the status of the Federal Communications Commission's implementation of the rule.

The hearings this week hardly reflect the breadth of proposals federal lawmakers have been considering since last year, however.

Although it is not as sexy as issues such as online consumer privacy and Net pornography, the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act is one bill in contention for passage.

Pushed by Silicon Valley companies, the bill would impose "uniform standards" regarding shareholder lawsuits filed in state courts against high-tech companies with volatile stock prices.

"Hopefully the security litigation will be easy to pass at this point because we have growing consensus on what to do, and the White House has shown support," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California). "I'm hopeful that it will pass and become law by October."

But garnering Congress's attention in the midst of negotiations over national spending bills and the tobacco industry settlement could be a difficult task.

Momentum is mounting to pass the WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaty Implementation Act, which imposes stronger copyright protection for digital works. Advanced in February, the bill would slap stiffer penalties on Net copyright infringements, and a companion piece of legislation would limit the liability of online access providers for violations made over their networks.

"Legislatively we're going to focus on making sure we protect our members' assets through strong protection of intellectual property rights through the WIPO bills," said David Buyer, the vice president of government affairs for the Software Publishers Association. "We're also seeking long-term moratoriums on taxing the Internet."

When it comes to e-commerce levies, the White House endorsed the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which would place a "time out" on applying new taxes to Net access and services.

In the House, Rep. Chris Cox (R-California) struck a controversial compromise with the National Governors' Association (NGA), which opposed the legislation. The deal would shorten the moratorium from six to three years, and "grandfather" local and state taxes passed before March 1 of this year. But industry executives worry that the clause could create a loophole, allowing localities to create new Net taxes under their existing tax codes.

And the campaign to pass the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act could be revived now that a wide variety of changes are expected to be made to the bill. The bill would ban accepting Net wagers and apply fines and jail time for even casual bettors. Before it goes to a full Senate vote this year, the current bill is set to be replaced by a proposal that could carve out exceptions for online bets on horse racing and state lotteries.

Moreover, two bills aimed at restricting minors' access to "Adults Only" Web sites are also being closely watched by civil liberties groups. Sen. Dan Coats's (R-Indiana) bill, dubbed by opponents as the son of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), would prohibit "commercial" Web sites from allowing underage surfers to view adult-oriented material deemed "harmful to minors," such as nude images or content that "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific" value.

Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) legislation could gain more support, however. The bill would require public schools and libraries that get federal discounts on Net access to install software on their computers to filter out material that is "inappropriate for minors."

"We're pushing to get that revised to require not filtering, but Internet education programs and acceptable use policies," said David Sobel, legal counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "If the McCain bill passes as is, every school and library will be required by the federal government to take action, and that will subject them to litigation for [violation of the First Amendment]."

In addition, privacy watchdogs and legislators say the export battle over encryption will continue. A slew of bills to ease export controls have yet to pass.

Expected to surface is at least one new proposal that attempts to balance law enforcement officials' desire be able to crack U.S. encryption products via key-recovery systems during the course of a criminal investigation--and the software industry's ongoing fight for export relief. The limitations on crypto have, by admission of the Clinton administration, inhibited the industry's ability to compete in the worldwide market.

The Americans for Computer Privacy (ACP) are working on a draft of legislation that sources say will be introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri). The bill is predicted to overturn mandatory key-recovery systems for export products, but will still require manufacturers to get export licenses, which could apply to people who simply post software codes on a Web site. (See related story)

Lofgren is working on getting similar legislation introduced in the House. "Encryption will continue to be a focus--we're trying to find solutions, not just an argument," Lofgren said.