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Congress takes tech agenda to the fore

With the Internet's role in the economy considered critical despite rampant layoffs and consolidation, regulators vow to tackle issues including privacy and access to broadband.

    WASHINGTON--With the Internet's role in the economy considered critical despite rampant layoffs and consolidation, senators and congressmen on Monday vowed to tackle issues including privacy and access to broadband.

    A conference here afforded an informal peek at just what the 107th U.S. Congress might focus on in terms of technology policy. The technology industry has become a key force in the U.S. economy, as well as an emerging fund-raising pool for tech-savvy politicians. Several senators and congressmen were on Capitol Hill Monday outlining for tech lobbyists the many ways Congress will be working on legislation directly affecting the Internet.

    There was a general sense at the gathering, originally scheduled as part of the Comdex computing trade show in Las Vegas, that despite the difficulties the high-tech economy has seen in recent months, the industry will improve. In addition, Congress will continue to take part in its growth and development, particularly as access to broadband Net access technology expands and privacy issues continue to percolate.

    "I believe 'irrational exuberance' has been succeeded by 'irrational pessimism,'" said Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet. "I think we'll reach a happy medium soon."

    Broad approach to broadband bills
    "This is an exciting yet dangerous time for the Internet," said House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La. The congressman, a proponent of deregulation, argued that there is still a role for the federal government to play in the Internet, despite all the calls he hears to "keep it free."

    "As we hear those arguments," he said, "we're faced with the reality that the Internet is rapidly being developed on wires that are being regulated." The key, Tauzin said, is to use laws and regulations to assist the Internet rather than stifle it.

    Markey said the Telecom Act of 1996 has already helped boost broadband availability through "the inducement of paranoia in incumbents" such as the Bell companies and cable operators.

    Tauzin said he's told his successor as chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee, Fred Upton of Michigan, that his first goal should be to "make sure that broadband is free and open, to forbear on regulations where the market clearly is working." One example Tauzin cited recently on this issue is the notion of lifting the restrictions on Bell companies to transmit data long distance.

    Newly elected Sen. George Allen of Virginia, recently named chairman of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, said the group met last week and named broadband access as a top priority.

    Though members of both parties agreed to promote broadband, the specific actions they would take were less clear.

    Privacy action called inevitable
    "Congress, if you look at it realistically, is going to have to address privacy," said Rep. James Moran of Virginia, chairman of the New Democrats. One reason is the fact that states such as California have already considered acting unilaterally, he said. "You can't have 50 different standards for Internet privacy."

    Moran dismissed the call by a new organization called The Privacy Coalition for legislation that would require specific consent from a Web user before any personal information could be used by the company, the so-called opt-in approach.

    That approach would "arrest private-sector development," Moran said. "If Congress acts now we are going to freeze in time technology that will protect the computer user" by discouraging future privacy initiatives by technology companies, he said. Moran also expressed concern about the financial effect opt-in policies would have on Web sites.

    "We don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg," Moran said.

    Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked technology lobbyists in attendance for patience.

    While Congress will "aggressively move forward" on these issues, he said, in his 23 years in the Senate, "I've never known of a series of issues more complex than technology" and its related policy.

    "We as senators jump from subject to subject, dunk our heads in a bucket of facts, and try to craft a bill," Warner said, adding that such an approach doesn't work for technology.