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Much ado about nothing

CNET Washington watcher Declan McCullagh explains that when it comes to passing technology legislation, Congress is aggressively doing precious little this year.

WASHINGTON--Forget any new laws canning spam and don't expect Uncle Sam to step in and protect your privacy. When it comes to technology, Congress is aggressively doing very little this year.

It's not because of any sincere commitment to limited government, or a newfound realization that the federal government is not particularly clever at devising solutions to technical or social problems. The reasons are far more mundane: They include partisan gridlock, a shift in focus to homeland security, and the simple fact there's no time left to do serious legislating for this year.

Since the Republican Party's whisker-thin control of the House of Representatives will be sorely tested in the November elections, House leaders are even more wary than usual about giving Senate Democrats any credit. For their part, the Senate Dems feel precisely the same way about their rivals on the other side of Capitol Hill.

Translation: Gridlock on nearly all bills, including tech-related ones.

The House, for instance, approved a broadband bill by a vote of 273 to 157 in February--but it's stalled in the Senate.

For his part, Senate Commerce chairman Fritz Hollings would dearly love to enact his plan to regulate Web site data collection practices, but the House leadership laughs at the idea. Also, House Majority Leader Dick Armey has flatly said that Hollings' idea of forcibly implanting copy-protection in electronic devices has zero chance in the lower chamber of Congress.

Depending on how you view some of the proposals on Capitol Hill, this can range from terrific news to an unmitigated disaster.

"From our point of view, the most important thing not to pass is the Hollings security mandate bill," says Alan Davidson, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "It's so broad and sets such a dangerous precedent that we're glad it appears that cooler heads have prevailed."

Depending on how you view some of the proposals on Capitol Hill, this can range from terrific news to an unmitigated disaster.
Hollywood's lobbyists have exactly the opposite sentiment. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in March that Hollings' bill was "a measure that will serve the long-term interests of consumers."

One exception to Congress' legislative traffic jam is President Bush's proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security. Another is the annual appropriations process for federal agencies for the fiscal year beginning in October.

"There are very few days left in the legislative calendar, and there are very few things that are clearly moving," Davidson said. "Homeland security is one of them."

Another one is a proposal to restrict "morphed" or computer-generated images of nude minors, which the House has already approved, and the Senate is already considering.

On the not-likely-to-happen list: A proposal to make it a crime to give, in some circumstances, false information when registering a domain name, and a bill requiring spammers to use accurate return addresses.

Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, hopes that Rep. Bob Barr's (R-Georgia) federal-privacy bill makes it through the logjam. "It's a timely proposal and probably one of the better checks on the Office of Homeland Security madness," Rotenberg says of the bill, which requires agencies to weigh the privacy impact of what they do.

Peer-to-prison: Rep. Howard Berman's war on peer-to-peer networks is about to begin.

"It's a timely proposal and probably one of the better checks on the Office of Homeland Security madness."
--Marc Rotenberg, director, Electronic Privacy Information Center

Last month, the California Democrat said he was planning to introduce a bill to let copyright owners, such as record labels or movie studios, launch technological attacks against file-swapping networks where their wares are illegally traded.

Details have been scarce so far, but an aide to Berman said the text of the proposal will be available early this week.

Lobbyists opposed to Berman's bill had predicted a hearing on Thursday, but that's not going to happen. A spokeswoman for Berman said, "There is not a hearing scheduled at this moment. We're waiting for Mr. (Howard) Coble."

Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) is the chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees copyright law. Ed McDonald, a spokesman for Coble, said that his boss likes Berman's plan--but there wasn't enough time for a hearing before the summer recess is scheduled to begin on July 29.

"We pretty much have the schedule booked for the next year. My boss, Congressman Coble, was very supportive of what Berman's doing (but) I think it would be doubtful before the fall," McDonald said.

Worldcom fallout: Rick White, head of TechNet, is worried that Washington may overreact to WorldCom's highly publicized woes.

White, a former Republican congressman from Washington state, is coming to town this week to argue that while more accountability is necessary, Congress should be cautious when considering legislative responses.

In particular, a spokeswoman said, White is concerned that Congress may act on a stock option bill that everyone had thought to be moribund this year, if not entirely dead.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mi.) and John McCain (R-Az.), would change accounting rules for stock options by making them much more expensive for corporations.

Even though stock options rules have nothing to do with WorldCom's cooked books, some liberal activists say changing them should be part of any broad corporate reform proposal.

This week: On Monday, the House Financial Services committee is meeting at 1 p.m. ET for a hearing titled "Wrong Numbers: The Accounting Problems at WorldCom."...The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission will hold a two-day hearing starting Wednesday on intellectual property and competition. It's part of a series of events examining whether, for instance, patents are being used to stifle competition rather than promote it. For one well-argued view that patents have gone too far, check out Silicon Valley uberlawyer Gary Reback's recent article in Forbes ASAP... A House subcommittee on Tuesday will explore how the proposed Department of Homeland Security will protect "critical infrastructures," including phone networks and the Internet. Part of the hearing may be in secret session, according to the subcommittee, with the public barred from the room... The East coast's largest hacking conference, H2K2, starts Friday in New York City. I'm speaking on a panel on politics and technology.