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Net caucus drafts agenda

Internet Caucus will hand out its 1997 syllabus, announcing five key Net issues Congress members must address.

The Internet Caucus will hand out its 1997 syllabus for Congress tomorrow, announcing five key Net issues members must address.

With 85 members so far, the caucus is the designated Net educator for the federal lawmakers. Advised by non-profits, civil-liberties groups, and industry leaders, the group was formed last year to teach Congress about the medium before it passes legislation effecting the Net.

This year, the caucus will cover topics now in the national spotlight, such as Internet access rates and services. It will also address Net taxation, which is already coming up in various state bills.

Congress has been criticized for its lack of knowledge about the Internet and its correspondent technologies in drafting legislation to regulate cyberspace. Critics were particularly harsh on legislators over passage of the Communications Decency Act last year.

"The hardest thing to teach will still be the Communications Decency Act," said Rep. Rick White (R-Washington), who is cofounder of the caucus. "That is a situation where Congress made a mistake when we came up with an unconstitutional standard. It's going to be harder to change people's mind to admit that they made a mistake.

The other cofounders of the caucus are Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), and Rick Boucher (D-Virginia). Each will speak today at a reception held to announce the caucus's 1997 agenda.

On the agenda are five panels planned by the caucus's advisory committee. The key issues include: how Congress can use the Net; online privacy; taxation and economic regulation; access charges; content regulation; and encryption.

Top executives from companies with huge stakes in the Internet are expected to attend the event, including Bob Pittman, chief executive of AOL Networks, Paul DeLacey, CEO of Prodigy, and Russell Stevenson, general counsel of Cybercash.

"Congress is going to be facing a whole host of Internet legislation on the floor this year," said Jonah Seiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which coordinates the advisory committee. "The baseline level of knowledge Congress has about the Internet has improved because of the Internet Caucus. But there is still a lot of work to be done."

Preparing Congress for the possible return of the CDA is in the forefront. The CDA will go before the Supreme Court on March 19, but civil-liberties groups fighting the law expect a form of it to return to Congress, especially if it is struck down.

The CDA made it illegal to knowingly transmit "indecent" material in forums accessible to minors, such as the Internet. Violators risked a sentence of up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The law was a big topic for the caucus last session, as it tried to explain to members what it had passed.

"We try not present one side of the issue," said Connie Correll, White's press secretary. "Last year, we focused on CDA issues like parental empowerment software, which can block or label Web sites."

This session, however, caucus members have their own ideas about the CDA and other Net legislation.

In the Senate, Leahy introduced a bill this month that would throw out the CDA with or without a Supreme Court ruling. He called the law "unnecessary, unworkable, and--most significantly--unconstitutional."