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Privacy, broadband access top Capitol Hill agenda

Both parties vow quick action on Internet privacy in the new Congress that began Wednesday, but the legislation's ultimate shape remains unclear.

    WASHINGTON--Wednesday saw the swearing in of a new Congress that has vowed to make Internet privacy one of its top issues.

    Polls show that a large majority of consumers--and thus voters--are concerned about protecting their privacy online, and a Federal Trade Commission study last year found that voluntary action by the online industry didn't keep numerous sites from failing to meet even the most basic privacy standards. As a result, a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen have vowed to introduce and pass Internet privacy legislation this year.

    "That issue is really going to come to the fore very quickly," said Vince Sampson, vice president of the Association for Competitive Technology, an education and advocacy group for the technology industry. "The issue is going to be debated hotly."

    Other key issues, such as broadband access and release, as well as several proposed changes to the Telecom Act of 1996, will also feature prominently in the 107th Congress. But the House Internet Caucus, a bipartisan group of members co-chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., have been working with other members and industry leaders to develop a consensus in the months leading up to the new Congress.

    No one bill will come forward on privacy. Rather, there could be dozens, much like in the last Congress, Hill sources said. However, Hill leaders have promised quick hearings, including Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who will be the House Commerce Committee chairman this Congress, replacing the retired Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va.

    One controversial issue will be to what extent Congress imposes privacy guidelines on Web sites. Consumer advocates say tough guidelines are necessary, including a requirement that Web users "opt in" to any disclosure of their personal information.

    Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., said he will reintroduce legislation this Congress with that requirement, but the online industry prefers to allow consumers to "opt out" of disclosing information. Only being able to use information that a consumer voluntarily surrenders on his or her own initiative, they say, will seriously undermine a site's financial stability.

    Federal guidelines for online privacy "are not necessarily a bad thing because it gives us uniform standards," Sampson said. But he feared that some members will seek legislation that could hinder the majority of sites that already adhere to voluntary industry standards.

    "There will be privacy legislation passed" this Congress, Sampson said, adding that the strong desire of consumers for online privacy, combined with a soft touch from the government, should be enough to bring nearly all Web sites into compliance with online privacy standards. Sites voluntarily complying with accepted privacy standards should be spared further government regulation, he said.

    "The industry will be forced to wake up and smell the privacy issue," he said.

    The spread of broadband
    Everyone on Capitol Hill wants high-speed broadband Internet access to spread faster and reach farther than it does now. What people strongly disagree on is how that should happen.

    There is perhaps no clearer example of this than the so-called open-access debate. Open-access advocates, including Internet service providers and consumer groups, want cable operators to allow competing ISPs on their network, in part to provide a choice of broadband providers in areas where digital subscriber lines can't reach.

    "There are two see story: Open-acces fight dead?very different mindsets on open access" in Congress, Sampson said. "The issue is very polarized."

    The polarization resulted in a draw in the 106th Congress, with no legislation passed, and the draw meant a de facto victory for the cable industry. But the two most prominent backers of open access in the House, Goodlatte and Boucher, have promised to introduce new legislation this year that will go beyond cable.

    "We want this bill to be an industry standard for access on all platforms--cable, satellite and wireless," Goodlatte said.

    Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable Television Association, points to FCC studies of growing competition in the broadband industry to suggest that legislation would actually be harmful. Sampson said that imposing requirements on cable could slow broadband's growth, not accelerate it.

    On other fronts
    January marks the fifth anniversary of the passage of the Telecom Act, the most comprehensive telecommunications bill passed since the original act of 1934. The original lasted 62 years without major revision, but the 1996 Act is under attack on multiple fronts in a time when the telecommunications industry has changed in ways Congress never anticipated when writing the Telecom Act.

    The primary goal see story: Find a broadband providerof the Telecom Act, according to its authors, was to create competition in the local phone industry. Baby Bells still dominate that market, however, and their competitors are failing financially at an alarming rate.

    John Windhausen, the president of the Association for Local Telephone Services, said the Bells aren't permitting competitors to connect to their networks. He wants the Act rewritten so the Bells have to spin off their network units into unaffiliated entities that would provide equal access to the Bells and their competitors.

    The Bells, meanwhile, are pushing for legislation that would allow them to send data long-distance even if they're not cleared to provide long-distance voice services. They argue that the change, which again would rewrite the Telecom Act, will make it easier to spread broadband services across the United States. Tauzin and Goodlatte support this issue.

    There's even talk of regulating cable rates again, five years after they were deregulated in the Telecom Act. The Consumers Union said it will push the issue this Congress given the continuing rate hikes by cable operators, such as AT&T Broadband, on Tuesday.