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Tech's friends in the new Congress

Voters reanointed Congress's high-tech clique yesterday, but one popular Republican was rejected in Microsoft country--Rep. Rick White.

Voters reanointed Congress's high-tech clique yesterday, but one popular Republican was rejected in Microsoft country--Rep. Rick White.

Elected in 1995, White cofounded the bipartisan Internet Caucus and took on the task of patiently explaining to his colleagues the importance of the Web. Today the caucus has more than 100 members from the House and Senate.

Last night, however, White lost his Washington state district to Democrat Jay Inslee, whom he defeated for the seat in 1994.

Aside from the Net caucus, White catapulted himself to the top of the "friends of high-tech" list by supporting the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which was approved by President Clinton last month to impose a three-year ban on discriminatory taxes associated with Net access and services.

White also introduced See news analysis: 
What Congress really did a bill to require federal campaign finance reports to be filed electronically and placed on the Net, and cosponsored the Internet Protection Act to stave off state and federal regulation of the Internet and the ISPs who provide access to it.

"I think it is clear to say that Rick White, a leader in the House on Internet and online issues, has brought the level of awareness up about how important the industry is to our economy--his services will certainly be missed," said Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of public policy for the Internet Alliance.

The outcome of the election and the funding behind the winners made clear that cheerleaders for the so-called New Economy are blind to party lines. Although White is out, other lawmakers who have befriended the Net and high-tech lobby were easily re-elected across the country.

"The information technology agenda is not a partisan one," said Ken Wasch, president of the Software Publishers Association. "Rick White lost and he was a friend to the software industry, but we anticipate that Inslee will be equally supportive of our industry's agenda--which supports the engine of American economic growth"

Key Senators
Among the incumbents returning to the Republican-led Senate are a handful of leaders who will continue to shape the rules for personal freedom on the Net, e-commerce, the roll-out of high-speed bandwidth, and the legality of a wide range of online content, among other issues.

• Staunch computer privacy and online free speech advocate, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) will return to his post. Leahy was the only senator to vote against a provision added to the Net Tax Freedom Act that exempts sites from tax breaks if they grant minors access "harmful material."

• Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) also won, and is expected to keep his job as the chairman of the Commerce Committee, which has been the gatekeeper for high-tech legislation in the Senate.

McCain likely will resurrect a bill that failed to pass this year that would require schools and libraries to filter out "inappropriate" online material as a condition of getting federal discounts on Net access, known as the e-rate.

• Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) defeated Republican opponent Matt Fong, who, like Boxer, was endorsed by key Silicon Valley executives that are members of the lobby group Technology Network.

Boxer has ramped up her efforts in the last few years to court the high-tech industry. Unlike fellow Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, Boxer has supported legislation to lift the export limits on strong encryption and to prohibit domestic controls on the technology, which protects digital communication.

Encryption has been a contentious political issue, with the software industry arguing that it is hindered by current regulations to keep crypto crackable in case law enforcement officers need help busting tech-savvy criminals who have scrambled their computer files or messages.

• Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) cosponsored the Net Tax Freedom Act, which was supported by the White House and seen as a key factor in encouraging the growth of e-commerce. The Act imposed a national "time out" to give local, state, and federal lawmakers an opportunity to set up uniform definitions for online goods and services to determine when and if they can be taxed.

• Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) also won re-election. Murray has backed encryption reform and funding for technology training for teachers. She annoyed free speech groups when she planned to introduced legislation that would make it a felony to post "indecent" material in a chat room designated "safe for children," but never pushed her bill.

Key House members
The balance of power in the House edged toward Democrats, though the GOP still will dominate. When it comes to the computer industry, the importance of party affiliation is upstaged by the sexiness of high-tech issues, and the following members of Congress are expected to lead the way next year.

• Rep. Chris Cox (R-California) cosponsored the Net Tax Freedom Act and is against efforts to regulate the Net--including content, an area where he sets himself a part from the majority in his party. He introduced what is known as the "Good Samaritan" provision of the Communications Decency Act to exempt online access providers from legal liability for content posted by third parties, if they make a good-faith effort to remove illegal material upon notification.

• Returning for two more years in Congress is Silicon Valley's Democratic duo--Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto and Zoe Lofgren of East San Jose.

Along with White, both pushed a new law aimed at curbing shareholder lawsuits against public companies with volatile stock prices--such as Internet start-ups. Eshoo and Lofgren also voted in favor of boosting the annual number of highly-skilled foreign workers let into the country each year, through a bill that also includes more scholarship money for U.S. students in the sciences and engineering. Both are proponents of easing crypto export rules.

On her own, Eshoo introduced a new law that requires federal agencies to make their forms available online and to set up a system accepting digital signatures, which help verify a person's identity on the Net.

Lofgren sat on the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property, which held hearings on trademark conflicts over domain names and legislation to impose broader copyright protections for digital works. Clinton signed eventually signed a copyright bill into law. While working on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, she fought for the creation of the e-rate to help get poor and rural schools online; $1.275 billion in discounts on Net access will go out next month.

• Brothers on the encryption front, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R- Virginia), Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Virgina) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) likely will pick up their fight next year to overturn the crypto export regulations.

In addition, Boucher and Goodlatte both fought to strengthen copyright protections for digital works. Goodlatte also introduced safe harbors for ISPs and his No Electronic Theft Act was signed by Clinton, authorizing for online pirates of software, music, video, or literature up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for a felony offense, which is defined as "willfully" making or possessing ten or more illegal copies with a retail value of $2,500 or more.

• Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana) supported all the key legislation pushed by the high-tech industry this year. But he has criticized the e-rate program, which computer and online companies support. He is expected to take on the Federal Communications Commission next year, which oversees the e-rate and is carving out rules that aim to bolster the roll-out of high-speed bandwidth, but have been opposed by local phone companies in some cases.

• Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Washington) also returns. Dunn got the software industry a tax exemption last year.