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Capitol Hill Net bills suffer system failure

Of the 419 bills introduced this Congress that include mention of the Internet, only a handful have become law, and none are expected to significantly change the digital landscape.

The U.S. Congress does not operate on Internet time.

But even by Capitol Hill's methodical standards, the Congress due to end next month has been a model of inaction. Of the 419 bills introduced this Congress that have the word "Internet" in them, only a handful have become law, and none are expected to significantly change the digital landscape.

What has been more common is the introduction of bills or the holding of hearings that Hill insiders will tell you won't lead anywhere. The amendment recently passed in the House to ban regulatory fees on Internet traffic, as well as the bill it was attached to that could affect ISP rates, both fall into that category, according to a source close to the committee that is scheduled to hear them next.

Is political inaction a bad thing? Those who want to keep the Internet free from regulation would say no, but it's important to remember that a number of these bills are designed to protect the Internet--by banning taxes, for example.

Some milestones have occurred this Congress. Earlier this year a bill recognizing the legal authority of numerous forms of electronic signatures became law, and privacy protections were passed for some medical and financial records.

Other items still could pass this Congress. The Senate finally is considering anti-spam legislation passed in the House earlier this year. However, that bill was watered down considerably to meet the objections of both First Amendment defenders and companies that rely on bulk email for marketing.

Republicans and Democrats are saying they'd like to raise the cap on high-tech visas, which allow engineers and other experts to work in the United States for limited periods. However, the White House continues to insist on linking the so-called H-1B visas to amnesty for illegal Latinos, which has complicated the bill's chances of passage.

Not surprisingly, politics-as-usual has prevented several bills from moving forward. Democrats and Republicans often have split in terms of how much latitude federal law enforcement should be given to track cybercrime, for example.

"There was a transition from the fun and sexy stuff to issues to which there are no easy answers," said Precursor Group president Bill Whyman. He said Congress has recognized the complexities of some Internet issues before it and has decided "victory is not doing anything dumb."

"Everyone was tripping over themselves to show how much they care about privacy," Whyman said. "But (privacy) is a messy issue" and will likely wait for the next Congress.

"Overall, they've been very cautious about getting on the Net," said Erik Olbeter, Washington research group analyst for Charles Schwab. "They're not being hasty...That's an amazing change from the Telecom Act in 1996." He added that now, "Congress doesn't make any big , grand moves without considering how it affects the Internet."

The splits aren't always partisan. Several bills, such as a ban on some forms of Internet gambling and a moratorium on discriminatory Internet taxes, have been sent back and forth between the Commerce and Judiciary committees in both the House and the Senate. Each committee is trying to stake out jurisdiction over the Internet.

Finally, there's the Internet lobby, to the extent that there is one. Several associations, most of them very young, represent different segments of the New Economy. But these groups often have conflicting agendas and don't always coordinate when they are on the same side, meaning they lack the throw-weight of a National Rifle Association or a National Association of Broadcasters.

One issue the Internet lobby has united on is H-1B visas, but with two weeks left in Congress, they're not much closer on that issue than they were this summer.

Oct. 6 was supposed to be the end of this Congress, but the final day may get pushed back. That would only be for mandatory spending bills, however, and bills being attached to those spending bills as riders are being shaken off by members negotiating passage in attempts to win more votes and avoid presidential vetoes.

Any bill that does not become law by the end of this Congress will disappear, and if its author is re-elected, he or she will have to introduce it anew next January.