Congress facing broad Net issues

Between budget bills and impeachment issues, Congress may find time to advance new Net regulations on broad fronts.

4 min read
Between budget bills and impeachment issues, Congress may find time to advance new Net regulations on broad fronts.

Before their scheduled adjournment October 9, federal lawmakers face the prospect of a rush of bills on subjects ranging from shipment of "obscene material" to minors online to unsolicited bulk email and copyright protections for digital music, software, and literature.

One proposal See roundup: 
Washington focuses on tech, Net being watched closely in the Senate is the Child Protection and Sexual Predator Punishment Act. The House already cleared Rep. Bill McCollum's (R-Florida) version of the legislation, which aims to further crack down on child pornography and to impose a tougher penalty for the sexual solicitation of minors on the Net. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed it yesterday, and it is now expected to head for a full Senate vote.

Similar to a portion of the now-defunct Communications Decency Act (CDA), McCollum's bill also would make it a crime to "knowingly transfer obscene matter" by computer networks to any person under 18. Violators could get up to five years in prison for either offense.

The legislation also requires Internet service providers to make "reasonable" efforts to report these activities to law enforcement authorities. If ISPs fail to report child pornography or the sexual solicitation of a minor, they could be fined up to $100,000.

However, the so-called Good Samaritan provision in the CDA states that ISPs will not be held responsible for content published on their services by third parties, if they take "good faith" efforts to remove illegal material when notified.

Before he retires this fall, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana) is expected to lobby for a Senate vote on the bill, sources say. Coats cosponsored a highly controversial section of the CDA, which was signed into law in 1996 and made it a felony to make "indecent" material available to minors on the Net.

Although the Supreme Court overturned the provision on grounds that it hindered free speech about a range of topics from sex to art, Coats has been trying to keep his promise to limit children's access to the breadth of adult-oriented sites on the Net.

Coats already is gaining ground with a separate proposal--dubbed by foes as "CDA II." The proposal would penalize commercial sites with up to a $50,000 fine or six months in jail for posting online material deemed "harmful to minors." The bill already passed the Senate as part of an appropriations bill in July.

And yesterday, the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee passed an almost identical bill, the Child Online Protection Act. The full Commerce Committee must approve the bill before the House can vote on it.

"The entire Net community needs to pay attention to these bills," said Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of public policy for the Internet Alliance . "The long-term effect is that ISPs and Internet companies could be drawn into a legal battle that they had to fight over CDA instead of building tools to protect children from this material."

Aside from legislation that aims to limit minors' entry to an array of sites, an important Net bill is on the table to tackle another hotly contested issue: spam.

A bill that would slap junk emailers with up to $15,000 in fines if they try to hide their identities will be considered September 28 by the House telecommunications subcommittee.

The Senate passed the same provision in May as part of the Consumer Antislamming Act, which prohibits the unauthorized switching of consumers' telephone service providers. The bill also contains the so-called truth-in-advertising mandate for spammers, requiring them to include in email messages their physical address and telephone number and to honor requests from people who want to removed from bulk email lists.

Congressional leaders also promised this session to pass new copyright protections for digital works, to protect the Net from new taxes, and to increase the number of highly skilled workers allowed into the country each year.

Both houses have passed a version of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and now have to conference over the differences in the two bills. The bills safeguard copyrights for music, software, and written works on the Internet and outlaws technologies that can crack devices protecting this property, although the House bill makes an exception for encryption research.

Still, the House version includes a provision to protect electronic data repositories' cash cows. If enacted into law, the bill would make it illegal to extract information from a database and make it available elsewhere--if such an act would "harm" the database company's current or potential business.

In addition, the Senate is in ongoing negotiations over the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which would temporarily ban new Internet access and service taxes.

The House passed its version in June, which imposes a three-year ban on Net taxes but contains a controversial provision, a so-called grandfather clause that states the moratorium will not apply to taxes on Net access or online services that were imposed by states before March 1, 1998.

ISPs are fighting the grandfather clause. The Senate Net Tax Freedom Act contains no such clause and bans taxes for six years.

"We are still working on it and hope to get it to the Senate floor by October. It looks good," said Senate Commerce Committee press secretary Pia Pialorsi.

Finally, lawmakers are working to pass a bill lobbied for by the high-tech industry.

Rep.Lamar Smith's (R-Texas) legislation would increase the annual number of H-1B visas handed out to foreign workers from 65,000 to 115,000 over a three-year period. But before being awarded visas, companies would have to prove that they first looked long and hard for American workers and hadn't laid off domestic employees to replace them with H-1B visa holders.

The House is expected to vote on Smith's bill next week.