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Congress moves at light speed with Internet bills

Among the first bills to be introduced in the new Congress are ones that will protect ISPs from liability, expand online privacy protection, and crack down on spam.

WASHINGTON--The new Congress was only sworn in on Wednesday, but by the end of the week, there were already three bills introduced that would regulate the Internet in some form or another.

There were 476 Internet-related bills introduced in the last Congress, which ran from January 1999 through 2000. Few of those bills became law. But many House members and senators have said that this Congress will be different, with passage promised on Internet privacy and other key issues.

The three bills already introduced hit on a wide range of Internet-related issues including online privacy. Protecting Internet service providers from criminal liability and outlawing spam, or junk email, also were addressed in separate bills. All three were introduced in the House; no Internet-related bills have been introduced yet in the Senate.

The bill said to be receiving the strongest backing from the Republican House leadership is House Resolution 12 by House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Cal. Dreier's bill would address concerns among ISPs that the service providers could be found criminally liable for Web site or email content stored on their servers by customers.

The bill isn't slated to become a new law but rather express the "sense of the Congress." The bill notes that there is a Draft Convention on Cybercrime being developed by the Council of Europe and that the United States may become a signatory. The bill says that Congress opposes discussions among the Council of Europe to hold U.S.-based ISPs liable and urges the president to ensure that there is no such provision in the treaty before it is submitted to the Senate for ratification.

Dreier said one reason for the bill is recent actions abroad, such as the Council of Europe moving in the direction of applying criminal liability to ISPs. He said foreign governments don't respect the First Amendment.

"It's wrong to hold them (ISPs) criminally liable for online content all over the world," Dreier said in introducing the bill in the House. "If successful, efforts to hold ISPs criminally liable for third-party content will have a profoundly negative effect on the Internet."

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., introduced H.R. 89 to extend online privacy protections for children. His bill calls for the Federal Trade Commission to use the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) as a model. COPPA has been embroiled in constitutional struggles in federal court since its passage in 1998. Frelinghuysen introduced a similar bill in the previous Congress that failed to make any progress.

Congressional observers have predicted that privacy will be a hot issue in this session. On Wednesday, Vince Sampson, vice president of the education and advocacy group, Association for Competitive Technology, said online privacy "is really going to come to the fore very quickly."

Congress came very close last year to passing anti-spam legislation sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., but failed because of constitutional concerns and lobbying by online interests that feared restrictions on marketing. Rep. Gene Green, D-Tex., Wednesday introduced a similar bill that he said would "protect individuals, families, and Internet service providers from unsolicited and unwanted electronic mail." Polls show anger over junk email a close second only to privacy among top online consumer concerns.

In fact, frustration over spam has led to the creation of dozens of Web sites and forums on the subject, including the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Mail. By contrast, online advertisers and other industry representatives have sought to develop voluntary standards to avoid new and restrictive laws.