Congress spends the year online

Within its critical agenda, which included impeaching President Clinton, Congress still made time this year for its blooming love affair with Net policy.

5 min read
Within its critical agenda, not the least of which was impeaching President Clinton, Congress still made time this year for its blooming love affair with Net policy.

In 1998, federal lawmakers set groundbreaking rules for future business and civil liberties on the Net.

Most of the new rules for the so-called New Economy were ushered into law as part of a major $520 billion federal spending bill that included a three-year Net tax ban and more visas for foreign engineers and other highly skilled workers.

Congress also approved a probe into sexism in the technology and science fields, online privacy protections for preteens, limitations on shareholder lawsuits against companies with volatile stock prices, and a bill to push forward the government's use of digital signatures.

Perhaps most significantly, President Clinton signed a sweeping update to the copyright law that gives new protections for digital works and makes it a crime to create or sell any technology that could be used to break copyright protection devices or to commit an act of circumvention. Passage of the bill most was important because other nations are expected to follow suit.

Passage of the high-tech-laced budget bill was bittersweet for some Net factions, however.

For example, it contained the controversial Child Online Protection Act (COPA) to require commercial site operators who offer "harmful" material to either check visitors' identifications or face up to $50,000 in fines and six months in prison each time a minor gets access to the content.

Civil liberties groups already filed a lawsuit to overturn COPA, which a federal judge has temporarily blocked. A three-day hearing is scheduled to begin January 20 to consider the First Amendment implications of the law.

For better or for worse, some Information Age bills slipped through the cracks this year.

Notably, Congress failed to pass the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which aimed to eliminate most online gambling. With just one roll of the dice, Net users could have faced up to a $500 fine and three months in prison. Cybercasino operators would face up to $20,000 in fines and up to four years in prison.

But in 1999, Congress is expected to pick up where it left off on Net issues such as encryption, data privacy for all Net users, oversight of the domain name system, and spam.

Although a handful of bills died that would have eased the export limits on strong encryption, when Congress reconvenes in January the battle will continue over the technology that scrambles electronic data so that only the rightful recipient can read a message.

The White House has eased some restrictions, but U.S. manufacturers still face red tape and regulations in shipping products because law enforcement says encryption can help tech-savvy criminals cover their tracks.

Still, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) promised to reintroduce legislation similar to his past proposal, the Promotion of Commerce On-Line in the Digital Era Act, to allow U.S. firms to sell products overseas with stronger encryption than is permitted under current laws.

Spam will keeping congesting the Congress's docket as well.

Net users saw good intentions, but no federal legislation in 1998 to curb spam, no doubt the most detested item on the Net. There were myriad bills introduced to deter unsolicited commercial email ranging from proposals to eliminate it all together to requiring that senders label their messages and remove people from their mailing lists upon request.

Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia) said the House Commerce Committee will likely take up antispam legislation next year.

"I will work with legislators and the private sector to resolve the problem of computer junk mail," he said in a statement. "We must protect First Amendment rights while unclogging cyberspace." In addition, Bliley said the committee will explore more national standards for electronic authentication methods such as digital signatures. "Add to that an easing of restrictions on the export of strong encryption products," he noted.

Congress knee-deep in the Net in '98
Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act: Limits legal liability if companies share information about the best ways to deal with the millennium computer problem.

Child Online Protection Act: Calls for commercial Web site operators who offer "harmful" material to check visitors' IDs or face up to $50,000 in fines and six months in prison each time a minor gets access to the content.

Workforce Improvement and Protection Act: Boosts the number of H1-B visas for technical and well-educated workers from 65,000 to 115,000 for 1999 and 2000.

Internet Tax Freedom Act: Calls a national three-year moratorium on "discriminatory" taxes on online services and access. Sites that offer "harmful" material are exempt from the time-out, and ISPs have to offer customers products to screen out this material.

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act: Requires that Web sites get parental consent before collecting information from children aged 12 or younger.

Government Paperwork Elimination Act: Makes it possible to use electronic signatures for federal forms submitted via the Net, and requires agencies to post more documents online.

Advancement of Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development Act: Creates a one-year, 11-member commission to determine whether employers recruit, promote, pay, and retain women in these industries at the same rate as their male counterparts.

Research and Development Tax Credit: Extends tax credit for high-tech and science industries through next June.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act: Imposes new safeguards for software, music, and written works on the Net, and would outlaw technologies that can crack copyright-protection devices.

Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act: Limits lawsuits against companies with volatile stock prices by requiring class-action shareholder suits brought for failed corporate earnings to be filed in federal court.

Child Protection and Sexual Predator Punishment Act: Imposes stiff penalties for using the Net to sexually solicit minors or for knowingly sending "obscene" material to a person under 16 via the Internet. ISPs would be liable for failing to report child pornography once they are made aware of the illegal material, and could be fined up to $100,000.

Technology Literacy Challenge Fund: Another $425 million allotted for this program, which gives states money to purchase computers, Net connections, and software for schools that apply for grants.