Congress and tech: Little to show

Lawmakers made a lot of noise over MySpace, China and Net neutrality, but tech-related laws were hard to come by.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
Politicians in Washington, D.C., spent the last two years promising new laws on everything from Net neutrality to computer security and social-networking sites.

But when the 109th Congress finally adjourned over the weekend, ending 12 years of Republican rule of the U.S. House of Representatives, few technology-related bills had actually made it through the legislative process.

"If they were going to get a grade, it would be an 'I' for failure to complete all assignments," said John Palafoutas, senior vice president and chief lobbyist for the American Electronics Association, whose members include about 2,500 companies, among them Adobe Systems, Intel, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

Legislative legacy
The 109th Congress approved only three of the following 12 bills:


Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act: Sent to president

Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act: Became law as part of port security bill

Child Protection and Safety Act: Became law


Deleting Online Predators Act: Approved by House, died in Senate

Network Neutrality Act: Amendment rejected

Global Online Freedom Act: Ignored

Data Accountability and Trust Act: Died in House

Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act: Died in Senate

Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act: Approved by House, died in Senate

Internet Safety Act: Ignored in House and Senate

Patent Reform Act of 2006: Ignored

Audio Broadcast Flag Licensing Act: Ignored

One measure sent to President Bush on Friday night would make it a federal crime to use fraudulent tactics to buy, sell or otherwise obtain private phone record information--although it explicitly exempts police or spy agencies like the National Security Agency.

"The practice of fraudulently obtaining a customer's phone records and selling them over the Internet is wrong and must be stopped," outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said in a statement. "Consumers have a right to expect that this information will be kept private, with very limited exceptions."

Called "pretexting," the practice already is illegal in some states like California and is probably prohibited by common law rules against fraud that have existed for hundreds of years. Pretexting came to light this fall in Hewlett-Packard's boardroom leak investigation that resulted in journalists--including three CNET News.com reporters--having their phone records accessed.

But the antipretexting bill was an exception. A review of outstanding legislation shows both chambers of Congress approved only a handful of technology-related items, leaving proposals on topics like data breach notification, patent reform and Net neutrality to die in committee. Here's a roundup:

H-1B visas: Because politicians went home for the holidays without voting to raise the number of H-1B visas, tech companies didn't get a boost in the controversial guest worker program they claim is necessary to fill critical holes in their workforces.

"Without an increase in the number of H-1B visa and green cards issued each year, our nation loses the opportunity to benefit from the contributions of highly educated and skilled workers from around the world," Jack Krumholz, Microsoft's top lobbyist, said in a statement. "American businesses and society in general will be worse off due to Congress' lack of action on this issue."

The H-1B program allows foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty to be employed in the United States for up to six years. They're currently capped at 65,000 visas per year, with an additional 20,000 visas set aside for foreigners with advanced degrees from American universities, after peaking at 195,000 between 2001 and 2003.

Web censorship and filtering: Politicians' concern about children and sites like MySpace.com reached nearly a fever pitch in 2006, with now-departed Rep. Mark Foley introducing a bill in July that he described as protecting "youth from exploitation by adults using the Internet."

The House did approve a proposal targeting social networking sites, but it died in the Senate. Another bill protesting Chinese Web censorship expired quietly in a House subcommittee. One measure that did become law makes it a crime for Webmasters to use innocent words like "Barbie" but feature sexually explicit content.

A Web labeling requirement stuffed into a massive spending bill was narrowly avoided after Congress delayed a vote on it until February. Similarly, Sen. John McCain's plan to force Web sites to report illegal images is expected to resurface in the 110th Congress next year.

Net neutrality: A pitched battle between Republicans and Democrats over network neutrality regulations--which say that broadband providers cannot favor one site over another--was narrowly avoided.

First, the House definitively rejected the concept of strict Net neutrality regulations in a 269-152 vote on June 8. Then a Senate committee, voting largely along party lines, rejected a Net neutrality amendment backed by Democrats by an 11-11 tie. (A majority vote was required.)

With the support of companies like Google and eBay, some Democrats had pledged to try to insert that amendment during a Senate floor vote over the broader bill, which would rewrite telecommunications laws. But that vote never happened.

Copyright and digital rights management: After the Supreme Court's ruling last year in the Grokster file-swapping case, neither the computer industry nor the record labels and the Motion Picture Association of America have shown much desire to seek new laws.

One exception has been the so-called broadcast flag, which started out as a controversial form of copy-prevention technology for digital TV broadcasts and then was expanded to digital radio. Copyright owners would like politicians to make those flags mandatory for hardware makers, but no final votes on the legislative proposals took place.

The broadcast flag for digital TV has, however, been inserted into a telecommunications bill that's expected to resurface in the spring.

R&D tax credit: Technology companies had hoped that a popular tax credit for research and development would be made permanent. It didn't happen.

As part of a broader tax relief package, Congress approved only a temporary extension of the research and development tax credit. "Passage of a (permanent extension) has been a critically important objective and is part of our industry's agenda to promote innovation and enhance U.S. competitiveness in the global economy," said George Scalise, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, whose members include Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and IBM.