Congress off to slow start with tech

The new majority's early agenda lacks Silicon Valley priorities, but the industry says it's not worried yet.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
7 min read
When newly empowered Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives launch into their much-touted 100-hours agenda on Tuesday, don't expect to see much in the way of issues important to the high-tech industry.

Elevating the minimum wage, urging stem-cell research, and ushering in lower prescription drug prices are on the initial calendar. But hot-button topics such as rewriting patent law, encouraging broadband availability, protecting Net neutrality, and upping the skilled worker visas so beloved by high-tech companies aren't foremost priorities yet.

The issues' early absence shouldn't be taken as a sign of things to come, Democratic aides said.

"We will be focused on technology issues," said Stacey Bernards, a spokeswoman for House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer. "The 100-hours agenda is just a start of a focus on issues important to the economy."

The state of affairs isn't much different on the Senate side, where Majority Leader Harry Reid last week announced a similar list of 10 bills that the historically slower-moving chamber hopes to consider first--none of which have much to do with technology. Those priorities "are by no means a comprehensive list of everything Democrats would like to accomplish in this Congress," said spokeswoman Liz Oxman.

Some industry representatives said the seeming lack of tech attention in the new majority's early days was neither troubling nor particularly surprising.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear during a meeting after last November's election that components of the Democrats' "innovation agenda" would not be pushed at the outset because of their complexity, said John Palafoutas, a senior vice president with the American Electronics Association. That agenda includes delivering high-speed Net access to the entire country within five years and granting more scholarships in math and science.

But Pelosi demonstrated a thorough understanding of tech industry priorities during her visit, so "nobody was upset with the fact that their initial push included other things and not the technology bills," Palafoutas said.

Roger Cochetti, U.S. public policy director for the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), said he is similarly confident that the lull would not last. "Right now we're in the 'big-hug phase,' where the new Congress, the administration and the industry are feeling each other out on where we all can advance common agendas and opportunities," he said.

Reviving tech efforts
Other policy areas key to the Democrats' early agenda, such as lobbying law reform, include technological components, but those efforts have been uneven so far.

For instance, one Senate bill on Reid's top-10 list, carried over from last year, would force all lobbying disclosures to be posted within 48 hours of their filing to a "searchable, sortable and downloadable" database, available to the public for free on the Internet. The same obligations would apply to conference reports--that is, near-final, compromise versions of bills, where controversial language sometimes sneaks in at the last minute--with the idea that allowing public viewing could help curb "earmark" spending for politicians' local pet projects.

But on the House side, a first batch of ethics reform rules approved late last week made no mention of Internet use for transparency purposes. The rules only require that information about earmark requests and lobbying disclosures be made available for "public inspection." At the moment, that typically requires trekking to the basement of a House office building for an in-person look at binders and in-house databases.

Perhaps the closest to technology policy-making that Democrats may approach during their first few days is enacting a plan for heightened oversight on the government's increasingly electronic antiterrorism programs, such as the warrantless wiretapping program accused of scooping up the phone and Internet activities of ordinary Americans.

Scheduled for consideration on Tuesday is a 277-page bill designed to implement the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, including a section aimed at giving more teeth to the 2-year-old Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, charged with advising the executive branch on such topics. The bill proposes extracting the five-member board from the president's office, where it currently resides, and making it an independent federal agency; granting it subpoena power; and requiring it to submit mostly unclassified reports to Congress outlining its findings and recommendations.

The measure also seeks to boost the investigatory powers of the Department of Homeland Security's chief privacy officer. Watchdogs have said such reform is critical as the agency moves forward with data-intensive watch list and identification regimes.

In a similar vein, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to focus on the privacy implications of government data-mining programs at its first hearing of the year under Democratic leadership on Wednesday.

Even if tech-related bills are not first on the agenda, Republicans and Democrats alike have already begun reviving such legislative efforts from last year. Not all of them, however, have earned widespread support in the past.

Here's a sampling of those proposals.

Reining in social-networking sites: Last summer, over the objections of civil libertarians, librarians and educators, the House overwhelmingly approved the Deleting Online Predators Act, which would restrict ambiguously defined social-networking sites in schools and libraries that receive federal funding. The proposal ultimately died last year, but on the first day of the 110th Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens, a veteran Alaska Republican, reintroduced identical language in what he portrayed as a renewed effort to protect children online.

Stevens didn't stop there, packaging his reincarnation of DOPA with another failed proposal that would require all sexually explicit sites to be labeled as such, according to a copy of the bill obtained by CNET News.com. Although it has encountered opposition from civil libertarians, the idea gained bipartisan support within Congress, passing unanimously as an amendment to a massive communications bill that ultimately died.

Backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the bill would slap prison time on commercial Web site operators who fail to embed "marks or notices" on each page of their site that contains material deemed to be sexually explicit. In the past, courts have interpreted this as meaning everything from pornography to fully covered genitals.

E-snooping: Politicians last year engaged in heated debates over whether it was necessary to make adjustments to a 1978 law, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that governs electronic surveillance. In short, it requires a court order for eavesdropping on communications in which at least one end is inside the United States--a step that President Bush has admitted to skipping before authorizing the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program.

The NSA Oversight Act, introduced on Thursday by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), would affirm that FISA is the sole authority for doing electronic wiretaps. It also proposes hiring more judges to weigh in on warrant applications, allowing warrant applicants to submit less detailed descriptions of the planned surveillance, extending from 72 hours to 168 hours the "emergency" period in which warrantless surveillance can occur, and reporting to Congress on the extent to which warrantless wiretapping is taking place.

Similar provisions crop up in a bill reintroduced last week by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the outgoing Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But civil liberties advocates have faulted that measure for seemingly erasing the need for the government to obtain a warrant before monitoring "foreign-to-foreign" communications, even if Americans are involved in those exchanges.

Protecting phone records: Before adjourning last year, Congress gave last-minute approval to a bill that would criminalize the practice of "pretexting"--that is, using fraudulent tactics to buy, sell or otherwise obtain personal phone records--except when police or spy agencies were involved.

Now Stevens, the Alaska Republican, has revived a proposal designed to give consumers additional tools in fighting the practice. His Protecting Consumer Phone Records Act, introduced Thursday, would allow consumers whose proprietary information had been wrongly obtained to sue the wrongdoer. It would also call for federal regulators to consider imposing stricter rules on telephone and voice over Internet Protocol companies with regard to protecting their subscribers' information.

Easing up on Net, phone taxes: During their first day back on Capitol Hill, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), John Sununu (R-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed a permanent ban on Internet access taxes, while Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) separately proposed repealing the remaining portion of federal excise taxes on local telephone service. McCain and three Republican colleagues also called for a three-year cessation of new "discriminatory" taxes on cell phone bills, saying state and local governments have been charging subscribers rates far higher than the average sales tax.

Offsetting those proposals was a new push by Stevens to require all communications services--whether they be broadband, voice over Internet Protocol or telephone--to pay into a fund subsidizing service in rural areas, schools and libraries. At the moment, the fees fall mostly on telecommunications companies, based on their long-distance revenues. Stevens' more sweeping plan could result in new fees on some users' broadband bills.

Tackling global Internet censorship: Politicians hauled in Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco Systems last year for a daylong lashing about their operations in China, and some threatened to enact new laws aimed at limiting the operations of U.S. companies in so-called "Internet restrictive" countries.

Those measures may have died before further consideration in the last session, but Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, wasted no time in reintroducing his bill from last year, the Global Online Freedom Act, which was previously approved by a House panel.

According to a summary provided by Smith's office, the measure would impose hefty penalties on American businesses that block U.S. government content at other countries' request or turn over identifying information about any users except for "legitimate foreign law enforcement purposes." Companies would also have to submit reports detailing the terms and parameters used in filters installed at the request of designated countries, including China, Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam.

"By blocking access to information and providing secret police with the technology to monitor dissidents," Smith said in a statement Monday, "American IT companies are knowingly--and willingly--enabling the oppression of millions of people."