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Week in review: Tech face-lift

A massive communications bill is taking shape in the Senate, and it promises to change the shape of the tech world.

A massive communications bill is taking shape in the Senate, and it promises to change the shape of the tech world.

A U.S. Senate panel narrowly rejected strict Net neutrality rules, dealing a grave setback to companies like eBay, Google and Amazon.com that had made enacting them a top political priority this year. By an 11-11 vote, the Senate Commerce Committee failed to approve a Democrat-backed amendment that would have ensured all Internet traffic is treated the same no matter what its "source" or "destination" might be.

This vote complicates Internet companies' efforts to convince Congress of the desirability of extensive new regulations. Republican committee members attacked the idea of inserting Net neutrality regulations in a massive telecommunications bill, echoing comments from broadband providers such as AT&T and Verizon, which warned the rules were premature and unnecessary.

CNET News.com readers were divided over the need for the legislation and its importance. But one reader voiced the frustration felt by many about the threat of tiered Internet access.

"No surprise here--another Orwellian named bill that does the opposite of what it is titled," one reader wrote in News.com's TalkBack Forum.

The panel also gave its approval to a legislative proposal to revive a controversial anticopying system known as the broadcast flag, despite misgivings from some senators. Members of the Senate Commerce Committee endorsed the idea of requiring digital TV receivers to restrict redistribution--particularly over the Internet--of over-the-air broadcasts. The measure would also allow for similar rules, or an "audio flag," for digital radio receivers.

The entire communications bill won't become law unless it receives final approval by the committee and, later, the full Senate. It must also be reconciled with a House of Representatives version that differs in many respects, including its lack of broadcast or audio flag components.

The committee also moved to prevent states from passing laws barring municipalities from forming their own citywide Wi-Fi systems. Florida, Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania have enacted laws intended to curb those projects, measures that are often backed by telecom and cable companies such as Verizon Communications and Comcast.

That legislative trend has captured the attention of U.S. senators, who voted to prevent state governments from following Pennsylvania's lead. A telecommunications bill that the Senate Commerce Committee approved says that no state may prohibit its own municipalities from offering broadband services.

Sex, the Net and children
The debates over how best to protect Internet surfers from pornography heated up on the Hill as well. The massive communications bill being shaped by the Senate Commerce Committee will require Web site operators posting sexually explicit information to place warning labels on their pages or face prison terms of up to five years.

It says that commercial Web sites must not place "sexually explicit material" on their home pages on pain of felony prosecution. In addition, they must rate "each page or screen of the Web site that does contain sexually explicit material" with a system to be devised by the Federal Trade Commission.

At another hearing before a House subcommittee, politicians served up a dizzying slew of suggestions about what kind of new federal laws should be enacted. The ideas were all over the map, and most were new. Only one or two have actually been turned into formal legislation so far, but politicians are vowing to take action in the very near future.

In an attempt to forestall potentially intrusive new federal laws, a coalition of Internet companies has launched a campaign against child pornography that they say will tip off police to illegal images. The Internet companies--AOL, EarthLink, Microsoft, United Online and Yahoo--are pledging $1 million in cash and technical assistance to develop technology that can "detect and disrupt the distribution of known images of child exploitation" on the Internet.

Because Internet providers are loath to see new laws that could raise privacy and security concerns--and cost them millions of dollars in the process--they hope that their own, self-regulatory proposal will reduce Congress' willingness to impose a mandatory one.

The House hearing also focused on the concept of forcing companies to record information about their users' Internet activities to aid in future criminal prosecutions.

Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, originally proposed legislation in April that would require Internet service providers to retain activity logs to aid in criminal investigations, including ones involving child abuse. Now DeGette and some of her colleagues in the House of Representatives are suggesting that social-networking sites should be required to do the same thing.

During Wednesday's hearing, politicians also claimed that social-networking sites were not doing enough to verify that their users who claimed to be a certain age were telling the truth. (Recent news reports have said that sex predators are using MySpace and similar sites to meet up with teens.)

Fixing a hole
Bowing to customer criticism, Microsoft released a new version of Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications and detailed how to remove the controversial antipiracy software. The updated WGA Notifications package includes changes that respond to criticism Microsoft has faced over the software, the company said. It no longer checks in with Microsoft after each restart, for example.

Microsoft has faced heat over WGA Notifications in particular because the company delivered a prerelease version of the tool alongside security fixes, perhaps turning Windows users into unsuspecting guinea pigs. Also, WGA Notifications was found to ping a Microsoft server after each system restart, a behavior the company did not disclose.

Microsoft also updated a critical security patch to address the network connection trouble some people had with the first version of the patch. The first patch was one of the dozen released by Microsoft on this month's Patch Tuesday and repairs two high-risk security flaws in a Windows routing and remote access component that could allow an attacker to commandeer a vulnerable PC.

However, the fix can interfere with certain dial-up networking connections. Problems occur only with dial-up connections that use a terminal window, or dial-up scripting, Microsoft said. This type of connection may stop responding after the patch is applied, it added.

Apple Computer also issued an update to its software, repairing several security flaws for its Mac OS X. The update, Mac OS X 10.4.7, fixes four security vulnerabilities, Symantec said in an alert sent to customers. "These issues can be exploited to cause denial-of-service conditions, gain access to sensitive information, and execute code," it said.

Microsoft moves
Microsoft was all about show and tell this week in releasing a few betas and previews on the Net.

The company is attempting to let people try out the next Office--without the hassle of installing beta software or replacing their current version. The software maker released a free, Web-based test version of the new Office.

Microsoft said more than 2.5 million people have downloaded the Beta 2 version of Office 2007 since it was released last month. The new Office is a considerable departure from the current edition of the productivity suite, sporting a radically redesigned user interface as well as new XML-based file formats.

However, the software giant said it is imposing another slight delay on the planned arrival time for Office 2007, citing performance concerns with recent test versions. Microsoft now plans to finish the code for the revamped Office suite by the end of the year, rather than in October, the date it set in March.

The company said in March that it would wait to start selling Office until January, to coincide with the launch of Windows Vista. Now, though, it says Office may not be ready for store shelves until "early 2007."

A new Internet Explorer beta shows that Microsoft is trying to put its browser security woes behind it. The software maker released the third and last beta version of IE , getting closer to final delivery by the end of 2006.

That will be the first major update to the popular Web browser in five years, and much of the focus for the new version is on security. The new version also provides reliability, compatibility and security fixes--more than 1,000 bugs have been dealt with in total, according to Microsoft.

And for those who want to try out the current test version of Microsoft's Windows Vista, it may be now or never. The company is nearing its self-imposed cutoff point and plans to stop allowing new downloads after Friday.

Also of note
Google unveiled its long awaited online payment processing system, Google Checkout, designed to offer shoppers with a Google account a quick way to pay for things...Billionaire investor Warren Buffett plans to distribute more than $30 billion of his stock to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation...AT&T made its U-verse TV service commercially available to 5,000 homes in San Antonio...Warner Bros. Entertainment began selling full-length feature films and TV shows over the Internet via Guba, one of many companies presenting amateur videos on the Web.