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Internet

Virginia proposes Net policy act

Lawmakers in the state are trying to attract high-tech companies through a seven-point package addressing online child porn, consumer privacy, fraud, and spam.

    No wonder Steve Case hangs his hat in Virginia.

    Lawmakers in the state have been making moves during the past few years to attract high-tech companies and give profitable neighbors, such as Case's America Online, incentives to stay in the so-called Silicon Dominion.

    The latest proposal--the Virginia Internet Policy Act--was unveiled today at the College of William and Mary in Willamsburg. The seven-point Net policy package addresses online child pornography, consumer privacy, fraud, and spam.

    As reported yesterday, the Act was drafted by Virginia Gov. James Gilmore's 36-member Commission on Information Technology, which along with Case includes members from the public and private sector such as Robert McDowell, a vice president at Microsoft; Frank Bowers, vice president of Cox Communications; John Sidgmore, vice chairman of MCI-Worldcom; and Michael Daniels, chairman of Network Solutions.

    "More than half of all the Internet access in the world runs through Virginia," Gilmore said in a statement. "These recommendations will help ensure our success in the areas of Internet policy and the technology sector of the economy."

    The policy package will carry significant weight in the state's legislature and will be closely watched by other states.

    "It strikes the perfect balance between self-regulation and government regulation," said Paul Russinoff, state policy counsel for the Internet Alliance .

    "The interesting thing is that other states--such as California, which enacted about 12 Net bills--had no comprehensive initiative like this," he added. "We hope to export Virginia's policy to other states."

    The Virginia Internet Policy Act is likely to be introduced when the state legislature convenes in January, and will be endorsed by the Clinton administration. White House senior adviser on Net issues Ira Magaziner was supposed to be on hand but canceled at the last minute.

    Gilmore also announced that the state will host a global summit on Net policy and will give $1.5 million to the George Mason University law school to set up a center for technology and Llaw that will continue to study these issues.

    A comprehensive package, the commission's proposal contains ideas that already have popped up in state and federal legislation, as well as some that are being pushed by industry self-regulation regimes.

    Echoing new federal laws, the Virginia Internet Policy Act argues that Net access and services should not be hit with new or "discriminatory" taxes; that regulators such as the FTC and state attorneys general should crack down on activities that are illegal in the offline world; that online transactions or contracts should be legally binding; and that Virginia should offer more government services via the Net.

    The policy attempts to address a wide range of issues, including:

    • Content regulation: The commission will call for action to curb illegal content on the Net and online material that is "harmful to minors." However, a federal court in Philadelphia has halted enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, which makes it illegal for Web sites to give minors access to "harmful material." Still, the Act calls for stricter laws when it comes to sexually soliciting minors via the Net or posting a child's contact information on a pornographic Web site.

    Also, in the wake of separate federal ruling, a Virginia court deemed it unconstitutional to filter Net access at public libraries, the commission is calling on Virginia localities to instead create "appropriate use" policies for school and library Net terminals.

    • Consumer Privacy Protection: Echoing the Federal Trade Commission's opinion, the Virginia Internet Policy Act requires that online companies clearly post their personal information collection practices and disclose how they use the data, as well as let consumers opt out of giving up sensitive details such as their home address or Social Security number. The Act also lays out an enforcement mechanism, directing the state to prosecute companies that have "deceptive policies" or violate their own guidelines.

    • Encryption: The Act calls on Virginia to encourage the federal government to protect citizens' and companies' rights to use and sell strong encryption, which scrambles digital communication to make it unreadable if opened by an unauthorized party. California passed a similar stand-alone bill endorsing federal legislation to relax export controls on encryption.

    • Spam: Aiming in part to ease congestion on networks owned by Internet service providers such as AOL and MCI WorldCom, the commission wants unsolicited bulk email or communication that is "fraudulent, unauthorized, or otherwise illegal [to be] prosecuted just as it would in any other medium." Virginia's "computer trespassing" law, which means using an ISP's equipment without permission, also should be updated, the Act states.