RealTime IT News

Time Running Out on Fed's Tech Agenda

Traditionally, the last few days of Congress in an election year can bring parliamentary chaos. Midnight hour legislation that is neither read nor understood by lawmakers is routinely passed. Bills become amendments that are substituted for riders. Bits and pieces of disparate special interest legislation are attached to wholly unrelated bills.

Dave McClure of the U.S. Internet Industry Association calls it the "silly season." He warns, however, that it is a "very dangerous time for the Internet industry" when lawmaking is done in a hurry.

The 108th Congress convened in January of 2003 and is scheduled for final adjournment at the end of this month. It has, so far, passed an anti-spam bill and provided some funding to nanotech; otherwise, the tech industry has seen little legislative success in a Congress consumed with matters of war and national security over the last two years.

Virtually all other technology-related legislation has stalled. Congress let the Internet Access Tax Moratorium expire last year and has not renewed it. Corporate tax breaks coveted by the heaviest hitters in the tech world remain in committee limbo. Voice over IP issues have been pushed off to the next two-year Congress.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) released a legislative "short list" Tuesday of bills it says "demand immediate attention." Including items the ITAA wants Congress to "exercise reasoned restraint," there are 14 items on the agenda.

"The matters identified on this list have been deliberated, are ready for decision and can be concluded in the time remaining to Congress," Harris Miller, president of the influential trade group, said in a statement.

McClure said that's where the danger comes in. He cautioned that technology issues before Congress may not pass as standalone bills but could survive, for better or worse, as parts of other legislation.

"The problem is Congress still has to pass huge appropriation bills and they're starting to move very quickly. Anything could get tacked onto those bills," McClure said.

The final, frenetic process begins Wednesday when the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to markup spyware and Internet piracy bills.

The House Commerce Committee has already passed a spyware bill requiring that consumers be given clear and conspicuous notice prior to software being downloaded to their computers. The bill allows for up to $3 million in civil fines for surreptitiously collecting personal information. The Judiciary version adds criminal penalties of up to five years in prison.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has repeatedly said new legislation regulating spyware is unnecessary, contending the solution to the invasive programs is more likely to be found in better technology and intensive consumer education.

"You always have the problem of the law of unintended consequences," McClure said.

At an April spyware conference, the FTC asked industry players such as Microsoft , America Online and EarthLink to produce a set of best practices for the use of adware, including disclosure statements to consumers regarding what they are about to download.

In the Senate, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), the primary authors of the Can Spam Act, are also sponsoring anti-spyware legislation.

The Internet piracy bill under consideration Wednesday morning calls for the FBI to develop an educational program about copyright violations and expands the information sharing between law enforcement agencies, Internet service providers and copyright owners over infringement activities.