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New Leaders, Old Issues - InternetNews.
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New Leaders, Old Issues

Next in tech Internetnews.com editors provide an early roadmap for tech's direction in 2007.

There'll be a new buzz in Washington in 2007 when it comes to technology policy. For the first time since the dial-up era, Democrats will have a majority voice in Congress.

The question is do Democrats have anything different to say than Republicans? Even if they do, will the Democrats accomplish anything more than the Republicans, who promised much but delivered little when it came to tech?

When the Republicans finally dropped the curtain on the 109th Congress in mid-December, they left behind a rash of unresolved tech-policy issues, effectively leaving it to the Democrats to shape future policy.

And there's much to shape.

The Republicans, for whatever reason, were either unable or unwilling to pass any legislation involving network neutrality, data privacy, telecom reform, data security, electronic surveillance or data-breach disclosure requirements. Nor were they able to significantly fund increases for government research or drive the initiative for more science and math teachers.

But don't expect too much from the Democrats, warned Dave McGuire of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a prominent public advocacy group.

"Our basic perception is that there's not that big a difference between the parties [on tech policy]. It's going to vary from committee to committee and chairman to chairman," he said.

Nowhere in Congress is that likely to be more true than the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where Michigan Democrat John Dingel takes over the chairmanship and Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey assumes the reins on the panel's Internet subcommittee.

Much of the 2006 debate over network neutrality played out in the House Energy and Commerce Committee with Republican Chairman Joe Barton of Texas thwarting Dingel and Markey's efforts to limit telecom giants, such as AT&T and Verizon from charging commercial Internet content providers based on bandwidth.

More than a few Democrats agreed with Barton. In the final House vote that approved telecom reform, 58 Democrats joined 211 Republicans in turning back a network neutrality amendment. Only 11 Republicans joined the 140 Democrats voting for the amendment.

"Network neutrality is not going away as an issue, but I wouldn't try to read the tea leaves on that one," McGuire said.

McGuire does, however, hope the leaves are in order for the Democrats to spend more time on data-privacy legislation than the Republicans.

"We need to codify fair information-collection procedures," he said. "We need baseline standards of how companies deal with the handling of people's data."

The Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA) agrees with McGuire and the CDT, pointing to statistics from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse that more than 100 million Americans have had their personal information compromised through data losses or theft in both the public and private sectors.

The data losses and breaches have included medical records, Social Security numbers and personal bank account details.

"I really believe something will get done about it this year," Liz Gasster, the CSIA's general counsel, said. "If there was ever momentum and a clear mandate, the time is now."

Gasster added that Republicans in the 109th Congress supported data-privacy legislation, but the issue faltered over jurisdictional disputes between various committees. In the end, no legislation passed. She's hopeful the Democrats and the Republicans can come together this year. "We need reasonable security standards for both private enterprise and the government."

The CSIA is seeking legislation that deals with both prevention and notification and preempts any state laws. According to Gasster, 34 states have already passed data-security and notification bills.

Paul Kurtz, the executive director of CSIA, recently said the "complex Web of regulations" spawned by the states in the void left by Congress are creating a drag on e-commerce.

"By passing a federal data-security bill, Congress has the power to alleviate much of the fear, uncertainty and doubt that Americans are facing right now [over online security]," Kurtz said.

All that assumes, of course, the Democrats will make tech policy a higher priority than Republicans, who said issues of war, budgets, immigration and Social Security reform trumped their technology policy plans.

Democrats may face the same dilemma, predicts Tom Galvin, a partner with the Washington tech policy firm of 360 Communications.

"Democrats have a lot of priorities and a lot of special interests to take care of," he said. "I don't think technology is on that list. A significant technology agenda is not likely to be front and center."

Come January, the new voices in Congress will get a chance to start proving Galvin right or wrong.