Top Turkeys of The 2006 Legislative Season

Roy MarkReporter’s Notebook: As Congress departs for the Thanksgiving holidays, it’s time for my first annual Legislative Turkey awards.

The ratings system is so simple even a lawmaker can understand it: bills are scored on a one-to-five turkey score, with five being the biggest gobblers around. It’s been a particularly competitive year, so we only have space for fours or fives.

The 109th Congress: Four Turkeys

I’ve covered Capitol Hill for six years now and the current 109th Congress takes the top award for being a classic turkey: a big bird with a little, tiny head and a great big rear end.

Over its two-year life, the 109th Congress met for the fewest days of any Congress in recent times. Holding to form, the lame duck version of the 109th met for four days last week and headed back home for two weeks. As usual, they accomplished nothing.

This Congress has ducked every major issue facing technology, including telecom reform, data breach notifications, network neutrality and fair use rights.

And then there’s the legislation the lawmakers left behind.

The conventional wisdom growing out of Congress’ massive inactivity is that most technology legislation is dead, save for a possible renewal of the expired research and development tax credit.

Conventional wisdom, though, overlooks all of the turkey legislation lurking around the fringes of what promises to be a frenzy of backroom politicking when Congress resumes in December.

Web Site Labeling Law: Four Turkeys

There is, for instance, a mandatory labeling proposal requiring Web site operators to slap a “sexually explicit” warning on a wide range of sites that are neither sexual nor explicit. Violators would face jail terms.

Who decides? Unfortunately, that would be the lawmakers writing the bill in some dark corner of Congress.

The proposal has never had a hearing or a markup session in either the House or the Senate. Yet, it is attached to the Criminal-State-Justice Appropriations bill.

“A labeling bill would unconstitutionally compel speech by requiring that a ‘digital scarlet letter’ be affixed to material that is legal and in many cases valuable,” The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) recently wrote in a letter to the leaders of the House and the Senate.

Telecom Amnesty: Four Turkeys

Speaking of bills that have never seen the light of day but might still become laws, there is talk of granting amnesty to telecom companies for any unlawful assistance they may have given the government since 9/11.

That would kill the various lawsuits around the country contending the nation’s major telecommunications providers are turning over all your calling and Internet traffic patterns to the government, without a warrant, no less.

Audio Flag: Four Turkeys

Have you heard about the broadcast flag? It would allow broadcasters to put a digital watermark on their properties to help prevent piracy. It may, or may not, be good legislation, but it doesn’t qualify for a turkey award.

But there is also legislation calling for an audio flag.

Unlike the broadcast flag, the audio flag has nothing to do with stopping piracy. Instead, the idea is to prevent certain types of copying even when the content is never shared, much less distributed over the Internet.

The legislation is squarely aimed at digital and satellite radio receivers that allow users to save broadcasts on their devices, which do not allow for moving the content off the device. It’s all about licensing fees, not piracy.

Online Gambling: Four Turkeys

The panel of the Legislative Turkey awards usually limits itself — in the public interest — to bills that might pass Congress. This year, though, we have a special award for legislation that actually passed both houses and was signed President Bush: the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.

This award winner is classic Congress. The issue is whether gambling is legal. Congress took a pass and then took credit for doing what it didn’t do: ban Internet gambling.

Given a chance to ban all gambling in the United States, lawmakers did not. Given an opportunity to ban all gambling over the Internet, Congress did not.

Instead, it attached legislation to a port authority bill barring credit card companies from making payments to online gambling sites. Horseracing and lottery sites are exempted from the bill.

And the 2006 champion turkey is…

DOPA: Five Turkeys

Few bills have ever shown our four-star turkey Congress at its worse woodenheaded thinking than the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) of 2006.

This turkey would require schools and libraries to block access to social-networking sites and chat rooms. Why? There are online predators out there.

The bill, which passed the House in July and is pending in the Senate, calls for any school or library receiving federal funding through the E-rate program to employ “technology protection” measures (i.e. filters) to prohibit minors from accessing social-networking sites and chat rooms where they may be subject to “unlawful sexual advances.”

In effect, the legislation denies minors in the nation’s schools and libraries a wide array of emerging Web-based learning applications and technologies. Worse, it further widens the digital divide since those children who have computers at home will be able to take advantage of the technology while those who don’t are left behind.

Here’s hoping your turkey goes down better than our legislative turkeys did.

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