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A New Year brings talk of new Net rules

January 6, 1999
Web posted at: 2:06 p.m. EDT (1406 GMT)

by Elizabeth Wasserman

(IDG) -- When it comes to regulating the Internet, the new session of Congress has a tough act to follow. Before the House impeached the president, Congress managed to pass a draft of Internet-related legislation. Graphic

In fact, the last Congress passed more Net legislation than ever before: a three-year Internet tax moratorium, a bill recognizing digital signatures, an extension of copyright protections for digital works and a measure to protect children from pornography.

This year, legislators are considering the introduction of bills regarding consumer privacy and protection, spam, bandwidth, online gambling and encryption, to name a few.

"The Internet is going to be a legislative issue in every Congress from now on," says Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.

Not every year will be as eventful as 1998, though. "It will be difficult to accomplish as much as we did last year," says Jon Englund, senior VP of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. "It's never happened before that so much high-tech-friendly legislation passed although much of it was hanging in the balance until the very end. Still, there are a number of significant issues that need to move in the next Congress. We may not have the same number of bills, but the ones we do have are extremely important."

Consumer privacy is one topic on the agenda. Lawmakers are clamoring to address this issue because they think it's important to voters. Last year, Congress addressed children's privacy and passed the Child Online Protection Act, a measure that requires sites to get parental consent before collecting information from children ages 12 or younger.

As follow-up, expect legislation on privacy for grown-ups. The Clinton administration, led by Vice President Al Gore, has encouraged the Internet industry to develop voluntary guidelines to protect personal data.

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By some measures, self-regulation is working. The nonprofit Palo Alto, Calif., organization TrustE, which requires members to agree to a set of privacy principles, saw a tenfold jump in membership last year, from 42 to 424 members. Another group, the Online Privacy Alliance in Washington, is backed by the biggest names on the Web.

But Congress wants proof that these voluntary guidelines work and House and Senate Commerce Committee members have bills waiting in the wings to stiffen Net privacy protections.

Even if general privacy legislation is avoided, the White House is reportedly interested in encouraging separate measures to protect medical and financial information. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who cochairs the Congressional Internet Caucus, has made protecting medical information one of his top priorities this year.

The structure of the Federal Communications Commission is likely to be another hot-button issue. Expect hearings on the FCC similar to those held last year on the Internal Revenue Service. Some observers fear such hearings could lead to discussions of increasing Internet regulation.

"We want to make sure the FCC doesn't become the Federal Computer Commission," says Ken Johnson, press secretary to Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection. "All you have to do is look at the history of regulators. Once the bureaucrats get a foot in the door, they come rushing in. We have to prevent that creeping infection. The quickest way to kill the Internet is to begin regulation."

Look for another round of debate surrounding Internet gambling. Online wagering has some big-time foes in particular, the existing casino industry. Sen. Jon Kyl's bill to outlaw Internet gambling could be resurrected. Likewise, antispam regulation could be reintroduced this year, as control of unsolicited commercial e-mail spam is backed politically by Internet service providers.

Another perennial issue, whether to loosen encryption export restrictions, could get out of committee this year. Sponsors of the Security and Freedom Through Encryption Act may introduce the same bill they proposed last year. While the legislation hasn't changed, the makeup of Congress has.

One staunch opponent of loosening encryption exports, Rep. Gerald Solomon, a New York Republican who chaired the influential Rules Committee, vowed to stand in the way of any measure coming to a floor vote in the House unless it included provisions that gave government access to the "keys." He has since retired, and the likely new head of the committee, Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican, is more sympathetic to the cause.

"The general sense is that with Gerald Solomon's retirement, a significant obstacle has been removed," says David Sobel, counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

At least three legislators Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Rich Boucher, both of Virginia, and Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana intend to reintroduce bills to loosen encryption export restrictions.

Content regulation hasn't been settled, either. The Child Online Protection Act, which was signed into law in October, is being challenged in court, as was its predecessor, the Communications Decency Act. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, could bring back a bill that would require schools and libraries to filter out "inappropriate" material in order to get federal discounts for Net access. The bill didn't pass the Senate last year.

McCain's committee also is expected to hold hearings on how high-speed digital technologies will transform the way Americans live, as well as on whether the 1996 Telecommunications Act needs to be revised before it's implemented.

Industry lobbyists were pleasantly surprised last year by the passage of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which requires federal agencies to make forms available online over a five-year period and to recognize digital signatures. Sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R.-Mich.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D.-Calif.), the measure was added to the massive government appropriations bill at the last minute in 1998. Supporters intend to go back for more, asking the same lawmakers to consider extending electronic authentication to commercial transactions, which would be considered a boost to e-commerce.

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