2006 in Congress

The U.S. Congress will face a broad range of technology-related issues, including communications law reform and data-privacy issues, when it returns to work in 2006.

The possibility of a data-breach notification law and a broadband-focused revamp of a decade-old telecommunications law made headlines in 2005, but tech vendors and trade groups are also pushing a range of other proposals, including workforce training programs and patent reform.

Tech trade groups are promoting what some of them call a "full plate," but that doesn’t mean everything on their wish lists will be gift-wrapped by the 2006 holiday season. Telecom reform could take up a large chunk of Congress’ limited tech bandwidth, and other issues in Washington, D.C., including the Iraq war, could sidetrack tech issues.

It’s also an election year, for all of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. Congressional leaders will be under pressure to adjourn early in the fourth quarter of the year, so that lawmakers can campaign for re-election.

"The political environment will only increase in intensity as we go through the year," predicted Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft’s managing director of federal government affairs.

That said, here are some tech-related issues likely to come up in Congress during 2006:

Telecom reform: The House Energy and Commerce Committee has put out two drafts of a bill that would create a regulatory framework for broadband providers. Committee Chairman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, has said he wants light regulation, but some broadband providers, including Verizon Communications Inc., have questioned the committee’s efforts to require that broadband providers allow users to access any legal content and attach any legal devices to the network.

The so-called net neutrality provisions would prohibit broadband providers from favoring their own or their partners’ products.

Broadband providers say it would be bad business to restrict users’ access to the Web content they want. There’s little evidence of a problem, large broadband providers say. "It is better to let the market work, and if there are instances that pop up, you deal with them," said Kerry Knott, vice president of government affairs at Comcast. "It’s a solution in search of a problem, still."

But two large telecom carriers have proposed walling off their broadband television services from other Internet access. Net neutrality advocates -- including Microsoft, Google, and eBay -- say such a provision is needed to prevent broadband providers from selling off access to their highest speed services to a handful of partners. Without a net neutrality provision, innovation online could be hurt, with small, groundbreaking companies relegated to a second tier of service, net neutrality advocates say.

"If we’re going to maintain the open Internet ... and prevent it from becoming a series of toll booths, then this is critically important," said Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat.

The House draft bills also would streamline cable television franchising requirements, clearing the way for telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T to offer broadband television in competition with cable providers. Cable companies argue that the telecom giants should jump through the same hoops as they had to, but the telecom providers say it would take them decades to get thousands of local franchise approvals.

A Senate bill, introduced by South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint Dec. 15, would take a more deregulatory approach than the House drafts. DeMint’s bill, echoing policy goals of Verizon and the conservative think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation, would remove much of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s forward-looking rule-making authority and turn the FCC largely into an enforcement agency investigating reports of unfair competition among telecom and broadband providers.

The DeMint bill would phase out cable television franchises over four years and does not include net neutrality provisions.

Data breach notification: A series of high-profile data breaches in the first half of 2005 prompted lawmakers to introduce more than a half-dozen bills that would require breached companies to notify affected consumers. Some of the bills have exceptions for encrypted data, and some require companies to report breaches only when they determine there’s significant risk to customers.

Some consumer groups and security vendors worry that allowing companies to self-determine whether breaches are significant will mean few public disclosures. Others, including trade group the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), say Congress should allow notification exceptions for encrypted data. Without exceptions companies won’t have incentive to follow good security practices.

Some of the data breach bills focus too much on breach notification and not enough on preventing breaches, the ITAA said. "We are concerned that much of the emphasis in this legislation focuses on horses already out of the barn," said Bob Cohen, the ITAA’s senior vice president, in November.

Congress’ interest in data breach legislation seems to have waned as fewer breaches were reported in the second half of 2005. Still, there’s some support from companies that do business across the U.S.; they want one national standard because more than 20 states have passed their own data breach notification laws. Some tech vendors, including Microsoft, have supported data notification legislation, with Microsoft in November calling for broad-based consumer privacy legislation to protect against identity theft.

Spyware: The House passed two spyware bills in May. One bill would outlaw keystroke logging, taking over a computer without the permission of the owner, and diverting a Web browser without the owners’ permission. The bill, called the Spy Act, would allow fines of up to US$3 million for spyware-like activity.

The second House bill, the I-Spy Act, would set jail terms of up to five years for a person who uses spyware to access a computer without authorization and uses the computer to commit another federal crime.

A Senate bill, called the Spyblock Act, has been approved by the Senate Commerce Committee but has not yet come up for a vote before the full Senate. The Spyblock Act would prohibit hackers from remotely taking over a computer and prohibit programs that hijack Web browsers.

Patent reform: Several tech groups are calling for Congress to address questionable patents and to change the way patent lawsuits work. Groups such as the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) want Congress to improve the patent-granting process by allowing more groups to review patent applications, and limit judges from issuing injunctions against products that may include a patent violation. The injunctions can stop tech vendors from selling a product in which one small part may violate a patent, said Ralph Hellman, ITI’s vice president of government relations.

"It’s a litigation issue at its core," Hellman said. "Companies are asking, ’I could lose my entire product line?’"

"Innovation" agenda: Large tech vendors and trade groups are nearly united in their calls for Congress to focus on ensuring that U.S. companies and workers can continue to compete in a global economy. Most tech groups call for increased federal spending on IT research and development and new programs to encourage U.S. students to enter math and science fields.

The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) has pushed for passage of the Technology Retraining and Investment Now (TRAIN) Act, which would a tax credit of up to $5,000 for individuals or businesses paying for computer-related training programs. "It is a meaningful and concrete way to respond to [concerns about] outsourcing," said Roger Cochetti, group director for U.S public policy at CompTIA. "What we need to do is invest in America and invest in the American workforce."

Others, including Microsoft, are calling on Congress to increase the number of H-1B visas allowing foreign workers into the U.S. A Senate proposal to "recapture" unused H-1B visas from past years was taken out of a budget bill during negotiations with the House this month. Tech worker groups have questioned the need for more foreign workers.

Other tech-related issues that may come before Congress in 2006:

-- An extension and expansion of a research and development tax credit for businesses.

-- Incentives for health-care providers to switch to electronic health records and other IT services.

-- A bill to define the "fair use" rights of users of digital content.

--Grant Gross, IDG News Service

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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