Congress Preps Tech Agenda

U.S. lawmakers continue to pursue their high-tech agendas, having introduced about 20 tech-related bills in the first week of the new Congress alone and seeking dozens of new rules on piracy, privacy and security, among other issues.

Cyber security, digital piracy, identity-theft protections, spam limits, broadband expansion, Internet gambling and copyright protections top the 108th Congress' technology agenda. Already, about 50 bills can be found just by typing in "technology" in Congress' legislative database.

High priorities for industry groups include fighting more government technology mandates, the removal of barriers to e-commerce, tax credits for broadband and innovation, and making sure Congress doesn't try to alter the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was passed in 1998 to protect copyright holders from piracy. This bill is part of a larger digital-rights management debate.

"The biggest thunderclouds on the horizons -- and they're on the near-term horizon -- revolve around tech mandates and the DMCA," said Robert Cresanti, vice president of public policy for the Business Software Alliance.

"There will be numerous bills this year that will take a run at the DMCA that will raise concerns for us," Cresanti said.

Among them is the Digital Media Consumers Rights Act, introduced by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., that gives consumers more fair-use rights for digital products and calls for copy-protected CDs to be clearly labeled if they include copy-proof technologies.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., offered a similar bill last year to revise the DMCA. It would protect fair-use rights of consumers and allow them to legally copy digital materials.

Cresanti said the concern is that lawmakers are putting in too much effort altering the DMCA -- which the industry says is in pretty good shape -- rather than enforcing the existing rules.

On the other hand, the entertainment industry has long argued that additional legislation is needed for anti-copying technologies on CDs and movies. The tech industry says that's very costly and too much of an imposition on consumers.

Backing the entertainment industry, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., may reintroduce a bill to prohibit the making and distribution of "digital media devices" unless they include government-approved copy restriction technology.

Hollings has said that he really doesn't want the legislation, but some type of compromise is needed. Various tech industry groups and the Recording Industry Association of America recently promised to fight any such mandates and work out the piracy problem.

AeA -- a group of electronics and tech companies -- the Information Technology Association of America and the Association for Competitive Technology also will oppose any digital-rights management legislation.

The Motion Picture Association of America's solution to rampant piracy is "to run to Congress and try to force a solution there that is a dangerous, ongoing process for us," said Cresanti, who argued the tech industry is too young to be more heavily regulated.

Hollings, along with Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., are also likely to introduce a comprehensive privacy bill to protect online surfers, who before Sept. 11 were pre-occupied with identity theft, but now must add government surveillance to their list of concerns.

A Hollings-sponsored bill last year got lost on the Senate floor.

"That's certainly one of the most pressing issues right now," said Wayne Crews, director of technology studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

Government programs such as the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness Project, data-mining activities, biometric initiatives and various forms of tracking programs have already come under fire for privacy violations.

Congress, however, defunded TIA in the 2003 omnibus spending bill it passed Thursday night. In passing the rule, Congress said it wants a guarantee that the government's database program will not infringe on civil liberties before it approves its continuation.

On other issues, the Electronics Industries Alliance is lobbying for a broadband tax incentive, along with accelerated depreciation schedules and an enhanced and permanent research and development tax credit, among other things.

"It is so important that we get affordable broadband access deployed to communities all across the country," said EIA President Dave McCurdy.

New Taxes Are Not on the List

Broadband deployment is a key agenda item for groups such as EIA, ITAA and ACT, since making sure rural areas have access to high-speed Internet services can help their industries. ITAA will also lobby for more research and development funding, e-government initiatives and database protection, but it will oppose Internet taxes.

ACT President Jonathan Zuck said his group will continue to fight 50 different state sales tax laws, which he argued are a barrier to growth-oriented fiscal policy.

The group recently released its Tech Environmental Quality Index, which shows that government is creating an increasingly hostile environment for innovation, competition and growth in the tech industry.

In regard to Internet taxes, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., have introduced bills to ban permanently Internet access taxes that treat online sales differently from stores sales, and to ban taxes by more than one state.

The current moratorium expires Nov. 1.

"Given the continued softness in the tech economy, this is hardly the time for new taxes on the Internet," Cox said in a statement. "Rather, providing long-term certainty about tax policy is one of the necessary ingredients for a tech rebound."

Under current law, states can only collect sales taxes from businesses that are physically located in that state. States are trying to come up with a simpler tax system so that Internet retailers don't have to deal with multiple systems, but they have different ideas of how food, clothing and other items should be taxed.

That is a problem for Adam Thierer, director of communications studies at the Cato Institute, who said states shouldn't be allowed to "shove a tax system down our throats."

"This is a very thorny thing right now," Thierer said last week. "There are amazing battles going on about what's a granola bar."