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Tech Law Gridlock In D.C.

Privacy, taxes and copyright issues are up for grabs

Congress and the World Web made their formal introductions several years ago. The two hit it off immediately. But the romance is starting to show strain.

Should Congress try to stop states from taxing e-commerce? Should lawmakers draft consumer-protecting but industry-slamming privacy legislation? Is Napster worthy of regulatory attention? Who owns information?

These are tough questions. The result on Capitol Hill: Gridlock.

Legislators have drafted plenty of bills, but little has passed. To date, politicians have signed into law only one bill dealing with consumer online privacy, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

As the Internet flexes its muscles, it increasingly collides with brick-and-mortar heavyweights that aren't keen on Net upstarts. The Net has also entered into a love-hate relationship with consumers, who swoon over services like Napster and that are less expensive than stores, but simultaneously lash out against dot-coms for privacy invasions.

"The power centers all think government is a solution in a certain area," says Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., cyberspace civil liberties watchdog. "In content, government has been front and center. In intellectual property, it's industry that says no one can solve this but government," he says. "We need to pound on the Napsters. In the privacy area, the advocates and civil libertarians who have been suspicious of legislation on the content area, they are up and front on legislation."

Taxation will be a "huge Internet issue next year," says lobbyist Stan Sokul, who focuses on Internet industry issues. Sokul sat on the 19-member Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce that submitted a report to Congress in June recommending a moratorium on all new and discriminatory taxes for electronic commerce.

"It's going to be a big battle because there is a major organized lobby on the pro-tax side, and there are the antitax forces as well," he says.

The House of Representatives rammed through a bill establishing the moratorium shortly after the commission submitted its report. Since then, however, the issue has languished in the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's staff informed tax activists two weeks ago that Net taxes would not be pursued in this Congress, Sokul says.

State governments and retail juggernauts such as Wal-Mart Stores and The Home Depot have joined efforts to lobby against the passage of a moratorium.

On the privacy front, civil liberties advocates are pushing for more legislation, but industry is fighting against federal privacy mandates for cyberspace. Personal data, is extremely valuable to people who sell things, and online operations don't want rules gumming things up.

Some prominent bills that address the Internet privacy issue are still pending congressional review:'

* The Consumer Internet Privacy Enhancement Act would require Web sites to clearly post information about what information they collect, what they will do with the information and whether the information is needed to use the site.

* The Electronic Privacy Bill of Rights Act is a sweeping piece of legislation that would force Web site operators to post privacy policies and to implement "opt-in" consent before any personal information collected about Netizens could be shared.

* The Online Privacy Protection Act would require the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the personal information collected from Netizens by forcing Web site operators to let consumers "opt-out" of giving up data.

* The Collections of Information Antipiracy Act, by Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., would create new property rights for database owners. Currently people or companies cannot own facts -- only the arrangement of facts can be owned. Coble's bill would make it easier for organizations to own facts, such as a baseball player's batting average or the price of a stock.

* The Consumer and Investor Access to Information Act buttresses the status quo, instead of giving broad new property rights to database owners.

In the case of intellectual property, hearings on Napster and MP3 have taken place on the Hill, but no specific legislation has been submitted. Two bills dealing with databases, however, will return in the next Congress.
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Title Annotation:Government Activity
Comment:Tech Law Gridlock In D.C.(Government Activity)
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 9, 2000
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