New Leaders Face Old Tech Issues

108th Congress convenes Tuesday facing a host of unresolved and frequently controversial issues ranging from spam to spectrum.
Posted January 7, 2003

Roy Mark

When the final gavel fell on the 107th Congress in November, literally dozens of technology-related bills were left unresolved with the House of Representatives and the Senate rarely in agreement over issues ranging from spam to spectrum. As a result, when the Republican-led 108th Congress convenes Tuesday, old issues will be facing the new leadership.

Some of the issues are familiar and perennial favorites of Congress. New legislation will be introduced that calls for the banning of spam and online gambling. For better or worse, the 107th Congress failed to get either done. There will be the usual bills designed for the "widespread deployment of broadband" (Remember Tauzin-Dingell? It passed the House but never saw the light of day in the Senate) that some will say is essential to spark the lagging economy and others will characterize as a monopoly play by the Baby Bells.

And taxation of the Internet will surely be a hot button issue again since the 107th Congress only extended its moratorium on Internet taxes until November of this year and cash-strapped states are organizing an effort to slap a sales tax on online transactions.

But, perhaps, the most contentious technology issue will be digital rights and the ongoing war between Hollywood and file swapping sites.

In the House, Rep. Howard Berman (D.-Calif.) will re-introduce his controversial legislation strongly supported by Hollywood that calls for a battery of anti-piracy measures including stronger digital rights management laws, lawsuits by copyright owners, and prosecutions against the most egregious infringers. Additionally, Berman wants to legalize "technological self-help measures" for copyright owners including redirection, decoys, spoofing and file blocking.

In the Senate, Ernest Hollings (D.-S.C.) will again push his anti-piracy legislation that would require all new hardware and software products include copy protection that limits the number of times a consumer may play digital music and video. The bill enthusiastically backed by the music and movie industry but criticized by hardware industry associations and consumer advocates -- likely would halt practices like converting a CD to the MP3 format for use in a user's portable player, and burning a backup copy of a purchased CD, practices today considered legal under "fair use" laws.

On the consumer side of the issue, Rep. Rick Boucher (D.-Va.) will champion his Digital Media Consumers Rights Act, which provides that it is not a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to circumvent a technological measure in connection with gaining access to or using a work if the circumvention does not result in an infringement of the copyright in the work. The DMCA currently says it is illegal to make any copy of digitally recorded music or video.

Boucher is seeking to reestablish what is widely known as the Betamax standard. In a landmark 1984 case involving Sony, which introduced VCR's to the market, and Universal Studios, which opposed letting the public make copies of television shows by means of a VCR, the Supreme Court ruled it was legal for consumers to make copies of music and video if the purpose was for personal use. The Court called it fair use, a right stripped away by the DMCA.

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