New Congress, Old Tech Issues

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The 109th Congress convenes at noon today facing the same technology policy questions the 108th Congress was uninterested, unable or unwilling to render judgments on. Leftovers from the last session include the regulation of IP-based network services, stock option expensing and providing more spectrum for commercial wireless broadband providers.

The new, two-year Congress will also face renewed demands to pass anti-spyware legislation, ban the peer-to-peer (P2P) technology used for music and movie piracy and to pass measures curbing Internet pornography.

"I expect we'll see all those issues and more," says Jim DeLong, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Deregulation-minded Republicans will again control the Congressional tech agenda, but the majority party in the 108th Congress often failed to follow the legislation of its own technology leaders. A core group of GOP lawmakers that blocked key tech legislation in the last session remains concerned that the rush to deregulate will impoverish state, county and local treasuries.

But the biggest obstacle to the technology agendas of the next two years may simply be time. President Bush's vow to push through Social Security reform and widely expected Supreme Court nominee debates, combined with the Congressional oversight of the war in Iraq, are likely to suck the air out most other debates.

"President Bush has never mentioned telecom reform," DeLong notes. "I'll bet the word 'broadband' will not pass the lips of the president."

Roger Cochetti, the group director of public policy at the IT trade group CompTia, takes a more optimistic view of possible telecom reform in the 109th Congress: "Something will happen, but not quickly. Some revisions or modifications in the original [1996 Telecommunications Act] will happen."

Cochetti's group, with more than 20,000 members, is currently fashioning its own agenda for the 109th Congress, but he says the trade association is initially focusing on "protecting the network economy from needless regulations" and tax credits for IT workforce retraining.

At the corporate level, TechNet, the 150-member lobbying network of CEOs and senior partners, will be pushing to rollback or quash pending stock option expensing rules and expanding broadband penetration rates through both regulatory and legislative means, according to spokesman Jim Hock.

Technology lawmakers and IT trade groups are also quick to note that issues currently in play before the courts and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could further cloud their agendas.

"The Grokster case will put everyone in the deep freezer [on intellectual property issues]," DeLong predicts.

The U.S. Supreme Court said last month it would hear oral arguments in MGM vs. Grokster in March. The music industry contends P2P companies such as Grokster and Kazaa should be held responsible for the illegal distribution of copyrighted material on their file-sharing networks.

The argument has been rejected twice already by a district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion in the case by early summer.

"Whoever loses is likely to go back to Congress screaming," DeLong adds.

At the FCC, an ongoing proceeding on IP-enabled services gives Congress at least six more months to examine Chairman Michael Powell's IT direction. The proceeding so far has resulted in the FCC declaring Voice Over IP an interstate service and not subject to state regulations. It has also ruled that VoIP providers must comply with federal wiretap rules.

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