Lawmakers Ready High-TechAgenda

Lawmakers Ready High-TechAgenda

Conrad Burns

By Steve LeSueur

As Congress sets its legislative agenda for the new year, Republican lawmakers are targeting Clinton administration policies they say hamper electronic commerce and undermine the competitiveness of American high-tech companies in international markets.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., chairman of an influential Senate panel that deals with information technology, launched the first volley when he announced plans to introduce legislation challenging government policy on a number of fronts, including restrictions on the export of U.S. encryption technology and regulations affecting the deployment of broadband telecommunications services.

"We're trying to force innovation in areas where we have some things lagging," Burns said at a Jan. 29 briefing unveiling his legislative proposals. "We want to make sure that the United States moves as quickly as possible into the digital era."

Burns, head of the Senate Commerce Committee's subcommittee on communications, is one of many lawmakers interested in guiding U.S. policy in the fast-paced information technology arena.

On the House side, Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has said his committee will examine easing export restrictions on encryption as well as online privacy, electronic authentication and Internet domain names.

Add to this agenda the administration's IT budget initiative, issues relating to the year 2000 problem and Internet traffic, and you get lawmakers with a full plate of high-tech issues and competing interests to address when the 106th Congress begins holding hearings in earnest.

Burns already has strong backing from the information technology industry for his proposal to ease restrictions on the export of encryption software. Encryption is the technology that encodes computer files and communications, protecting them so that only authorized parties can access the encrypted data.

The administration, with the support of national security and law enforcement agencies, has placed limits on the strength of encryption software that can be exported. But industry officials say that sophisticated encryption software is produced and widely available overseas.

Consequently, the administration's policy achieves little toward halting the sale and spread of encryption software, they argue, but severely undermines the ability of U.S. companies to compete in the international market.

"We're not asking to sell encryption technology that's stronger than what's already out there," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, Arlington, Va., which represents 11,000 technology firms.

Miller's organization estimates that American software companies could lose up to $65 billion over the next 10 years if the U.S. government does not relax export controls on encryption software.

Industry officials also contend that current policy inhibits the growth of e-commerce because businesses and consumers will not purchase goods and services over the Internet unless they are confident that their transactions are safe.

Export restrictions limiting the encryption key length to 56 bits — the measure of the encryption's strength — don't provide enough protection from computer hackers and cyber criminals, they said.

"Fifty-six bit encryption is no longer the industry standard as it has been cracked by researchers in a matter of hours," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who heads the House Republican High-Tech Working Group.

Goodlatte plans to introduce legislation in the House Judiciary Committee this month relaxing export restrictions, said his spokesman David Lehman.

Goodlatte's bill will be co-sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who will help lead the effort to garner bipartisan support for this legislation.

Burns said recent discussions with FBI Director Louis Freeh and other administration officials suggest they may accept more relaxed standards, but he did not elaborate on how far they are willing to move. The Goodlatte and Burns legislation would allow export of encryption software as strong as that generally available in the international market — currently 128 bits.

Lawmakers also will attempt to bolster e-commerce by speeding the deployment of broadband communications networks to the home. Cable, wireless, satellite and digital subscriber lines enable Internet users to take advantage of the full power of computers because broadband networks can transmit large amounts of data at faster speeds than traditional copper wire.

"The difference between current technology and broadband is like the difference between radio and television," said Mark Uncapher, vice president of ITAA's information services and electronic commerce division.

But there is no consensus yet as to how to spur industry to deploy broadband technology.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a plan to encourage local telephone companies, the so-called Regional Bell Operating Companies, to establish affiliates that could compete with cable companies and others in establishing these networks.

Much of the IT industry backs this plan as the best way to promote competition among a variety of potential technologies, but Burns contends that deployment of broadband telecommunications has moved too slowly under the FCC's management. Burns recently accused the FCC of inaction and flatly rejected its claim in a Jan. 29 report that broadband technology is proceeding on a reasonable and timely basis.

Although Burns did not detail the specifics of his proposal, industry officials expect him to offer legislation giving incentives to local telephone companies to build the broadband data networks in Montana and rural areas across the nation.

For the most part, high-tech issues traditionally enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, industry officials said. Among the contentious issues that resulted in legislation last year was Internet taxation.

The Internet Tax Freedom Act, which imposed a three-year moratorium on state and local taxation of the Internet and created a national commission to recommend a fair taxation policy for the rapidly expanding World Wide Web, was signed by President Clinton Oct. 21.

ITAA's Miller said the Clinton administration has supported the growth of information technology.

"There have been some areas, such as encryption, where we have been at loggerheads with the administration," he said. "But, overall, we would give them high marks."

Industry applauds Clinton's proposal to boost the federal government's spending on IT research and development, Miller said.

The new funding is contained in the administration's fiscal year 2000 budget, released Feb. 1, and comes on top of the $1.3 billion that the government already spends annually on emerging technologies.

Lawmakers are expected to be receptive to this proposal focusing research and development efforts on advanced computing in science and technology.

"In the past, we have found Congress on both sides of the aisle to be supportive of basic research in information technology," said Julia Moore, director of legislative and public affairs for the National Science Foundation, which has been designated lead agency for the initiative.

Bruce Hahn, director of public policy for Computing Technology Industry Association, a 7,800-member group in Arlington, Va., said his organization will be pushing lawmakers to pass legislation on at least a dozen separate issues, such as encouraging the federal government to outsource more IT work and reviving "fast track" legislation to reduce trade barriers between nations.

The top legislative issue for CompTIA will be attacking the shortage of skilled workers, he said. CompTIA wants Congress and the states to approve tax credits for businesses that train workers in certified computer programs.

There is "a good window of opportunity to see a productive session before the presidential elections," said Fred Gebler, congressional affairs director of defense and procurement policy for Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas.

Despite current diversions on the Hill, he said, "I believe you'll see a lot of activity in the high-tech arena."

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