Tough Database Protection Bill Faces Bumpy Road

Tough Database Protection Bill Faces Bumpy Road

Rep. Howard Coble

By Anne Gallagher, Contributing Writer

A last-minute move by a key House lawmaker to enact stricter laws governing database protection could face an early derailment when Congress returns to work in January.

Congress adjourned for the year Nov. 19 before House lawmakers were able to work out the differences between two competing database protection bills or move either measure to the floor for a vote. The Senate has barely touched the controversial issue.

The Senate Judiciary Committee may hold hearings next year to get a better feel for what legislative options exist for database protection, but the panel is not likely to submit its own bill until the House sends over a solid package, industry and congressional officials said.

Yet the possibility of House lawmakers reaching quick agreement on a single bill may be an even greater long shot.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts and intellectual property, is pushing a bill that has stirred controversy. He tried to move the bill, H.R. 354, to a full House vote before lawmakers left for the year, but failed.

While the House leadership said the hold was because of scheduling difficulties, strong opposition from the information technology industry also may have been a factor.

The IT industry, which prefers a less restrictive rival bill, hopes to keep the Coble bill from ever making it to a full House vote or going to the Senate.

Coble claims his bill is aimed at prohibiting the theft of valuable commercial collection of information by unscrupulous competitors who grab data collected by others, repackage it and market a product that threatens the original collection.

But the Information Technology Association of America, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and other IT associations claim the Coble bill would hamper the development of technology and continued growth of the Internet.

"The bill would establish property rights in factual information, which has heretofore been part of the public domain," the associations said in a Nov. 6 letter to House members.

"By allowing an individual to compile facts and data into a collection, and giving that individual the right to control the use and distribution of the underlying information, the potential for unintended negative consequences to the New Economy would be enormous," the letter said.

The IT industry also fears the Coble measure will impede research and development of new technologies and information services.

"Since the Internet itself is a collection of databases, Congress could also be impairing the smooth operation of this revolutionary network," ITAA and CCIA officials said in their letter.

ITAA had urged members of the House to reject the Coble bill in an earlier letter to lawmakers sent Oct. 29.

"We have a vested interest in assuring that databases are adequately protected under law," ITAA said, "but, at the same time, want to ensure that such protection not be so broad as to Balkanize the Internet, inhibit fair competition, innovation, economic development, research and education.

"The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce have continually detailed their concerns regarding the adverse negative effects and potentially unconstitutional scope of the pending legislation," the October letter continued.

Despite these objections, Coble hopes his bill will move to a House vote in January and that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will be willing to work with the House on a Senate counterpart.

What could hinder Coble's efforts is a competing bill in the House sponsored by Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va. Bliley's Consumer and Investor Access to Information Act (H.R. 1858), has much wider support from the information technology world and the Clinton administration.

Under the Bliley bill, in order to claim liability, the databases under question must be "in competition" and there must be proof of a "substantial displacement or loss of sales" and a "significant threat" to the creator of the first database.

The Bliley bill also would protect only databases created after the bill is enacted.

Proponents of the bill believe it will protect against database piracy, but not impede growth of either the Internet or the development of new technology.

"Chairman Bliley's bill accomplishes the three goals of penalizing those who pirate another's work, allowing those who create to realize a benefit from their work and avoiding control of currently developed markets as well as those to come downstream," CCIA President and Chief Executive Officer Edward Black said in a statement.

"All of this is accomplished without the crushing burden of federal regulation of the Internet. It preserves the promise and the potential of the Information Age," Black said.

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