Congress Has Little Room in 2000 To Approve New IT Initiatives

Congress Has Little Room in 2000 To Approve New IT Initiatives

Janet Reno

By Anne Gallagher, Contributing Writer

Lawmakers who return for their second session of work in the 106th Congress face a jam-packed legislative schedule in an election year, a pace that does not bode well for new information technology initiatives to get a lot of attention.

There are, however, a handful of legislative deadlocks and administration policy moves lingering from last year that lawmakers are sure to tackle early. And the high-tech industry will continue its efforts to educate lawmakers on its technology innovations and policy needs.

"There is not a lot of time; 2000 is an educational year," said Marc Pearl, senior vice president for government affairs at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). "As we move into the new millennium, we would like [lawmakers] to understand the underlying issues and learn more about this technology ... the value of e-commerce, long-term benefits of training high-tech workers, ensuring there is no duplication of Internet taxes."

It being an election year, politics will enter into play even more than usual, with some members pushing legislation to give them an edge in elections and holding back in areas that might be politically risky.

While it makes sense for both parties to jump on the IT bandwagon, their motivation on how far to go will vary. For example, some Democrats in the House may be more willing to hold back on their IT agenda in this session because of the possibility of winning back control of the House in 2001 and strengthening their cause by waiting until that time.

Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) predicts that while new IT issues will emerge, the holdover ones will surface again in this session. He cited continuing concerns about online privacy, security and surveillance.

"We must understand that most of our institutions will be challenged to respond to the new technology and the new millennium," Black said. "Many of the basic issues all societies have wrestled with for decades will again emerge, seeking a new resolution.

Fundamental questions of framers' intent, individual freedom and the limits of government power will have to be examined in light of institutional realignments and specific policies."

The issue that awaits lawmakers first when they return Jan. 24 is a new encryption policy and digital signature legislation. Congress and the White House will have their hands full.

The Clinton administration is expected this month to clarify a new encryption policy that it released in the fall. White House officials had said they would provide more details on its plans Dec. 15, but then pushed that deadline to Jan. 14.

Several IT industry members have expressed concern recently that the new policy may not provide significant relief from existing export controls for all U.S. encryption exporters. The White House delay may be in response to the criticism surfacing from industry over the past few months on whether the White House policy will live up to expectations.

Lawmakers want to ensure the new White House encryption policy places U.S. industry at a competitive advantage in the global marketplace. They want the policy, at a minimum, to allow mass-market encryption products to be exported regardless of the means by which those products are distributed, either physically or via electronic transfer over the Internet.

Rumors circulating in high-tech circles indicate the upcoming encryption regulations may define critical terms such as "retail," "technical review" and "government" in a way that some lawmakers think would undermine the goals of the new policy and hinder U.S. high-tech companies in the global market.

Industry officials in December said progress was being made on those definitions to make them more palatable to industry than the initial drafts.

While optimistic that the new policy will benefit the IT businesses, high-tech company officials are quick to say they will turn to Congress for relief if the administration policy does not meet their needs. And several lawmakers remain skeptical of the details of the new policy.

There are some heavy hitters weighing in the fight, particularly in the House, with Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., watching as well as Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

In anticipation of the new White House policy, Congress has held back in pushing its own Security and Freedom through Encryption (SAFE) bill, of which Goodlatte is the chief sponsor.

The White House said it would veto the SAFE bill because it goes too far in relaxing export controls and could impede national security through the loosening of those controls.

In 2000, Congress and the administration hope to reach a compromise. But if lawmakers are not satisfied with the content of the policy, the SAFE bill is sure to swiftly resurface.

Another hot topic in 2000 will be the debate regarding digital signature legislation. Proponents say enacting such legislation will facilitate electronic commerce over the Internet, both within the United States and abroad.

A digital signature standard would give an electronic document the same legal weight and validity as physically signed paper documents, thus hastening online transactions.

Currently, the administration, Congress and industry all agree that standards for interoperability are critical for the long-term success of the Internet and e-commerce. But the debate gets muddied when it comes to defining those standards, especially as they stretch across geographical borders.

Despite agreeing that standards are needed, the U.S. government and industry are concerned that foreign governments may set stricter Internet standards that could impede international trade. The industry will continue to push for uniform standards.

"In order for electronic commerce to grow to its fullest potential, it is necessary to give digital signatures the same legal effect as handwritten signatures in a uniform and consistent manner throughout the country," said Black.

Complicating the debate, Congress will return with several digital signature legislative measures on the table. Last year, Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., introduced the Millennium Digital Commerce Act to remove paper-based obstacles in electronic transactions. Then, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., put forth a House counterpart that, in addition, would allow contracting parties to choose whatever type of digital signature technology they want to conduct their electronic transactions.

Later, Bliley introduced yet another version of the legislation, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, which passed the House. Conference meetings to reconcile the differences among the various bills are slated to kick off soon this year, but there are some difficult sticking points.

Meanwhile, industry groups CCIA, ITAA and other high-tech representatives are attempting to build an international consensus for the development of digital signatures in the private sector.

There has been some movement of late on the international front. The European Union approved a law allowing digital signatures the same status as written ones, but the proposal still must be approved by the member nations this year.

"We will continue to advocate for a hands-off approach for world governments in this area, and will do all that we can to promote the use and development of digital signatures and authentication regimes in the private and public sectors," Black said.

On another front, before adjournment last year, Congress approved a budget package that included a five-year extension of a research and development tax credit, a move applauded by the IT community.

Other taxation topics are more likely to land in discussions within state governments this year, where much of the controversy over Internet tax policies is evolving. The issue, however, still may get some congressional scrutiny.

Industry also anticipates some movement in Congress regarding H-1B visas to get skilled high-tech workers into the country. Some longer-term fixes are being tossed around, including one investment plan to arrange kindergarten through 12th grade educational programs to beef up the industry with skilled employees years down the road.

There may be some sporadic attempts to move these measures in the House and Senate, but any substantial legislative changes are more likely to surface in the next Congress after elections.

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