During his 15 years in the Senate, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has emerged as a leading voice on many technology issues, shepherding several bipartisan measures into law that tech leaders say have helped promote the growth of the Internet.
This year, Wyden is again active on several tech issues—most notably leading the charge against legislation to crack down on online infringement on foreign websites, which he says would stifle innovation on the Internet.
It’s an unfamiliar role for Wyden, whose leadership on tech issues has been focused more on pushing legislation favored by the industry. Yet one of his earliest tech achievements, which he authored as a House member, was targeted at countering a provision in the landmark 1996 telecommunications law to combat the growth of Internet pornography.
Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee Chairman Jerry Berman, who helped lead a coalition that fought for the measure during the 1996 telecom act debate, described Wyden last month as a “bipartisan genius at putting legislation together.”
“[Tech] didn’t really become a special focus of mine until those middle 1990s when I became Oregon’s first new senator” since 1969, Wyden said in a recent interview. The lanky Democrat who once dreamed of a career as a professional basketball player said he was looking for a way to help spur jobs and economic growth in Oregon and saw the opportunities the Internet could provide.
Since then, Wyden has worked with legislators in both parties to push through several laws to minimize taxes and other impediments to the growth of the Internet. They included a moratorium on new state and local Internet access taxes and the first law to crack down on spam.
Since last year, Wyden has been focused on blocking legislation that would crack down on online piracy and counterfeiting on foreign websites from moving to the Senate floor. Despite an aggressive lobbying blitz from a broad and powerful coalition of copyright and trademark owners, Wyden said, “I’m going to fight this every step of the way … if the bill [stays] in its in current form.”
Wyden and other critics of the legislation, including some tech groups, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and civil libertarians, worry that the measure would stifle innovation and free speech on the Internet and undermine the functionality of the Internet’s domain-name system. Supporters of the measure say these claims are overblown.
Still, Wyden said it is difficult for him to be on the opposite side of a tech issue from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the author of the Senate anti-online piracy bill known as the Protect IP Act. “This is the first time we have disagreed on tech policy,” Wyden said. “It’s no fun to have a disagreement with someone you like so much, both personally and professionally.”
In an interview earlier this month, Leahy expressed frustration with Wyden’s opposition. He and other bill supporters say that without new legislative tools, musicians, movie producers, and others who make copyrighted or trademarked products will continue to lose billions of dollars to websites based abroad that offer pirated content and counterfeit products online with impunity.
If he can’t reach a deal with Wyden, Leahy indicated he would seek a cloture vote on allowing the bill, which was approved by the Judiciary Committee in May, to come to the floor for debate. “I’m old school,” Leahy said. Policy should be determined by “100 senators and not just one.”
Wyden said he has proposed changes to Leahy’s bill and would support “narrowly targeted” legislation focused on cutting off the money that goes to infringing foreign websites. “I would very much like to be able work with Senator Leahy on ways to ensure that intellectual property theft is dealt with without damaging the Internet,” he said, but added that so far he has not had any formal negotiations with the Judiciary chairman.
Even as he continues to fight to keep the piracy bill from passing without major changes, Wyden said he will continue to plug away at trying to advance other tech priorities. They include moving a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that would temporarily bar states and localities from imposing some new taxes on wireless services (the House passed a similar bill earlier this month). He’s also working with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to pass legislation Wyden authored that would restrict government access to location data, and another measure he has sponsored with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would limit new taxes on digital goods such as software or music that consumers download.
This article appears in the November 16, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.