Although Congress managed to clear the most pressing task from its decks by voting this week to raise the debt limit, lawmakers left a full plate of tech issues to deal with when they return in early September, including spectrum legislation, privacy, online piracy and taxes on mobile-phone services.
Chief among those issues is legislation that would free up more spectrum to meet surging demand for wireless broadband technologies and also create a national public-safety broadband network. The Senate Commerce Committee approved such legislation in June, and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, floated a draft proposal last month.
Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wants to get his bill through Congress before the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which exposed deep problems with the communications systems used by emergency first responders. An effort to attach a version of spectrum legislation to the debt-ceiling legislation enacted on Tuesday failed.
“Despite that setback, I will continue to fight to make sure that by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we have this bill signed into law,” Rockefeller said this week.
While the prospects of passing legislation by that date appear slim, at least three possible avenues exist: moving it through the regular congressional process, attaching it to a package of 2012 appropriations measures that Congress will likely consider this fall, and adding it to the deficit-reduction measure that the joint select committee established by the debt-ceiling deal is expected to craft by Thanksgiving.
Privacy is another big challenge left unfinished. Congressional committees have looked at issues ranging from the privacy of mobile phones to the tracking of users on the Web to notification requirements following a cyberattack that involves the loss of consumers' personal data.
Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., introduced a bill in April aimed at providing baseline privacy protections; Rockefeller followed in May with legislation that would require companies to respect consumers’ choices when it comes to Web tracking. Neither bill, however, has moved out of committee, and some privacy advocates are growing pessimistic.
“I don’t think any legislation will pass. I think the [advertising] industry is going to have a lock on this,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
The House held its first hearing on privacy last month. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, plans to hold several more such hearings this fall and is unlikely to consider legislation until after that, spokesman Ken Johnson said. He added, however, that the lawmaker is “leaning toward” crafting a bill.
Bono Mack’s panel has been preoccupied with the issue of data breaches following a handful of major cyberattacks this spring at high-profile companies such as Citibank and Sony that resulted in the loss of personal information about millions of customers. Bono Mack’s panel approved a data-breach bill in July despite protests from Democrats that it would override much stronger state protections.
The hope is to narrow the gap with key Democrats who oppose the measure, Johnson said, and move a bipartisan bill through the full committee in late September or early October.
Movie studios, record companies, software makers, and other copyright owners are pushing legislation that would curb online piracy on foreign websites. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation in May, but Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has blocked the bill from moving to the Senate floor. He argues that the measure will stifle innovation and free speech and possibly harm the nation’s Internet address system. Tech firms, Internet engineers, and civil libertarians also strongly oppose the bill.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, D-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet, is working on his own version of the legislation, which he said he may unveil in September.
Another issue that stands a good chance of at least passing the House is a measure that would bar states and local governments from imposing new taxes on wireless services for five years. The House Judiciary Committee in July approved the wireless-tax-moratorium bill, offered by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and it is expected to move to the House floor quickly after Congress returns.
The Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission will have the ultimate say on AT&T’s proposed purchase of T-Mobile USA, but lawmakers will likely continue to examine the issue. Judiciary committees in both chambers have held hearings on the merger, but the Commerce panels have yet to have their turn. Leaders on both Senate Commerce and House Energy and Commerce have said they expect to hold hearings.
Computer and Communications Industry Association President Ed Black said that federal regulators could decide whether to approve or block AT&T's purchase of T-Mobile USA by this fall, despite predictions by AT&T and its supporters that the process will likely run into 2012. Black said that if the Justice Department and FCC decide to block the deal, as CCIA is urging them to do, it is possible that a decision might come before the end of the year.
"If it's yes with conditions, then they are more likely to need extra time to haggle over conditions,” Black said. “A blocking decision could be concluded more rapidly, though reinforcing the basis for the decision might still take some time."