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Technology / TECHNOLOGY

What Techies Will Be Watching on the Hill

Congress must grapple with a range of tech issues from piracy to spectrum(ALEX BRANDON/AP, FILE)

January 3, 2012

From piracy to privacy, and cybersecurity to spectrum, Congress this year will be wading into several potentially blockbuster issues that could affect a wide swath of the tech community.

Below are just a few of the major issues to watch for.

Online Piracy

 

When the House returns later this month, Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has vowed to continue a markup he started before the holiday break on legislation that would provide new tools to curb piracy and counterfeiting on foreign websites.

The committee spent two days last month wading through dozens of amendments to legislation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. The bill aims to cut off funding and U.S. access to foreign websites that offer pirated movies, music, counterfeit running shoes, luxury purses, prescription drugs, and other items. The amendments were offered by a bipartisan group of critics on the committee, and the bill is expected to now pass the committee.

Smith has said he would consider a request by some opponents to hold another hearing that would examine concerns that the legislation could interfere with efforts to bolster the security of the Internet’s domain-name system. But he plans to continue the markup regardless.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved its own version of piracy legislation in May, but Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has been blocking it from moving to the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a vote for Jan. 24 on a motion to begin debate.

Cybersecurity

Leaders in both chambers have promised to move forward with wide-ranging cybersecurity legislation this year. While the intent may be clear, the details remain murky.

Reid plans to bring comprehensive cybersecurity legislation to the floor during the first month of work after the Senate returns on Jan. 23. Various draft legislation has been making the rounds.

Potential proposals include clarifying the role and authority of government agencies to tackle cyberthreats, defining what “critical infrastructure” may warrant additional government protection, and ways to increase information sharing between the government and corporations.

While the Senate plans to tackle cybersecurity in a comprehensive bill, the House may be taking a more roundabout approach. In October, the House Republican Cybersecurity Task Force proposed developing smaller pieces of legislation in the various standing committees that could be packaged into a larger bill.

“We are generally skeptical of large, ‘comprehensive’ bills on complex topics, at least as the bills are being written,” the task force wrote in its report. House members have proposed several bills, including one from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., that aims to allow the government to share more information with businesses.

Spectrum

Congress will also continue work in the second session on legislation that would free up more spectrum to meet the public’s growing demand for wireless technologies.

The spectrum legislation is likely to be part of the larger debate over whether to pass a one-year extension of the payroll-tax holiday. The House included spectrum legislation in a payroll tax bill it passed last month. And some of the key players in the spectrum debate have been named as conferees to help negotiate with the Senate on the issue, including Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.; Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

Privacy

Privacy will continue to make waves on the Hill and regulatory agencies, but the chances that lawmakers will actually pass a bill at this point appear remote. Nonetheless, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Commerce and Trade is expected to hold more hearings. The panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., has said she is still undecided on the need for legislation.

Her panel has approved legislation that would set national standards for how companies must respond to data breaches. The data-breach bill, however, is still awaiting action by the full committee.

In the Senate, a spokesman for Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said privacy remains a priority but the panel is still crafting its agenda for the second session.

Cloud Computing

While the government has joined businesses in moving toward cloud computing, significant legislation on the issue has been delayed in Congress.

Cloud computing, in which data and programs are stored on remote servers and usually accessed online, offers ways to cut costs and increase efficiency but poses a range of concerns over privacy, security, and liability.

Many industry leaders say legislation is needed to clarify existing law and provide certainty to encourage investment in the new technology.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Cloud Computing Act of 2011 generated a lot of buzz when the Minnesota Democrat announced it at a Best Buy store in her home state in April. But seven months later, the bill floundered after Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who was originally floated as a cosponsor, bailed.

Late last year Klobuchar said she is working with new authors to introduce the bill.

Other issues that could emerge this session include debate over legislation that would require online retailers to collect sales taxes from out-of-state customers. Also on the Senate’s docket are two nominees to the Federal Communications Commission. They were approved by the Senate Commerce Committee but their final confirmation vote is on hold while Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, spars with the FCC over the handling of the LightSquared proceeding.

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