Tech issues may move forward in split Congress

Technology issues focused on boosting the U.S. economy and creating jobs can move through a divided Congress next year if lawmakers can set aside controversial issues such as network neutrality, congressional observers said Thursday.

Starting in January, Republicans will have a majority in the House of Representatives, while Democrats will control the Senate and the White House. While that's a recipe for gridlock on many issues, some tech issues could be exceptions, said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a tech-focused think tank.

From 1994 to 2000, Republicans controlled Congress and a Democrat, Bill Clinton, was president, yet several major tech-related bills passed during that time, Atkinson noted during a tech policy forum sponsored by the politics-focused Web site Politico and Qualcomm. Legislation passing during that period included the Telecommunications Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Electronic Signature Act. Congress also passed new high-skill immigration rules and significantly increased money for tech-related research.

"There's a whole lot of things where President Clinton and the Republican Congress worked together," Atkinson said. "I don't think there's an inherent reason why these things can't work."

It's unclear, however, even if tech groups can agree on priorities for Congress in 2011. Representatives of Google, IBM and Dell, as well as Atkinson, voiced support for different priorities during the policy forum.

Instead of focusing on controversial issues, including the often-partisan argument over proposed net neutrality rules, Congress should focus on tech-related issues with broad support, including renewing a research and development tax credit, expanding high-skill immigration and expanding research funding at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and other agencies, Atkinson said.

Speaking earlier, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) also called on Congress to scrap the net neutrality debate and focus on areas of agreement.

But Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge, a digital rights group and supporter of strong net neutrality rules, said Atkinson and Ensign are wrong to dismiss efforts to prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic.

"What they don't want to recognize is that those 'controversial issues' contribute mightily to economic growth and job creation," Brodsky said after the forum. "A neutral Internet opens the possibilities for many entrepreneurs, competing Internet service providers, applications developers, and others who flourish in an environment not controlled by telephone and cable companies. Look what happened during the Internet's early years when Internet access was covered by government regulation. It was the greatest innovation wave we've ever seen."

Tech group need to work together to push for tech issues in the new Congress, said Pablo Chavez, Google's director of public policy. Too often, tech groups in Washington argue about issues, he said.

Asked for his priorities for Congress, Chavez mentioned free trade agreements, but he called on Congress to write anticensorship provisions into those deals. He also called on Congress to resurrect patent reform efforts of recent years, even though many of the proposals were controversial.

In some cases, Congress will need to break off noncontroversial proposals to make progress on some issues, Atkinson added. Although there was heated debate about some patent reform proposals, including post-grant review of patents, Congress could pass legislation to stop funds raised by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from being returned to the general fund, he said.

An earlier panel featuring three lawmakers illustrated disagreements over several tech-related issues before Congress. Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, called on Congress to address online privacy after a series of media reports this year revealed broad data collection by online companies. Online privacy practices need to be examined by Congress, she said.

But Ensign questioned whether new privacy regulations were needed. Often, a spotlight on issues by the media and Congress can lead to a change in behavior by companies, he said.

"It's always better when business regulates itself and becomes responsible corporate actors and players than if the Congress gets in," he said. "Anytime we enact laws, there are all these unintended consequences, sometimes that more severe than what we were trying to fix in the first place."

Asked about the possibility of passing cybersecurity legislation, Ensign also talked about unintended consequences. Several data breach notification bills were introduced during the past two years, along with more comprehensive cybersecurity legislation focused on new standards, training and funding.

"Because it's such a complicated areas, this is an area where you need to move very, very slowly," Ensign said of cybersecurity.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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