Congress may be able to tackle tech issues in 2011
IDG News Service - As a new session of the U.S. Congress kicks off, many observers expect little to happen during the next two years -- except, perhaps, for some technology issues.
In the new session of Congress, which starts this month, Democrats control the Senate and Republicans take the majority in the House of Representatives, making for a contentious two years on many issues. But many tech issues haven't been stuck in partisan debates in recent years, and many tech policy experts expect congressional action on several issues in 2011.
Tech-related bills that could move forward this year include a revamp of the 25-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and a proposal by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to share auction proceeds with television stations and other spectrum owners who voluntarily give up airwaves.
The so-called incentive auctions could get caught up, however, in a heated debate over net neutrality rules that the FCC approved in December. Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, has already introduced legislation to strike down the net neutrality rules.
Incentive auctions could be the "most important tech-related item this Congress takes up," said Scott Wallsten, vice president for research at the Technology Policy Institute, an antiregulation think tank. "One big question is whether Congress will give the FCC the necessary authority. Whether they will depends on whether Congress would rather punish the commission for proceeding with net neutrality rules, and therefore not grant that authority, or whether Congress would rather have the money the spectrum auctions could bring in."
Congress should have a window of six to eight months to tackle some issues before lawmakers' attention turns to the 2012 election cycle, said Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a tech trade group.
"I think there's a real opportunity to get some meaningful legislation passed," he said. Many tech issues have "the dual benefit of being nonpartisan and fitting within the first priority of Democrats, Republicans, House and Senate and the administration, which is get the economy back on track and create jobs.
Still, it may be difficult to pass wide-ranging legislation such as patent reform and some cybersecurity bills introduced over the past two years, with competing interests able to bottle up more controversial pieces of complex bills. Garfield expects that targeted, stripped-down bills will have a better chance of passage.
"I think the chance of having a comprehensive anything in 2011 with this Congress is slim to none," he said.
But if lawmakers want to break off pieces of recent proposals on patent reform or cybersecurity, more limited efforts might have a chance of passing, added Charlie Greenwald, vice president of communications at TechAmerica, a tech trade group. In patent reform, an effort to end the transfer of fees from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to the general fund, or a proposal to revamp the fee structure, might have more traction than comprehensive patent reform, he said.
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