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House leader Gephardt outlines tech agenda

InfoWorld
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By Cara Garretson

(IDG) -- The U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, on Monday told a computer industry association gathering that, contrary to popular belief, the Internet-fueled New Economy is alive and well.

"Some opine that [the New Economy] was all overhyped. I don't buy that, and I know you don't either," Gephardt told a meeting of Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) members here. "The Democrats in the House take the role of guardians of the Internet Economy very seriously." To prove his point, the congressman offered the crowd updates on numerous technology-related agenda items.

Gephardt said he continues to support the technology industry's efforts to regulate itself in the area of online privacy, realizing that it is in the best interest of computer companies to protect their customers' identity and data. "Democrats believe the best course now is to allow you to solve these problems without a change in the law," he told the technology executives. "We respect your efforts."

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Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who also spoke at the gathering, agreed that government should avoid heavy privacy regulation. Yet he sounded a cautionary note that e-mail issues like spam and opt-in vs. opt-out -- where consumers elect to receive unsolicited information from companies or request that companies cease sending unsolicited information, respectively -- need to be worked out before they reach a crescendo.

"I don't think this country can afford to have an Exxon Valdez of privacy" where personal information spills onto the Internet, he said. "Such a disaster would lead to a punitive bill." Wyden supports the opt-out model of distributing information, under which companies can "use their First Amendment rights to send unsolicited communication. But the consumer must be able to say `Enough already,'" he said.

During Gephardt's speech, CCIA President Ed Black questioned the House leader on advancements in expanding trade with foreign countries, an issue that is key to technology companies as they look for new markets to sell into. Gephardt predicted that a vote could come this year in both the House and Senate to decide if President Bush will be given trade promotion authority. But he expressed pessimism over reaching a bipartisan agreement, because Democrats want to tie issues of labor and the environment into new trade agreements. "We all worry about intellectual property in trade, and rightly so. My argument is if that's appropriate, then it's also appropriate for labor and environmental issues to play a role in trade negotiations," he said.

Yet slowing down the trade agreement process would likely spell trouble for the technology industry. "Trade [issues] go right to the bottom-line performance of a lot of technology companies," said Glenn Manishin, an attorney at Patton Boggs who works with computer and telecommunications companies.

Gephardt also weighed in on the spectrum debate, saying he believes that the U.S. Department of Defense should give up some of the airwaves it currently occupies to make room for wireless operators that want to offer 3G (third-generation) services. That would be good news for telecommunications companies planning to build 3G networks, but it would also require significant spending so the Defense Department could replace its networks that rely on those airwaves. "They'd have to go through the expense of adjusting their own technology, but it seems it would help Defense and the high-tech industry," Gephardt said. "We just can't be noncompetitive with Japan and Europe," he added, referring to regions that are much closer to adopting 3G services than the United States.

Although Gephardt avoided the issue of Internet taxes in his speech, Senator Wyden said he wants to continue the current moratorium on those taxes. Local governments have complained that they would be stripped of significant revenue bases if online sales went untaxed, "but I don't see much evidence of a problem," he said. Wyden added that states are free to simplify their tax structures, which would make the question of which businesses must pay taxes to which jurisdictions easier to answer.

"I think [an extension of the moratorium is] a good solution; don't rush to judgement because there isn't a problem yet," said David Olive, deputy general manager of computer maker Fujitsu's Washington office, who attended the meeting.








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