Washington tackles Internet law
July 30, 1999
by Roberta Furger
(IDG) -- As Congress heads into the home stretch for the 1999 legislative session, members will be dealing with a full platter of Internet-related bills. They want to curtail the flow of your personal information; keep spam from overwhelming your children; and make the Web a safe, happy place to do business. If you use the Internet (and I know you do), these issues affect you. But you don't have to read the Congressional Record regularly to get up to speed on Washington's antics. Here's the lowdown on the bills that could have the biggest impact on you (but given that this is politics, might not).
Representatives have introduced several bills relating to online privacy, but little action is likely to occur until Congress receives the Federal Trade Commission report on this issue, due out about the time you read this. None of these bills has generated much excitement among privacy advocates, who are lobbying for passage of a comprehensive law to govern the collecting and sharing of information.
The proposed Consumer Internet Privacy Protection Act of 1999 (HR 313), introduced by Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minnesota, firstname.lastname@example.org), aims to regulate how ISPs can distribute information about you. Vento's bill would require ISPs to obtain your written permission before giving anyone else access to data you provided, and to disclose to you any information it collected and who it shared that data with. Earlier in this session, Rep. Bob Franks (R-New Jersey, email@example.com) introduced a similar bill--dubbed the Social Security On-line Privacy Protection Act of 1999 (HR 367). However, neither bill currently covers Web sites. Unless that change happens, the bills won't protect consumers where they're most vulnerable.
The only Internet privacy legislation passed last session was the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which requires Web sites to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information from children under 13. The proposed Children's Privacy Protection and Parental Empowerment Act of 1999 (HR 369) would make it a crime for list brokers to sell information about a child under 16 without a parent's written consent. The net effect: less spam for younger Web-goers.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. That appears to be the motto of Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Arkansas, firstname.lastname@example.org), who has reintroduced the Inbox Privacy Act of 1999 (S759), a modified version of last year's antispam bill. Like the earlier model, this bill would require junk e-mailers to include identifying information and explicit opt-out provisions in their messages, and to comply with all requests by recipients not to receive spam. A clause in the revised bill would bar junk e-mailers from sending unsolicited e-mail to any domain that has a no-spam policy.
The bill's domain-blackout provision would undoubtedly curtail junk mail, but its reporting requirements would mean extra work for ISPs, which are lining up in opposition. Last year's bill died a slow death, and this year's model may suffer the same fate.
The Can Spam Act (HR 2162), introduced by Rep. Gary Miller (R-California, PublicCA41@mail.house.gov), is getting lots of support from antispammers. Modeled on a California state law Miller wrote, the bill would permit ISPs to sue violators of their antispam policies and would establish criminal penalties for falsifying a domain name when sending out spam. So far, the Can Spam Act is the only federal antispam bill endorsed by the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.
Everyone's banking on e-commerce to give the economy a boost--and Congress is doing its part to help make it happen. The Internet Growth and Development Act of 1999 (HR 1685) is a catch-all bill intended to make the Internet a thriving medium, according to Rep. Rick Boucher (R-Virginia, NINTHNET@mail.house.gov), the bill's sponsor. Boucher's bill would, among other things, give digital signatures the same legal weight as paper-based signatures, and it would require Web sites to post notice of their policies regarding the use of personal information. Boucher seems to have lumped several pet projects into the bill; the resulting hodgepodge probably has little chance of being passed into law.
Internet shoppers unite: Sen. Robert Smith (I-New Hampshire, www.senate.gov/~smith/webfor.html ) has introduced the Internet Tax Moratorium Act (S328), which would replace the current three-year suspension of Net sales taxes with a permanent ban. The ban would prevent states from forcing Web merchants to collect taxes for purchases in states where they have significant Internet or catalog sales; merchants already collect taxes in states where they have a physical presence.
Finally, the access-to-consumer-information category includes a couple of noteworthy bills. First, Rep. Michael Forbes (R-New York, email@example.com) has introduced the Improved Consumer Access to Travel Information Act (HR 1030) to examine what impediments (if any) the airline industry imposes on the online travel business. Second, the chair of the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia, firstname.lastname@example.org), has introduced the Consumer and Investor Access to Information Act of 1999 (HR 1858) to help ensure that stock quotes and other investment-related information will remain freely available to consumers via the Web.
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