Net neutrality, patents, broadband top new Congress's tech agenda

Democratic Congress will likely pick up the pieces of last year's failed telcommunications bills, address patent quality.

When the 110th Congress convenes next year, a number of tech-related initiatives will take center stage, Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service. Among them privacy, patents and network neutrality.

Privacy and data breach notification

With data breaches exploding all over the private and public sectors, there is a mounting chorus for more aggressive laws to protect citizens' privacy and to require faster, more complete notifications to the public. Advocacy groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) have long called for comprehensive legislation to protect personal privacy, including rules for organizations handling personal data and limits on government surveillance. In November 2005, after a rash of data breaches, Microsoft joined privacy advocates in calling for legislation, including a baseline data protection standard and giving individuals control over how their personal data is used.
Jack Krumholtz, managing director of federal government affairs and associate general counsel at Microsoft, and Leslie Harris, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, both said they hope the Democratic Congress will take a new look at privacy legislation. In addition, Democrats are likely to investigate the Bush administration's surveillance programs, such as monitoring phone calls and Internet conversations, and its use of data mining to assess risks posed by individual travellers.

"There has been basically no oversight," Harris said of the Republican Congress.

Patent reform

The Supreme Court in May handed the tech industry a huge victory over patent trolls by ruling that injunctions should not automatically be granted but that courts should consider a four-factor test. The battle for patent reform now turns to the quality of patents awarded in the first place.
Tech groups have pushed for more money for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and a post-patent review process as a way to challenge patents. Some small inventors agree that better patent examinations are needed, but they have objected to other proposals pushed by tech groups, including changing the way patents are awarded.

Large pharmaceutical firms also have fought patent reform, but Christopher Hankin, senior director of federal affairs at Sun Microsystems Inc., said he expects the Democratic Congress will be less cozy with big pharma than many Republicans are. "We could work these issues out," he said of the patent debates. "Unfortunately, we never got to the situation where the other side felt the need to negotiate."

Network neutrality

A Republican-controlled committee refused to include net neutrality in a massive telecommunications bill this year, but the omission caused the bill to languish before coming to a vote in the Senate. Now that the Democrats control the House and Senate, net neutrality will get a more friendly hearing. Neutrality is basically a partisan issue and Republicans are threatening to use the same parliamentary measures to block a bill that the Democrats used.

Rules that make it easier for municipal governments to offer wireless broadband will be on the agenda. Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, said he will push for a law similar to municipal broadband proposals in the last broadband bill. Municipal wireless has a "role to play where commercial operators don't see an opportunity," Boucher said.

Also likely will be the Universal Service Fund (USF), a federal program that subsidizes telecom and Internet services in rural and poor areas and goes to wire schools and libraries.

Boucher in March cosponsored a bill that would include services such as VOIP (voice over IP) as USF funding sources and allowing recipients of USF money to deploy broadband services. The measure went nowhere, partly because of Republican calls to abolish USF. Boucher said he's optimistic USF reform will get another look in the next Congress.


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