Net Politics Focus: Net bills hanging in the balance

As the US Congress prepares to take summer recess, several pieces of key Internet-related legislation are likely to remain in limbo until after the break.

The Senate has already retired for the summer, and will not return to session until Sept. 7. The House's summer recess begins Aug. 10 and lasts until Sept. 8, with both houses to adjourn on Oct. 9 -- meaning that only about a month's worth of session time is left this year.

With bills on unsolicited bulk e-mail (aka "spam"), consumer Internet privacy, and federal Internet hookup subsidies for schools still pending in Congress, other issues are likely to take precedence on the legislative agenda in this election year, according to observers.

For example, Congress faces an Oct. 1 deadline to deal with 13 spending bills for the 1999 fiscal year. Hotly debated campaign finance and health care reform bills are also still pending, and leaders of both parties have said they hope these bills will be acted upon before the Nov. 3 midterm elections. Lobbying groups including the Association of Online Professionals and the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE) are tracking a host of Internet bills, but they expressed doubt that the bills will move forward any time soon.

"Frankly, I think none of them will see the light of day this week," said Dave McClure, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based AOP. Some will "quietly die in September" when their time in Congressional committees runs out, McClure predicted.

Officials at CAUCE, meanwhile, are urging Netizens to deluge their representatives with requests for the demise of a bulk e-mail bill that forms a provision in a separate House telecommunications bill before a subcommittee takes it up later this week. The "anti-slamming" bill which bans telephone companies from switching customers' service plans or providers without permission, is set for a hearing in the House Telecommunications Subcommittee on Thursday. (The hearing moves the bill a step closer to a vote in the full House.) It contains a controversial section that would legalise certain types of unsolicited commercial e-mail. "Our sources in the House say that the outcry from CAUCE members has raised many eyebrows on the subcommittee, and that members are considering dropping the pro-spam provisions," according to CAUCE co-founder Ray Everett-Church. If the bill survives Thursday's hearing, it then moves to the "conference committee" stage, where competing House and Senate versions are reconciled, before a vote in the full Congress.

Meanwhile three other spam bills, one in the House and two in the Senate, remain in limbo:

  • HR 1748, the Netizens Protection Act of 1997 remains in the Telecommunications Subcommittee. Many anti-spam advocates favour this bill as taking the hardest line on the issue.

  • A bill called the Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Choice Act of 1997 (S 771) was the subject of a hearing in the Telecommunications Subcommittee on June 17. This bill would require bulk e-mail advertisers to use the word "advertisement" in subject lines.

  • The Electronic Mailbox Protection Act of 1997 (S 875) sponsored by establishes fines of $5,000 for the use of false headers in e-mail messages. The bill remains in the Senate's Committee on Commerce.

Also still up in the air is the Data Privacy Act of 1997 (HR 2368). This bill, which remains in the Telecommunications Subcommittee, calls for industry self-regulation on Internet privacy and establishes limits on the collection and use of personal information obtained via the Internet. It would also prohibit the marketing of health and medical information obtained via Web sites without prior consent.

Several competing bills on the "E-Rate" program to provide school Internet hookup subsidies are also still pending: the E-Rate Policy and Child Protection Act of 1998 (HR 3442); the Anti-FCC Phone Tax Act of 1998 (HR 4032); and the E-Rate Tax Moratorium Act of 1998 (HR 4065). All remain in the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.

But before it recessed for the summer, the Senate did approve several Internet measures, drawing the ire of some Netizen advocates, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center. On July 24 the Senate passed a measure sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) that has been derided as "CDA 2" by critics. The bill bans Internet material deemed "harmful to minors."

Also last week, the Senate passed Sen. John McCain's "Internet School Filtering Act," a bill that ties federal Internet subsidies for schools and libraries to the use of content filtering software. EPIC called the bills a "stealth attack on free speech".