US Report: Tech visa bill dies in Senate as session ends

The House of Representatives passed a digital copyright bill Monday but a compromise attempt to pass legislation to let more foreign high-tech workers into the U.S. was blocked in the Senate, killing the bill for the year.
Written by Maria Seminerio, Contributor

The House approved landmark legislation updating copyright law for the digital age, sending the bill to the White House where President Clinton is expected to sign it into law. The bill, approved by the Senate last week, implements the provisions of two international treaties adopted by the World Intellectual Property Organisation in 1996.

Software makers, movie studios, book publishers and other creators of copyrighted works pushed hard for the legislation, fearing that as their products increasingly became available on the Internet in digital form, pirates and criminals would be able to make and sell illegal copies easily.

The legislation creates criminal penalties for anyone who circumvents high-technology anti-piracy protections, such as encryption, used to block illegal copying. The bill also forbids the manufacture, import, sale or distribution of devices or services used for circumvention. ''The U.S. Congress today set an international standard for strong protection of creative works on the Internet that will spur the growth of electronic commerce and result in consumers benefiting from quicker and better online access to software, music, movies and other types of copyrighted works,'' said Robert Holleyman, president of the Business Software Alliance.

A variety of exceptions were also included at the request of libraries, scientists, universities and some manufacturers of consumer electronic devices. The bill to temporarily double the current number of H1B visas issued to skilled workers from abroad was blocked by opponents led by Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat for Iowa, during a vote in the Senate as it wrapped up its yearly business on Saturday. (Senators did return Monday to deal with last-minute spending issues that were still unresolved, however. ) The House had passed the measure last month.

Harkin maintained the law might make it harder for skilled Americans to find high-paying technology jobs. The version of the bill up for consideration in the Senate was a compromise aimed at placating opponents and the White House, which had originally threatened a veto. Under the compromise measure, a fee would have been established for each visa to fund training programs for U.S. workers.

The number of H1B visas issued each year is 65,000, and the 1998 allotment ran out in May. Technology companies, which supported the bill, argued that it would have helped them fill an urgent need for skilled programmers, networking specialists and other high-tech workers.

The bill's chief sponsor in the Senate, Spencer Abraham, Republican for Michigan said U.S. industry could see a lasting negative impact if the visa cap is not raised. "This is a severe problem and it is especially severe at this time," said Abraham, noting that many companies are in dire need of experts to help address Year 2000 issues.

Also up in the air is the future of the Internet Tax Freedom Act, passed by the Senate last week. The bill must be reconciled with a separate House version and signed by President Clinton.

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