Tech takes new stage in Senate

Democrats likely to push privacy protection

It will be the same 100 individuals tackling the same issues, but the outcome could be substantially different now that the Democrats will control the U.S. Senate.

On matters ranging from Internet privacy to e-government, the course pursued by Senate Democrats is likely to diverge from that plotted by Republicans.

The May 24 decision by Vermont Sen. James Jeffords to leave the Republican Party and become an independent gave the Democrats a 50-49 majority and the right to take over Senate leadership, including committee chairmanships. The transfer is expected June 5. The difference that Democratic control makes with technology issues may be most evident on privacy, a subject of increasing anxiety for the public, and consequently for Internet businesses.

Privacy proponents say the ascension of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) to replace Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is portentous.

"I think this does shake up the privacy landscape," said James Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Hollings has clearly been interested in going farther than Sen. McCain has in terms of establishing federal privacy standards."

Legislation that Hollings introduced last year "was the strongest privacy bill for consumers," said Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Hollings wanted to require companies to get permission from consumers before collecting any personal information that could be used to identify them. Under his bill, consumers would have to "opt in" before information could be collected.

McCain and others favored letting consumers "opt out."

Earlier this year, Hollings introduced the Spyware Control and Privacy Protection Act, which would require spyware manufacturers to notify consumers when their products have spyware capabilities, what kind of information can be collected and how to disable it. The bill also makes it illegal to transmit information back to software manufacturers without express permission from software users.

"I think we will hear a lot about privacy. It's more likely to be front and center now," said John Spotila, who served under President Clinton as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

"It's a good issue for the Democrats," who tend to believe stronger privacy protections are needed and wanted by the public, Spotila said. Many Republicans, by contrast, favor going slow on privacy legislation, he said.

Having Hollings as chairman of Commerce, Science and Transportation makes some technology industry representatives nervous.

"We're going to have to do a lot more educating," said Paul Cohen of the Information Technology Association of America, which represents hundreds of technology companies. "We don't want to be in a situation where laws are passed that have unintended consequences, such as slowing the implementation of Web-based services or increasing costs to consumers."

The key difference with Democrats in charge will be legislative priorities, said Leslie Phillips, Democratic communications director for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "The Democrats will send bills to the House that the Republicans would have sat on."

One bill certain to get special attention is the E-Government Act of 2001. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who introduced the bill May 1, becomes head of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

The bill would appoint a federal technology czar, create a $200 million annual e-government fund and enact a multitude of e-government initiatives, from an Online National Library to Web sites for federal courts.

With Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) as chairman of the committee, the e-government bill might have languished. Now, the bill "jumps up a couple of notches in importance in the Senate," Phillips said.

If the bill clears the Senate, it then goes to the House, where Democrats and Republicans have drafted similar e-government bills.

If e-government legislation passes both houses, it has a good chance of becoming law, Spotila said. Although the Bush administration seems unenthusiastic about Lieberman's expansive vision of e-government, vetoing it would risk alienating too many in Congress. Besides, the administration would have extensive control over how the bill is implemented, he said.

The Senate's power shift is unlikely to yield dramatic change on most issues, Dempsey said.

"It's still going to require bipartisanship to get anything done," he said.

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