Familiar IT issues confront new Congress

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich probably won't play Capitol Hill again this year, but an issue close to his heart, protection of intellectual property rights, will be back on the congressional hit parade.

And Microsoft Corp. boss Bill Gates might not come back either, but his plea for more H-1B visas to hire foreign information technology workers is sure to resurface.

Issues ranging from Internet taxation to IT in education to online privacy will also be back. The 106th Congress that concluded last month considered a wide range of IT issues last year but resolved few of them.

Ulrich, for example, focused new attention on the claim that downloading music via the Internet violates copyright laws. But his high-profile appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July didn't lead to any new legislation.

Or consider the issue of foreign IT workers. The 106th Congress raised the number of visas the United States would annually grant to foreign IT workers from 115,000 to 195,000. But there's still a critical shortage of such workers, said Rep. Darrell Issa, a newly elected California Republican and an IT entrepreneur.

Even with what appears to be an emerging economic slowdown, high-technology industries will have a tough time filling vacant jobs, Issa said. Some organizations have estimated the number of unfilled IT jobs at up to 800,000. So raising the foreign worker visa cap will be a priority for Congress, he said.

IT industry chiefs also hope lawmakers this time around will focus on long-term solutions to the labor problem. During the 107th Congress, industry organizations will push for major improvements in technology education, said Connie Correll, communications director for the Information Technology Industry Council.

Industry organizations want Congress to support better training for teachers, more IT equipment in classrooms and more technology emphasis in school curricula, Correll said. Chances for meaningful education legislation are considered improved because the presidential election made education a key issue.

Internet privacy is certain to be another key issue.

During the 106th Congress, the pri-vacy issue "hadn't quite jelled," so little was accomplished, Correll said. But now, public concern about privacy is much greater, so congressional action is more likely.

Other issues expected to reappear before Congress include the following:

Internet taxation — A 1998 moratorium on Internet taxes expires in October. Businesses want it extended. Export controls — Businesses want them eased. E-government — Expect action on funding to put government services online. Spam — An antispam bill died in the Senate but will rise again. Cyber security — Act now to prevent an "electronic Pearl Harbor," Defense experts urge.

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