Senate shift shines on e-gov

The shift to Democratic control of the Senate is giving e-government advocates new reason for optimism and the technology industry new reason to worry about restrictive privacy legislation.

The handover of Senate committee chairmanships to Democrats will put Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in charge of the Governmental Affairs Committee and in an ideal position to shepherd his sweeping E-Government Act of 2001 through the Senate.

The shift also is expected to move Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) to the head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, a move that worries information technology leaders. Last year Hollings sponsored relatively strict privacy legislation that would have required Web sites to get consumers' permission before using their personal data. Hollings also would have required Web sites to disclose to consumers the information collected on them.

IT companies strongly opposed the Hollings legislation and argue that the private sector will do a good enough job of protecting privacy by themselves.

E-government supporters welcomed the prospect of Lieberman taking over as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

"It certainly will make it easier to pass the E-Government 2001 Act," said Robert Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The bill calls for appointment of a federal technology czar, a $200 million annual e-government fund and a multitude of e-government initiatives ranging from an Online National Library to Web sites for federal courts.

With Lieberman as chairman, the bill "jumps up a couple of notches in importance in the Senate," said Leslie Phillips, Democratic communications director for the Governmental Affairs Committee.

Once through the Senate, the bill would go to the House, where similar e-government bills have been drafted by Democrats and Republicans. However, much of Lieberman's e-government vision is opposed by the Bush administration.

For IT industry representatives, the biggest change will be Hollings ascension.

"From the high-tech sector's standpoint, Hollings is on the other side on a number of issues," said Jason Mahler, vice president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association. In addition to his privacy legislation, Hollings opposed bills to restricted lawsuits against technology companies.

To privacy advocates, however, Hollings is a welcome change. "The Hollings bill was the strongest privacy bill for consumers," said Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

However, Hoofnagle said the shift from Republicans to Democrats probably won't make much difference on privacy matters. Republicans have also introduced a number of strong privacy bills, he said.

Don't expect much change, cautioned Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Republicans will still control "two corners of the legislative triangle," and in the Senate, Democrats will have far too few votes to force votes or override vetoes.

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