Internet evolving faster than regulation

Governments struggle to fit laws to online world

November 14, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON -- It's not a store, but it moves merchandise. It's not a TV network, but it broadcasts to millions of people. It's not a magazine, but it publishes plenty of material -- some of it libelous and plenty of it pornographic.

The Internet has become an economic and social force almost entirely without regulation from Congress or federal agencies. But increasingly, Washington is being forced to decide whether the laws concerning books, broadcast and brick-and-mortar stores are adequate to reckon with the wired world.

Last week, the House passed a bill to give electronic signatures the same validity as the handwritten version. And the leader of a congressional commission called for banning sales taxes on purchases made over the Internet.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission held a public discussion on limits to "online profiling," the practice of tracking people as they click across the Web so that products can be advertised based on their habits. And Nov. 5, a federal judge issued a stinging assessment of Microsoft Corp.'s business practices that lays the groundwork for broad antitrust penalties.

In each case, the ultimate law or outcome is undecided. Many people argue that old concepts of taxation, antitrust and other types of regulation have little place in cyberspace.

"Our antitrust laws were enacted at a time of slow-moving trains, not high-speed computers," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexican Republican, after the Microsoft ruling. "I wonder whether Congress should reconsider our antiquated antitrust laws and look for a way to make them more responsive to today's global high-technology economy."

"It doesn't take much candlepower to see that this isn't going to be an easy thing to do," Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said of Internet regulation. "The Internet is changing rapidly, and new [computer] operating systems could be developed tomorrow, and gambling is moving offshore [possibly beyond the reach of U.S. laws]. The idea that everything can be worked out using traditional law is proving difficult."

At least 79 bills were filed in Congress this year to regulate access to the Internet and the material that travels across it, according to a tally by Congressional Quarterly. Moreover, federal agencies as various as those dealing with health and stock market regulators are grappling with what the move online means for their area of the law.

On some of the largest issues, lawmakers are asking for a pause before they act. They want time to better understand the new world of networked computers, and time for industries to try self-regulation. Speedy action resulted in the Supreme Court's rejecting one of their first efforts, a law aimed at regulating online pornography and other material deemed harmful to children.

"The first mantra of the Internet is that before the government regulates, go slow, that this is a new medium, a young medium, and it's feeling its way," Berman said.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said many established legal principles should be extended quickly to the Internet. He noted that Congress has barred companies from tracking which cable television shows a person watches and selling the data to marketers. Phone-calling patterns and video rental records are also private.

"The only question is whether this new commercial phenomenon [of online shopping] should be held to the same standards as other commerce," Markey said.

Privacy and consumer protection laws should protect people online as much as in other activities, he said.

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