Low-tech lawmakers try to handle high-tech issues


WASHINGTON -- Halfway through a recent House hearing on MySpace and other online social networks, lawmakers had to switch gears to deal with another technology issue -- a vote on Internet gambling.

But Congress isn't exactly a haven for the tech-savvy. The alert to rush to the House floor was delivered in low-tech fashion -- by dated pagers clipped to their belts and clanging bells that made the halls of Capitol Hill echo like a 1950s high school.

Almost daily when Congress is in session, lawmakers are struggling to comprehend new technology and the government's role in shaping its future. In the biggest spurt of legislative activity since the dot-com boom, advocacy groups and businesses are seeking laws to shape the fast-evolving digital landscape -- an effort that will resume in September when Congress returns from its summer recess.

They say the nation's statutes once again must catch up to another generation of technology -- high-definition TV, satellite radio, video downloads and Internet phone calls -- just as they did a decade ago, when the Web, e-mail and digital music gained widespread popularity.

Lawmakers could decide this year whether millions of Americans get TV piped through their phone lines and high-speed Internet access extended to their neighborhoods, how long Internet service providers retain Web-surfing records and how easy it will be to record programs broadcast over high-definition TV.

One of the leading gatekeepers for technology legislation, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, has been lampooned on TV and tech blogs after recently describing the Internet as "a series of tubes." The lack of high-tech understanding is so pervasive on Capitol Hill that Vint Cerf, a Google Inc. executive known as a father of the Internet, is considering creating a comic book to show lawmakers how the global network operates.

The last flurry of high-tech legislation was in the mid- to late 1990s. Many industry observers believe that Congress made mistakes, the biggest of which were in a major overhaul of telecommunications law that was supposed to increase telephone competition but instead led to more mergers.

A convergence of events has made this year a hectic year for technology policy, but the biggest factor is the first major telecommunications legislation in a decade, which would make it easier for phone companies to offer television over their networks.

The fight over House and Senate telecom bills has sparked an estimated $1 million a day in lobbying and advertising by companies and advocacy groups. Urged on by politically powerful phone companies, congressional leaders have been pushing the legislation. Recognizing the momentum, advocates for a variety of technology issues -- including a new Internet tax moratorium and anti-piracy measures -- are trying to tack on amendments.

But fear of unintended consequences and difficulties grasping the highly technical issues are making some in Congress hesitant to support technology legislation.

For example, Google, Amazon.com Inc. and other major Internet companies have led a push for strong regulations to prevent phone and cable companies from charging fees for higher-speed delivery of video and other data-heavy online content. The issue, known as "network neutrality," has been one of the major technology battles in Congress this year.

But legislation to enact those regulations failed to pass the House and a key Senate committee in recent weeks after many lawmakers said the issue hadn't been adequately explained to them.

Phone and cable companies, which oppose any new regulations governing whether they can charge for prioritizing content, have seized on that confusion. They've warned lawmakers not to act on a vaguely defined potential problem because it could have those dreaded "unintended consequences."

Those arguments carry weight among lawmakers trying to be careful about intervening in the technology marketplace, said Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, who is chairman of a House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

But the debate has frustrated Internet executives.

"To our industry and our customers, very important issues are being decided today in Congress," said Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president of global public policy. "Much of the concern is decisions might be made without a complete understanding of the facts."

The hearing last month on social networking sites demonstrates how difficult it can be for Congress to tackle technology questions.

Alarmed by reports of pedophiles surfing for young victims on MySpace.com and similar sites, Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, proposed a law to prohibit anyone under 18 from accessing them at schools or libraries receiving federal Internet-access subsidies. Concern about online predators has led to calls for legislation requiring Internet service providers to maintain online records longer to help law enforcement.

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