January 9, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Congress off to slow start with tech

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Stevens didn't stop there, packaging his reincarnation of DOPA with another failed proposal that would require all sexually explicit sites to be labeled as such, according to a copy of the bill obtained by CNET News.com. Although it has encountered opposition from civil libertarians, the idea gained bipartisan support within Congress, passing unanimously as an amendment to a massive communications bill that ultimately died.

Backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the bill would slap prison time on commercial Web site operators who fail to embed "marks or notices" on each page of their site that contains material deemed to be sexually explicit. In the past, courts have interpreted this as meaning everything from pornography to fully covered genitals.

E-snooping: Politicians last year engaged in heated debates over whether it was necessary to make adjustments to a 1978 law, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that governs electronic surveillance. In short, it requires a court order for eavesdropping on communications in which at least one end is inside the United States--a step that President Bush has admitted to skipping before authorizing the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program.

The NSA Oversight Act, introduced on Thursday by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), would affirm that FISA is the sole authority for doing electronic wiretaps. It also proposes hiring more judges to weigh in on warrant applications, allowing warrant applicants to submit less detailed descriptions of the planned surveillance, extending from 72 hours to 168 hours the "emergency" period in which warrantless surveillance can occur, and reporting to Congress on the extent to which warrantless wiretapping is taking place.

Similar provisions crop up in a bill reintroduced last week by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the outgoing Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But civil liberties advocates have faulted that measure for seemingly erasing the need for the government to obtain a warrant before monitoring "foreign-to-foreign" communications, even if Americans are involved in those exchanges.

Protecting phone records: Before adjourning last year, Congress gave last-minute approval to a bill that would criminalize the practice of "pretexting"--that is, using fraudulent tactics to buy, sell or otherwise obtain personal phone records--except when police or spy agencies were involved.

Now Stevens, the Alaska Republican, has revived a proposal designed to give consumers additional tools in fighting the practice. His Protecting Consumer Phone Records Act, introduced Thursday, would allow consumers whose proprietary information had been wrongly obtained to sue the wrongdoer. It would also call for federal regulators to consider imposing stricter rules on telephone and voice over Internet Protocol companies with regard to protecting their subscribers' information.

Easing up on Net, phone taxes: During their first day back on Capitol Hill, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), John Sununu (R-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed a permanent ban on Internet access taxes, while Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) separately proposed repealing the remaining portion of federal excise taxes on local telephone service. McCain and three Republican colleagues also called for a three-year cessation of new "discriminatory" taxes on cell phone bills, saying state and local governments have been charging subscribers rates far higher than the average sales tax.

Offsetting those proposals was a new push by Stevens to require all communications services--whether they be broadband, voice over Internet Protocol or telephone--to pay into a fund subsidizing service in rural areas, schools and libraries. At the moment, the fees fall mostly on telecommunications companies, based on their long-distance revenues. Stevens' more sweeping plan could result in new fees on some users' broadband bills.

Tackling global Internet censorship: Politicians hauled in Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco Systems last year for a daylong lashing about their operations in China, and some threatened to enact new laws aimed at limiting the operations of U.S. companies in so-called "Internet restrictive" countries.

Those measures may have died before further consideration in the last session, but Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, wasted no time in reintroducing his bill from last year, the Global Online Freedom Act, which was previously approved by a House panel.

According to a summary provided by Smith's office, the measure would impose hefty penalties on American businesses that block U.S. government content at other countries' request or turn over identifying information about any users except for "legitimate foreign law enforcement purposes." Companies would also have to submit reports detailing the terms and parameters used in filters installed at the request of designated countries, including China, Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam.

"By blocking access to information and providing secret police with the technology to monitor dissidents," Smith said in a statement Monday, "American IT companies are knowingly--and willingly--enabling the oppression of millions of people."

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