Washington Roundup

Last of the Summer Whine

The Congressional season had been scheduled to close on Friday, but a backlog of appropriations bills which have got to be cleared will keep legislators stuck in Washington and off the campaign trail for at least one more week. Appropriations bills typically become a vehicle for passing failed leftovers, the sponsors of which remain unable to get through the seven stages of legislative grief.

The horse-trading sessions are enacted by ranking members and committees of both parties in backroom swap-meets, and take the general form of, 'we're going to block your pet measure if you don't pass ours.' It's at times like these that some of the most abysmal legislation gets on the books, the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) being two shining examples.

IT-related items which might yet pass include a grab-bag of good, bad and ugly legislation:

A bill to make Internet filtering mandatory in public libraries, sponsored by US Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and US Representative Ernst Istook (Republican, Oklahoma).

A bill to criminalize posting Social Security numbers on the Web for commercial purposes without the prior consent of their owners, sponsored by US Senator Judd Gregg (Republican, New Hampshire).

A bill to empower the Feds to open snail-mail without a judge's warrant, thereby harmonising the pen-and-ink snoop standard downwards to the level of e-mail, rather than the other way round, sponsored by US Representative Spencer Bachus (Republican, Alabama).

A bill requiring the Feds to obtain a search warrant before reading e-mail stored on a server, rather than the mere administrative subpoenas normally used, thereby harmonising the e-mail snoop standard upwards to the (now endangered) level of snail-mail, sponsored by US Representative Zoe Lofgren (Democrat, California). We're unsure what will happen if both the Bachus and Lofgren measures should pass, but expect to see US judges tearing their hair out if they do.

A bill to regulate spam by prohibiting the spoofing of its origins and requiring it to contain a valid, return e-mail address to which the recipient may complain (or retaliate), sponsored by US Representative Heather Wilson (Republican, New Mexico).

A bill to arm state prosecutors with federal muscle to fight direct retail alcohol sales, primarily via the Web, sponsored by US Representative Joseph Scarborough (Republican, Florida). Scarborough claims the bill is necessary to prevent greedy retailers from selling alcohol to innocent children over the Wibbly Wobbly, but Zoe Lofgren ridiculed him saying, "if a kid wanted to go out and buy alcohol, they're not going to get on the Internet, pay twenty bucks a bottle for wine... and wait a couple of weeks for it to be delivered to do their drinking. That's not how the real world works."

Quite dead in the water is a bill to create a 17-member federal commission to study privacy issues related to Internet, medical, financial and government databases, sponsored by US Representatives Ara Hutchinson (Republican, Arkansas) and Jim Moran (Democrat, Virginia). The bill had to clear a fast-track hurdle requiring a full majority to stay alive this session, and missed. But it attracted enough votes to pass in 'normal' circumstances, and will likely come up again next session. ®

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