The grace period has ended.
Until now, the regulatory relationship between Washington and the
Internet was painted in libertarian hues. The idea: Market forces,
not legislatures, should shape the character of the Net.
But this year lawmakers nationwide are sharpening their
regulatory pencils as electronic business and crime explode and as
advocacy groups cry for a World Wide Web made safer for commerce.
State legislators will consider some 2,000 Internet-related
consumer bills while Congress entertains scores of its own. And bill-
introduction deadlines are still open in most states.
Hacking, fraud, the spreading of computer viruses, and other
forms of cybercrime will surely get attention - as will the
resulting complications of jurisdiction.
Here are some other issues to watch:
Privacy. Consumer surveys consistently show that privacy concerns
are the No. 1 impediment to online shopping. So lawmakers are
buffing up to restrict the flow of personal information online.
Eighty-two Internet privacy bills are pending in 24 states as are
some 500 bills that relate in some way to privacy online and
offline, according to Emily Hackett of Internet Alliance
(www.internetalliance.org), a Washington-based trade group.
The Federal Trade Commission, industry groups, and some members
of Congress prefer to let the industry self-regulate. They argue
that Internet time is faster than regulatory time, meaning that
market forces and new technologies such as "anonymizing" software
are faster correctives to privacy problems than regulation.
Others say self-regulation isn't enough. Privacy advocates want
comprehensive laws regulating, say, companies that harvest
information about people's buying habits and sell it to direct
marketers or, worse, to scam artists.
Lawmakers are particularly concerned with children's privacy.
Congress had already passed the Children's online Privacy Protection
Act of 1998, which forbids sites from collecting personal
information about kids without parental approval.
And pending congressional legislation seeks to forbid companies
from selling information about a child under 16 without parental
consent. Other hot topics: access to public records, health and
financial information, and Social Security numbers.
Taxation. Two important events will happen this year: A federal
law imposing a three-year moratorium on new Internet taxes will
expire, and a congressionally mandated commission studying Internet
taxation will issue its findings. …