Wild Web Hears Hoofbeats of Lawmakers
Kelly Hearn,, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …