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Economy Trumps Technology on U.S. Lawmakers’ Agenda, Group Says

The economy and upcoming elections may distract Congress from legislation to protect consumer privacy, promote innovation and maintain the Internet’s openness, a technology-policy group said.

“There’s going to be a laser-like focus on the economy and certainly on the Republican primary, and both are going to cast a fairly large shadow over the agenda this fall, but it’s not the whole story,” Leslie Harris, president of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, said today during a call with reporters.

The attention those issues are getting means the technology agenda, which includes cybersecurity, copyright, and privacy bills “has received only sporadic attention,” she said. The inaction has negative “implications for technology innovation, for the privacy and free-expression rights of Internet users and ultimately for the Internet’s openness,” said Harris, whose group promotes civil liberties online.

On cybersecurity, most lawmakers can’t say when comprehensive legislation will be introduced, Greg Nojeim, senior counsel for CDT, said during the call. The “best guess” is that there won’t be a bill in September, and October would be “ambitious,” he said.

As a task force in the House and bipartisan working groups in the Senate work on cybersecurity bills, a central question is whether any measure that emerges would allow a “government authority to shut down or limit Internet traffic” over systems that operate critical infrastructure, Nojeim said.

Protect IP Act

House legislation to bolster intellectual property protections is expected soon, David Sohn, CDT’s senior policy counsel, said during the call. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure called the Protect IP Act, which targets websites that sell illegally copied music, movies, pharmaceuticals and consumer products.

The Senate measure would allow the U.S. attorney general to seek court orders requiring U.S.-based Internet-service providers to block access to infringing sites. CDT sent a letter objecting to the bill during the Senate markup.

Ordering Internet service providers to block access to infringing sites may lead other nations to take actions that “hinder online freedom of expression,” according to the letter that CDT and 12 other groups sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.

Congress will also consider online privacy measures including legislation aimed at limiting law enforcement access to consumers’ e-mail and location-based information gathered on mobile devices, Nojeim said.

Debate over whether privacy legislation should include restrictions on how companies collect, keep and use Internet users’ information will continue, said Justin Brookman, director of the CDT’s consumer privacy project.

“The Googles and the Apples of the world have done a pretty good job,” informing people when they collect information, Brookman said. The concern is over where that information goes later, he said.

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