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Congress Faces New High-Tech Challenges

Several bills regarding the Internet may make for debate in Senate and House this week.

As high technology expands more and more into the daily life of the average American, Congress finds itself dealing with a host of new issues involving the technology itself, the companies that create it, and the people who use it.

Advances in electronics and software have lawmakers deciding issues such as unauthorized switching of a customer's long-distance service, protecting children from sexual predators and pornography on the Internet, importing temporary high-tech workers from abroad, and limiting class-action lawsuits by investors in high-tech firms.

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The House could take up an Internet-pornography bill as early as this week, while the Senate, in what majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi has dubbed "high-tech week," may take up the other three proposals. Should they pass, all four will still require action by the other chamber.

Children and the Internet

Parents and police are deeply concerned about a series of cases in which sexual predators have lured and assaulted children they have contacted in "chat rooms" or via e-mail. Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida has introduced a bill that would make it a federal crime to contact a minor over the Internet for the purposes of engaging in illegal sexual activity, or to knowingly transfer obscene materials to a minor over the Internet.

"Parents can no longer assume their children are safe because they're at home and the door is locked. Instead of hanging around playgrounds looking for victims, these 'cyber-predators' are simply logging on to their computers," Representative McCollum says.

The measure also would increase penalties for transporting a minor with the intention of committing a sexual act and authorizes federal authorities to enter kidnapping investigations sooner when a victim is believed to have been taken across state lines.

Slamming ban

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is sponsoring a bill to ban "slamming" - the practice of switching a customer's long-distance service without telling the customer. Last year, according to Senator McCain, more than 20,000 consumers called the FCC to protest the practice.

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"The bill takes a straightforward approach," McCain says. "It prohibits a telephone company from changing a consumer's telephone service unless the company obtains a verbal, written, or electronic verification from the subscriber."

Foreign workers

High-tech companies around the country complain that they are unable to find enough trained workers and want to be able to bring in more temporary employees from overseas. A Virginia Tech study for the Information Technology Association of America estimates that 340,000 information-technology jobs are now vacant. But both Congress's General Accounting Office and the Labor Department question whether a shortage exists.

Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan proposes legislation that would increase the number of temporary high-tech workers admitted yearly to 95,000 from the current 65,000. It would also offer scholarships to low-income students to study mathematics, computer science, or engineering in college.

"American companies today are engaged in fierce competition in global markets," Senator Abraham says. "But companies across America are faced with severe high-skill labor shortages that threaten their competitiveness in this new Information Age economy."

Some opponents of the Abraham bill want to require companies to show that they have not been able to find American workers. They also favor barring companies who have laid off Americans from bringing in foreign workers. A House bill, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, has similar provisions.

Securities lawsuits

In 1995, Congress overrode President Clinton's veto to limit class-action suits alleging securities fraud. The aim was to stop "frivolous" lawsuits against companies whose stock didn't perform as well as the company predicted, even when no fraud was committed. "These abusive lawsuits were literally a multibillion dollar tax imposed on new and innovative companies," says Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas. "They were invariably filed on a class-action basis, where there was no real client. The cost of defense against such litigation was so high that normally the cases ended in large settlements out of court."

At hearings last February, however, senators found that lawyers were circumventing the law by taking such cases to state courts. Thus Senator Gramm and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, joined by 39 co-sponsors, have introduced a bill requiring that any class-action suit involving a nationally traded stock must be filed in federal court. The White House says the president will sign the measure. Other issues that will not come up this week, but are in various stages of consideration, include:

* Banning state and federal taxes on Internet commerce, a move favored by technology advocates but opposed by state governors.

* Examining government's "Year 2000" computer problem, a glitch in which many machines cannot recognize four-digit years in date fields, and will be unable to distinguish between 2000 and 1900.

* Improving copyright protection for digital works, such as software and movies.

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