Net Bills Lead Hefty Agenda

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Washington-As the debate over Internet taxation rages in Congress, several other Internet-related bills are picking up steam this year, including measures to expand electronic-commerce transactions and to protect information databases.

As Congress decides whether e-commerce transactions should be taxed, a panel of House and Senate lawmakers will meet this spring to iron out differences in a plan that could expand Internet sales traffic exponentially.

The digital-signatures plan, which passed the House and Senate last year, would allow consumers to receive product warranties, bank notices and legal records via the Internet and to conduct other official transactions online.

"It gives electronic signatures the same weight as written contracts, but only if consumers so choose," said House Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), who unveiled the bill in the House. Lawmakers plan to meet this year to discuss key differences in the House and Senate versions.

While the Bliley bill allows consumer records to be available online, the Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), would be narrower.

Congressional aides said support on the Senate side is building to include record availability in the final bill.

While the digital-signatures plan will likely pass this year, other bills on the Internet agenda may have more trouble. Two bills that would make it a crime to steal information from online databases are now vying for consideration in the House.

The House Commerce and Judiciary committees approved competing plans sponsored by Reps. Bliley and Howard Coble (R-N.C.) last year. The Coble plan-backed by the publishing and real estate industries-would create criminal penalties for copyright violations and allow database producers to seek civil damages for losses.

"Our version has real teeth in it when it comes to the punishment," Coble aide Ed McDonald said. "There's a real disincentive for people to steal if our version becomes law."

But a coalition of Internet companies and financial industries rallied behind the Bliley version, which contains user-access guarantees for news, sports and technology-information databases.

"We feel that our bill balances the need to provide copyright protection to database publishing, while at the same time making sure we don't lock up facts over the Internet," Bliley spokeswoman Christina Gungoll said.

However, before either bill can reach the House floor, Majority Leader Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas) said, Bliley and Coble must reach a compromise.

There is no database legislation currently pending in the Senate, and some aides suggested that there was little interest in joining the fray that has engulfed the two House committees.

"Quite frankly, you've got two 100-pound gorillas on either side of the debate," Abraham aide Cesar Conda said, referring to the dispute between the Internet and real estate industries. "You've got two industries that are natural allies with Republicans, so it's a tough issue."

Although conventional wisdom may have pronounced database protection dead in the water, other privacy legislation is filling the Internet agenda into the spring.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) plans to introduce comprehensive anti-piracy legislation this year that will create federal penalties for hackers who attack online servers.