Congress adjourns, tech bills remain unfinished

When the U.S. Congress adjourned in the early morning hours Saturday, it left a number of technology-related bills unfinished, including two bills addressing fraudulent access to personal telephone records.

Despite pressure from members of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, the full House failed to act on the Prevention of Fraudulent Access to Phone Records Act. The law would have allowed the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to seek civil penalties against businesses that obtain personal data under false pretenses.

The committee has been looking into privacy concerns related to so-called pretexting since early this year, but the issue came to a head last month, when Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) revealed it had used questionable investigative techniques in the surveillance of board members, employees and reporters. With pretexting, private investigators or identity thieves pretend to be customers of mobile phone carriers or other companies in order to gain access to personal records such as call logs.

Congress still has more time to act on the pretexting legislation or six related bills this year, however. After a month-plus break allowing lawmakers to focus on the Nov. 7 election, Congress will return for a lame-duck session Nov. 9.

Democrats last week complained that the House Republican leadership had held up the pretexting legislation, but Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and Energy and Commerce chairman, said he’d continue to push for the legislation.

Congress also failed to pass a wide-ranging broadband bill that would replace local franchise rules with a national system for telecom providers launching Internet Protocol-based television services in competition with cable TV. And although U.S. President George Bush called on Congress to pass legislation authorizing a controversial National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program, two bills making it easier for the government to conduct surveillance without court-ordered warrants also stalled.

One piece of Internet-related legislation did pass early Saturday. The Senate passed a bill providing money for seaport security, and added to the bill was a provision prohibiting U.S. banks and credit-card companies from processing payments to online gambling sites. A group of professional poker players had asked Congress to reject the bill, but a group of House Republicans pushed for the legislation, saying offshore gambling sites were breaking U.S. gambling-control laws.

Bush had called for legislation to authorize the NSA program, which has listened in on the electronic communications of U.S. residents without court-ordered warrants, as a way to head off multiple lawsuits targeting the program. He has argued the program is necessary to help keep U.S. residents safe from terrorism.

The House passed one surveillance bill Thursday, but the Senate failed to act. The House bill would allow federal law enforcement officials to spy on U.S. residents for up to 90 days without a court order in the period after a terrorist attack.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a civil liberties and privacy advocacy group, said it was happy to see the surveillance and broadband bills stall.

Republicans supporting the surveillance bill were pushing it as a way to show they were focused on national security during the last weeks of the congressional campaign, said Nancy Libin, a staff counsel at CDT. “Now that they’ve gone home, I’m not sure what kind of priority it will be when they come back,” she said.

Several civil liberties groups had opposed the broadband bill as it lacked protections for so-called net neutrality. Net neutrality advocates want a law that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing service to Web sites offering competing content, and they have successfully halted the Senate version of the broadband bill, despite heavy lobbying from large broadband providers.

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