U.S. Congress puts technology issues on hold

With a few key technology victories in its wake, the U.S. Congress will soon clear out of Washington D.C. to work on next month’s elections, leaving behind several brewing IT issues.

Among this Congress’ tech-friendly accomplishments is the law U.S. President Bill Clinton signed last week that will increase the number of skilled technical workers allowed into the United States under the H-1B visa program. Earlier this month, Congress and Clinton cleared legislation granting permanent normal trading status to China – a move for which Intel and others heavily lobbied – and passed e-sign (Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act), ushering in the use of digital signatures.

But several high-profile issues have been left sitting on the table until lawmakers return in January. Looming large are questions regarding governmental plans to regulate online privacy protection. Also left unanswered is whether Internet transactions will be taxed.

Tom Austin, vice-president and research fellow at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, predicts the government will certainly weigh in on the latter. “Let me start with a warning: The tax man cometh to the Internet,” Austin said, kicking off the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2000 market researcher’s conference in Orlando, Fla., last week. “Tax-free Internet business is an aberration. It’s going away. Get used to it. Get ready for [taxation],” Austin said.

At the Gartner conference, both Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat running for vice-president, agreed with Austin’s assessment that Internet commerce will eventually be taxed.

Congress will also have to decide which direction it will take, weighing a series of privacy bills now stalled before them. Pressure to move on privacy will be stiff, because industry giants, including HP, America Online, and Walt Disney, have come out in favor of some form of privacy laws.

Groups such as Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), however, have pushed a series of other items on an agenda it wants Congress to pass (see chart, below).

When Congress adjourns, significant IT items will have to wait until 2001.

* Internet tax: Current ban on new taxes expires next year; despite efforts of the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, no political consensus has been reached.

* Internet privacy: Consumers fret over online security, some vendors warm to idea of new laws; several bills pending.

* Tech-training tax break: Bill seeking credits for corporations to build up sagging tech workforce remains stalled.

* Research and development tax credit: Current corporate break lasts only for a five-year period.

* Tech education initiatives: New Millennium Classrooms Act supported by industry would put more technical resources in schools; bill passed Senate.