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In information age, Congress struggles to get up to speed

WASHINGTON -- Halfway through a recent House hearing on MySpace and other online social networks, lawmakers had to switch gears to deal with another technology issue -- a vote on Internet gambling.

But Congress isn't exactly a haven for the tech-savvy. The alert to rush to the House floor was delivered in low-tech fashion -- by dated pagers clipped to their belts and clanging bells that made the halls of Capitol Hill echo like a 1950s high school.

Almost daily when Congress is in session, lawmakers are struggling to comprehend new technology and the government's role in shaping its future. In the biggest spurt of legislative activity since the dot-com boom, advocacy groups and businesses are seeking new laws to shape the evolving digital landscape.

They say the nation's statutes once again must catch up to another generation of technology -- high-definition television, satellite radio, video downloads, and Internet phone calls -- just as they did a decade ago, when the World Wide Web, e-mail, and digital music gained widespread popularity.

This year, lawmakers could decide whether millions of Americans get TV through their phone lines and high-speed Internet access extended to their neighborhoods, how long Internet service providers retain Web-surfing records, and how easy it will be to record programs broadcast in high-definition .

The task is made more difficult because few in Congress understand what those engineers actually do in Silicon Valley.

One of the leading gatekeepers for technology legislation, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, has been lampooned on TV and tech blogs after recently describing the Internet as ``a series of tubes." The lack of high-tech understanding is so pervasive on Capitol Hill that Vint Cerf, a Google Inc. executive known as a father of the Internet, is considering creating a comic book to show lawmakers how the global network operates.

The last flurry of high-tech legislation was in the mid to late 1990s. Many industry observers believe Congress made mistakes, the biggest of which were in a major overhaul of telecommunications law that was supposed to increase telephone competition but instead led to more mergers.

Some say it's time to fix the errors. Others warn that new laws could cause another round of unanticipated problems as lawmakers attempt the tricky task of predicting where technology is headed.

A convergence of events has made 2006 a hectic year for technology policy.

The controversy over domestic spying and the disappearance of a laptop containing with the personal information of 26.5 million military veterans has sharply increased interest in electronic privacy and data security legislation. President Bush's initiative to increase US competitiveness has led to bills to increase high-tech research funding and tax credits.

The dramatic growth and popularity of social networking sites has spurred a new round of proposals to deter online sexual predators. And Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are looking to reallocate large amounts of radio-wave spectrum, which companies covet for new wireless devices, because of the 2009 deadline set earlier this year for the conversion to digital television.

Then there's the biggest factor: the first major telecommunications legislation in a decade, which would make it easier for phone companies to offer television over their networks.

The fight over House and Senate telecom bills has sparked an estimated $1 million a day in lobbying and advertising by companies and advocacy groups. Urged on by politically powerful phone companies, congressional leaders have been actively pushing the legislation. Recognizing the momentum, advocates for a variety of technology issues -- including a new Internet tax moratorium and antipiracy measures -- are trying to tack on amendments.

But fear of unintended consequences and difficulties grasping the highly technical issues are making some in Congress hesitant to support technology legislation.

For example, Google, Amazon.com, and other major Internet companies have led a push for strong regulations to prevent phone and cable companies from charging fees for higher-speed delivery of video and other data-heavy online content. The issue, known as ``network neutrality," has been one of the major technology battles in Congress this year.

But legislation to enact those regulations failed to pass the House and a key Senate committee in recent weeks after many lawmakers said the issue hadn't been adequately explained.

Supporters have resorted to analogies -- trucks on highways are a favorite -- to simplify the movement of information online and the risks posed by creating Internet ``toll lanes." But sometimes those explanations have only caused more confusion.

``I'm tired of talking about 18-wheelers," an exasperated Representative Dan Lungren, Republican of California, said at a House hearing last spring. ``I'd like to know what we're talking about."

Phone and cable companies, which oppose any new regulations governing whether they can charge for prioritizing content, have seized on that confusion. They've warned lawmakers not to act on a vaguely defined potential problem because it could have ``unintended consequences."

Those arguments carry weight among lawmakers trying to be careful about intervening in the technology marketplace, said Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, who chairs a House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

``We didn't want to lock in or lock out future players," he said. ``Who knows what's going to come down the pike?"

But the debate has frustrated Internet executives. Paul Misener, an Amazon vice president, said `` decisions might be made without a complete understanding of the facts."

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