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Republican gains in Congress would have limited impact on big tech issues

Grant Gross | Oct. 31, 2014
Anticipated Republican gains in the U.S. Congress after next Tuesday's election have limited implications for tech-related issues like net neutrality and reform of National Security Agency surveillance programs, with some observers expecting no huge changes.

NSA reform isn't a partisan issue, with liberal Democrats joining with Tea Party and libertarian-leaning Republicans to push for major changes in surveillance programs. Lawmakers are likely to push for a vote on the USA Freedom Act in a lame-duck session of the current Congress, following Tuesday's elections.

Some of the loudest voices against sweeping reform have come from Republicans, including Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan. But Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced earlier this year he's leaving Congress to become a radio talk show host.

On the other side, the Senate may lose one of its loudest voices for surveillance reform. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, faces a tough re-election fight.

Still, Republican gains in Congress could come from the Tea Party and libertarian wings of the party, with many new lawmakers generally skeptical of government surveillance programs.

"I think this is actually an opportunity for the Republican party in a big way," said Chris Calabrese, senior policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a digital rights group that supports surveillance reform. Republicans, by passing surveillance reform, can "put their stamp on privacy and become the libertarian privacy party that core parts of the Republican party would like it to become."

CDT and several other tech groups would also like to see Congress update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to give more privacy protections for stored electronic communications. The Email Privacy Act, an ECPA reform bill introduced in the House last year, had 270 cosponsors, more than half of all House members, but failed to move forward.

Tech groups have been pushing for ECPA reform since early 2010, but Congress has failed to pass legislation.

Online privacy

Some of the loudest voices calling for regulations to protect the privacy of Internet users and limit the amount information that online services can collect have been Democrats, including Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia. A Republican Senate majority, with a new committee chairman, would be less inclined to pass new privacy regulations.

Some Internet companies argue legislation isn't needed because they are responding quickly to privacy concerns. Privacy advocates have disagreed, saying too many online services continue to experiment with new data collection methods without considering consumer privacy.

"It's such a fast-moving industry," said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the trade group the Internet Association. "It's incumbent upon the companies to ensure privacy policies are responsive to the users and that's happening on a daily basis."

Cybersecurity

Again, Republicans may be less inclined to create new cybersecurity regulations, although Rogers and other Republicans have sponsored controversial bills that would allow U.S. companies to more easily share cyberthreat information with each other and with government agencies.

 

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