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House Approves Spyware Bills

2 Measures Establishing Penalties Await Senate Action

By David McGuire
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page E05

Two bills designed to curb the proliferation of Internet spyware won overwhelming approval from the House of Representatives this week, but supporters said the measures face a tough race against the clock to get Senate approval before Congress disperses for the November elections.

The House yesterday voted 415 to 0 on a bill that would send some spyware users to jail for up to five years. On Tuesday, the House approved another bill in a 399 to 1 vote that would fine people and companies every time they install spyware on computers without permission.

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Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who sponsored the latter bill, said he will call on senators for their support.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the senior minority member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said lawmakers are eager to get a bill to the White House. "Spyware is a growing problem and has become more than just a nuisance," Dingell said. "This type of activity threatens not only consumer privacy, but it threatens legitimate electronic commerce as well."

Spyware is the general term for hundreds of computer programs designed to surreptitiously install themselves on computers. Some of the more benign programs, often called "adware," track a user's online travels to decide which advertising should be served up on certain Web pages. Other more dangerous programs can secretly record what computer users type, allowing others to obtain credit card numbers, user names, passwords and other private information.

Some spyware programs already violate existing laws, such as those governing identity theft and fraud, but Barton said many practices will remain legal until legislation banning them is passed.

One obstacle facing the bills is competing legislation sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications. Burns's bill also would forbid people from installing programs on others' computers without knowledge and consent, but it contains other details.

The main obstacle to reconciling the differences is time. Lawmakers are scheduled to go home today so they can focus on campaigning for the November elections. They are expected to come back for a brief session after Election Day.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, has expressed concern that a poorly written bill could inadvertently target legitimate technology used to remotely update common software, such as Windows XP and many security programs.

"This still isn't ready for prime time yet," he said. "You don't just pass something because Congress has an artificial deadline of going home this Friday or Saturday."

The Business Software Alliance, which represents Microsoft and many other large software makers, had raised similar concerns about the legislation but dropped its opposition after House supporters added language designed to protect legitimate software makers.

McGuire is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com.

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