A passel of high-technology bills that flew through the Senate at Internet speed yesterday will give satellite-television viewers access to local channels, revamp the U.S. patent system and shut down "cybersquatters."
"We hit a high-tech home run," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sponsored three bills that passed yesterday, including the satellite bill, which faced a deadline that would have cut access to many channels for millions of viewers by the end of the year. A 1988 law allowing satellite firms to carry distant signals was set to expire.
Companies such as industry leaders DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. will be able to offer local channels to customers in major cities immediately. "There will be competition," said Karen Watson of EchoStar, who nonetheless said her company worries that the law will allow local broadcasters to charge satellite companies far higher rates for access than those paid by cable companies. "The bill could have been better for consumers and competition."
That bill passed as part of the federal budget package already approved by the House, so it will now go to President Clinton. Leahy said the bill "sets the stage for the first real head-to-head competition between cable and satellite TV."
The patent bill, which has gotten strong support from such groups as the National Association of Manufacturers, is intended to speed up the process of getting patent protection for inventions and litigation in patent disputes. Hatch called the patent bill "the most significant patent reforms in half a decade"; he said it would save inventors $30 million each year in reduced fees and was "one of the most important bills Congress can enact to promote American competitiveness into the next century.
Many small businesses and inventors opposed the patent bill, however, saying it tipped the balance of power in such disputes toward big business. "It's very devastating," said Beverly Selby of the Alliance for American Innovation.
Another piece of legislation rolled into the spending bill is intended to limit "cybersquatting," the practice of poaching popular trademark names for Web sites (and names that sound like those trademarked names) in order to sell them to the rightful owners. Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) has called cybersquatting "online extortion," and said his bill will protect consumers.
That bill, too, has its detractors. Shari Steele of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a high-tech civil liberties group, said that since an international organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, was formed with the help of the U.S. Commerce Department to resolve such disputes globally, "I don't think the Senate should be acting on this at all."
Steele said that the bill gives "way too much power to trademark owners to the detriment of people who have legal rights to have these domains--and there are real free speech implications of that."
The Senate passed a second Abraham-sponsored bill on electronic commerce intended to give electronic contracts and documents the same legal standing as documents signed using pen and ink. Since a different version of that bill has passed the House, the two laws will have to be reconciled in conference committee next year.
The Senate passed another bill to ban Internet gambling. Sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the bill makes exceptions for state-run lotteries and fantasy sports leagues. The matter will also have to be taken up when Congress returns after the holidays.