Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening will announce today the state's first comprehensive plan to regulate Internet activity, as he details a set of bills aimed at encouraging electronic commerce and expanding online governmental services such as those offered by the Motor Vehicle Administration.
The package, jointly sponsored by the state's House and Senate leaders, includes proposals to combat software piracy and protect the privacy of consumer information stored on state databases. The General Assembly also will consider a new court system to oversee legal disputes related to the Internet and technology.
The initiatives come during a session when lawmakers are confronted with a host of new issues related to the digital revolution, not the least of which is using the new laptop computers available at their desks.
Industry groups say some of the proposals have been considered in other states but that Maryland is the first to put together a comprehensive package of legislation that tries to deal with the legal and economic concerns of the information age.
"It has practical and symbolic import. They're sending a signal that Maryland 'gets' the Internet," said Jeff Richards, executive director of the Internet Alliance, a trade group. "Maryland is showing it's serious about making itself attractive to Internet capital and Internet consumers."
The legislation is backed by Glendening, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), which means it should sail through the legislature with little controversy.
"This is probably the most important thing we can do this session," Miller said. "Information technology accounts for one-third of the national economy."
The bills would set up the legal means to conduct business and sign contracts over the Internet, giving legal recognition to electronic signatures. With e-commerce recognizing no geographic or political boundaries, the legislation also would adopt a standardized law governing Internet transactions, which has been sought by the software industry. So far this year, only Virginia and Delaware are considering similar legislation.
Virginia adopted seven measures last year to begin regulating the Internet. The measures included a bill creating a $500 civil penalty for sending unwanted bulk e-mail, known as "spam"; the formal creation of a state secretary of technology; the extension of state privacy protection of Internet users; and an increase in penalties for those who spread computer viruses.
In Maryland, the new laws also would ban unsolicited mass mailings and would add Internet communications to the state's wiretapping law to prevent unauthorized access to computers and the interception of computer communications. It would expand child pornography laws to include Internet usage, which now is prosecuted primarily as a federal crime.
A pilot program at the University of Maryland at College Park would look for ways to have state agencies and schools buy equipment and hire services online.
Glendening also wants executives from high-tech companies to serve on an advisory board that would report to state government on the rapidly changing needs of the industry. The state has set a goal of having half of its services online by 2002, 65 percent by 2003 and 80 percent by 2004.
In addition to the myriad companies doing business with the state on everything from selling pencils to road asphalt, the new on-line access soon would include Motor Vehicle Administration transactions such as license renewals and car registrations.
While some professional licensing is already online--about 80 percent of Maryland's real estate agents renew their licenses over the Internet, for example--Glendening also wants to expand that to any other profession licensed by the state.
The new legislation would require state agencies to post their privacy policies on their Web sites, letting citizens know that the state intends only to collect relevant data, explaining why some information is collected and promising to hold the information securely. Industry experts said no state yet has taken that step, one that should help reassure Internet users.
Glendening said he would sign an executive order to ensure that all state computers have authorized versions of software programs and that the legislation would crack down on software piracy. President Clinton signed a similar executive order for the federal government in 1997; only two states, Nevada and California, have followed suit.
Most software copyright violations are from businesses not purchasing enough copies of their software and then illegally copying more programs. The Business Software Alliance said that during the past six years it has reached settlements totaling $1.2 million with Maryland businesses using unauthorized software, the 11th-worst state in the nation for piracy.
The package comes at the same time the legislature will consider a proposal by Taylor to establish a technology business division within the state court system. He said he hopes the new court would attract businesses to Maryland just as Delaware once attracted business by establishing state laws governing corporate charters.
"We can carve a national niche that is going to give protections to this new technological world that they're probably not going to find in other states," the speaker said.