As it moves toward adjournment, Congress finds itself in the place it least likes to be: in the middle of a stormy, complex dispute between two financially well-heeled corporate interest groups.
On one side are Internet companies such as America Online (AOL), which are furious about a provision in a pending bill that specifically denies them the same blanket rights as cable television operators to retransmit movies, sporting events and other entertainment over their medium.
On the other side are Hollywood studios, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, cable operators, broadcasters, music companies and others who want to restrain the Internet providers until rules for their use of copyrighted material can be worked out.
The disagreement also has split senior Republicans. House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) charged last week that he had been blindsided by the provision, which was attached to a major bill setting rules for satellite television operators.
The complex technical and legal issues seem unlikely to lend themselves to a quick resolution in a forum dominated by lobbyists and lawyers. But as the worlds of computers, television and cable converge, the clash seems to some a taste of high-tech battles Congress will have to arbitrate in the next century.
Starting in 1976, Congress compelled owners of programming (such as sporting events, soap operas and movies) to let cable systems simultaneously retransmit broadcast signals containing copyrighted material to their local subscribers--provided the cable companies paid a royalty and complied with certain blackout rules.
Some online companies already are using cable lines into homes and offices to provide high-speed Internet service. Cable and entertainment companies fear that the online providers will claim the same blanket rebroadcast rights as traditional cable companies.
But a senior House official who has dealt with the issue said last week that the Internet is a "different animal" from a local cable system.
In dealing with this difference, Congress is confronting the unregulated nature of the Internet. The senior official said he expects Internet companies eventually will win the same rebroadcast rights as cable systems--but only after rules have been worked out between government and the industry.
"The scope and reach of online services is neither local nor limited in any meaningful way," wrote a coalition of Hollywood studios, sports leagues, songwriters and cable systems in a letter to members of Congress this week. "A digital transmission can be downloaded, copied and redisseminated without limit, online or offline, and with the millionth copy as perfect as the first."
Whether Internet companies also will be allowed to demand licenses from television programmers will be crucial in determining whether true "convergence" of various technologies occurs.
Computer companies envision a world where people will be able to do all the things they now do via phone, television, the Net and even their stereo systems through one device. Cable companies and others fear they will become obsolete in that scenario.
While data transmission rates are still too sluggish to make television broadcasts via the Internet practical, dozens of telecommunications companies have invested millions of dollars to position themselves to be able to do this in the future. Dulles-based America Online Inc. recently announced a partnership with Blockbuster Inc. that the companies hope will one day allow customers to purchase pay-per-view movies via the Internet. Next year AOL will launch AOL TV, which will allow users to time-shift shows to create their own lineups--creating a customer base for a future Web-based TV, industry analysts say.
Complex as the issues are, old-fashioned politics seems certain to have a hand in the outcome.
When Internet companies got word of the provision last week, they sought help from Bliley. On Wednesday he fired off a letter to Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that helped draft the bill, warning that the provision could "unfairly discriminate against online providers."
A Bliley spokesman complained that the Internet companies had not been allowed to make their case, and said "this hasty judgment could have a detrimental effect on the development of Internet and broadband services."
Nonetheless, the House passed the final House-Senate compromise version of the bill, and Coble picked up key backing for restraining the Internet companies.
U.S. Register of Copyrights Marybeth Peters commended Coble for the bill and said the Internet companies' claim that they might be entitled to the same blanket rebroadcast rights as cable operators was "without merit."
The ball is now in the Senate's court.
Staff writer Ariana Eunjung Cha contributed to this report.