Vermont Sen. James Jeffords exit from the Republican Party will dramatically affect the debate on key Internet issues such as privacy, e-commerce taxation and telecom deregulation.
With Democrats now controlling the Senate, Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., again takes the chairmanship of the powerful Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Hollings is a foe of the regional Bell companies and one of the most vigorous advocates of stringent privacy policies in Congress. And the Internet-savvy Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who now commands the Judiciary Committee, is a strong privacy and antitrust advocate.
"From a civil libertarian or a pro-Internet point of view, this change is a plus," said Jerry Berman, executive director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a cyberspace civil liberties group.
Senate committee chairs wield vast power. They choose the legislative issues that are debated in their panels, they can block the nominations of presidential appointees and they can launch investigations of political opponents.
Berman, who has long slogged through Capitol Hill tech policy battles, said he calls Leahy "Mr. Internet" because of his grasp of interactive technologies and their implications for public policy. Where former Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, often sided with law enforcement in debates about government snooping, Leahy is a "stronger pro-privacy advocate, when it comes to balancing law enforcement and privacy," Berman said.
Hatch and Leahy hold roughly similar views on antitrust — favoring strong antitrust oversight — and on intellectual property: Both are considered friends of the Internet at the expense of established industries like the recording industry.
Berman also predicted that Hollings would "give the pro-legislation position maybe a little more juice" and pursue privacy legislation "from the left of the debate."
Conservative technology policy partisans are particularly alarmed about Hollings.
"We would see that [privacy] train rolling down the track even quicker with Hollings," said Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. With regard to telecommunications policy, "it would be back to the future, pre-1994, all over again."
Hollings chaired the Commerce Committee when the Democrats last controlled the Senate, in 1994.
Hollings revels in trying to impose regulations on the regional Bells, Thierer said. In 1994, he almost passed a sweeping bill that would have placed the incumbent carriers under a rigorous regulatory regime.
Thierer also said Hollings is more amenable to Internet tax proposals like the one offered by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., than was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who during his campaign for the presidency railed against e-commerce sales taxes.
"The dynamics of the Internet tax debate could change dramatically and overnight," he said.