Needed: IT Laws That Dont Micromanage

IT needs regulations that tell us what to do without dictating the technology for doing it.

As the 108th session of Congress ramps up, legislators have a multitude of opportunities to influence the IT we use. Thirteen bills affecting privacy, free speech and digital liberties are before the House and Senate (according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center at

With so many decisions ahead, lawmakers and lobbyists need to be reminded of what works and what doesnt when setting IT policy. As a rule, a law must outline the desired result and specify penalties for failure to achieve it; a law must not prescribe the use of specific technologies to gain those results.

The 1990s were littered with the detritus of knee-jerk government reactions to IT issues; the Clipper chip and key escrow efforts, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, export controls on encryption, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 head the list of blunders.

More promising efforts, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, mandate requirements but leave the medical profession free to choose an implementation best suited to its needs. This is the right approach.

Were not alone in this view. Earlier this month, a group of software and hardware companies, along with the Recording Industry Association of America, backpedaled on support for government-approved copy restriction tools. Their new policy document states, "Technology and record companies believe that technological protection measures dictated by the government ... are not practical." This is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to Sen. Ernest Hollings proposal last year to ban the sale of electronic gear not equipped with approved copy restriction technology.

We agree that Hollings bill would have been terrible for IT and consumers but disagree that industry and content publishers should be free to set their own technology agenda in a legal vacuum. On the contrary, we need laws such as the Digital Media Consumers Rights Act (HR 107), introduced earlier this month, which aims to preserve fair-use rights of copyrighted material. This bill specifies what must be done without getting bogged down in the technological means of getting it done. Thats the kind of regulation that will help, not hinder, e-business.