Congress' IT Agenda Tackles Privacy, Visas

Congress reconvenes this week prepared to consider a host of information technology-related issues. It's a potential legislative minefield for many companies, especially where online privacy issues are concerned.

But Congress may also provide relief for companies seeking increases in the H-1B visa cap. Final approval for digital signature legislation is also possible.

Online privacy will probably be the top issue. A number of bills to protect consumers will be considered, such as one introduced by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that would require Web sites to give consumers the right to opt out of having information collected about them or shared with third parties.

Such government regulations could force companies to alter their Web sites and the back-end systems that are tied to them.

"Americans are fanatical about privacy. It's up there with God, in some respects," said John Palafoutas, vice president of the American Electronics Association in Washington.

"If companies want to avoid bad legislation, they are going to have to self-regulate," said Palafoutas. "The members, especially in an election year, are not going to take a whole lot of heat on the issue."

Richard Laner, information systems manager at Miners Colfax Medical Center in Ratone, N.M., said the government should generally avoid regulation. "The intentions are sometimes good, but when you start regulating everything, it starts getting too complicated," he said.

Opportunities Abroad

A major effort will also be made to increase the current H-1B annual visa program cap from 115,000 to 200,000 visas. U.S. companies have used this program to hire skilled technology workers from foreign countries.

Industry trade associations and the White House also intend to lobby to lift trade restrictions against China. Such a move would lead to the reduction of tariffs on high-tech goods while expanding the market for China's exports.

"China has a lot of faults, [and] China has a lot of problems, but it is also the world's largest country," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. "If United States companies can't fully engage in opportunities in the Chinese marketplace, then our competitors will."

Meadville, Pa.-based Seco/ Warwick Corp., which sells industrial furnaces, has an office in China. Tom Holland, information systems manager at Seco/Warwick, said that while the trade restrictions haven't affected the company's products, they should be lifted.

"China and the whole Asian market, we feel, is just waiting to be tapped," he said.

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