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5 Tech Policy Issues to Watch in 2014

From phone-tracking devices to giving kids the ability to delete online posts, here are a few pieces of technology legislation you should keep an eye on next year.

As technology continues to permeate everyday lives, it naturally has wormed its way into many topics considered by state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. A plethora of bills steeped in complex tech issues landed on the desks of lawmakers in 2013 -- a trend that should continue next year. Government Technology has identified five proposals of note that public-sector technologists should keep tabs on as the calendar flips to 2014.

Right to Remove Online Posts

New Jersey is considering legislation that enables children to remove online posts from social media and discussion forums. Introduced by Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, S0318 requires website and online application operators to make sure minors can delete posts they’ve come to regret or be embarrassed by. In addition, the bill prevents websites from targeting minors for certain advertising.

California Gov. Edmund G. Brown signed similar legislation for the Golden State in September, but critics aren’t sure how New Jersey’s bill would work. In addition, the New Jersey Star-Ledger pointed out that the bill doesn’t contain any penalties for companies that violate the bill.

“There is a real mess here,” Eric Bernstein, a New Jersey attorney that specializes in Internet law, told the Star-Ledger. “It’s going to be overly broad and very difficult to enforce.”

The bill also may be unnecessary. Many social media platforms and discussion forums already have functions that enable people to delete their posts. And the advertising aspect of S0318 may encounter First Amendment problems.

In an email to Government Technology, Turner said there had been little movement on the bill since it was introduced. She admitted S0318 was "not perfect," but believes it can help initiate broader discussion regarding protecting children using the Internet and social media.

"We need to figure out how best to protect our children from spur of the moment judgments that can harm them immediately and later in life," Turner wrote. "Additionally, with the Internet being so readily accessible to children, parents have a harder time monitoring the information to which their children are exposed.  We need to protect children from being exposed to advertisements for harmful products."

"I hope to resolve the issues with the bill as the bill moves through the public vetting process," she added. 

Revamping the Universal Service Fund

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte has introduced a bill to ensure rural states get a better share of federal communications services.

A percentage of the Universal Service Fund – created by the FCC in 1997 to help support telecommunications services in public areas such as libraries and schools, and ensure equitable access to quality communications technology – is distributed back to states using a complex formula. The USF Equitable Distribution Act., S. 1766, would alter the formula and require that a rural state be given back 75 cents for every dollar it contributes to the USF. It would also define a “rural state” as having less than 200 people per square mile.

According to a press release from Ayotte’s office, New Hampshire currently only receives 37 cents on the dollar from USF monies and has approximately 147 people per square mile. The Granite State donated $37.9 million to the USF in 2011, but received only $14.2 million back. New Hampshire ranks 46th out of 50 states when comparing the return on each dollar.

Ayotte feels the USF is “short changing” New Hampshire, allowing other states to better finance modern communications services, and she wants more of that money to flow back into rural states that need it.

Limiting Use of Phone Tracking Devices

A group of Minnesota lawmakers is concerned with how law enforcement agencies are using devices that mimic local phone towers to capture cellular phone data and location information.

Minnesota State Sens. D. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, along with Reps. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul and Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, sent a letter to Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman questioning law enforcement's use of the tracking devices, which are sold under the names “KingFish” and “StingRay.”

The lawmakers noted that public concern over the U.S. government’s use of phone data this year has placed additional scrutiny on the surveillance and data retention practices of state and local law enforcement agencies. Some of the questions included in the letter include asking how much money is spent on cellular exploitation equipment, the capabilities and functions of it, examples of investigations where the equipment was used, and how long data is kept after an investigation has concluded.

Ted York, Dibble’s legislative aid, told Government Technology that legislation to address the issue is “definitely being explored.” He added both the data retention and use of the devices without a warrant are concerns.

The Extinction of Landline Phones

Legislation is rolling through the Michigan Legislature that would amend the Michigan Telecommunications Act to streamline the process companies have to go through to discontinue basic local exchange or toll service. It passed through the Michigan Senate and is now being evaluated by the state’s House of Representatives.

Sponsored by Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, Senate Bill 636 is touted by supporters as something that protects landlines for those that need them, at the same time giving companies the flexibility to transition to a more cellular-based platform of services, or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems. But opponents cite concerns over reliable access to 9-1-1 and emergency services, and a potential hardship for older adults that rely on landlines.

In an interview with Government Technology, Greg Moore, Nof’s legislative director, felt additional changes to the bill’s language would be made in 2014, before being taken up by the House for a vote.

Wisconsin Looking at Rules for License Plate Readers

Wisconsin is considering a bill that would establish clear guidelines on how the data from license plate readers can be used and stored.

The proposal was drafted by state Reps. David Craig, R-Big Bend, Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. The Journal Sentinel reported that the legislation would limit the technology’s use by law enforcement and state agencies to only active criminal investigations of a suspect. The bill also mandates no information can be shared with a third party unless it is a government entity, and all data must be destroyed within 48 hours unless it’s needed for a particular case.

While license plate readers can be helpful to police, privacy advocates are up in arms over the data collected and stored by license plate readers.

For example, the ACLU of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in November over records collected by license plate readers over the last several years.

According to the Journal Sentinel, Craig had plans to alter the bill after getting feedback from local police chiefs and is willing to extend the storage time from the proposed 48 hours. Government Technology called Craig’s office multiple times this month seeking comment on whether those changes were made and the current status of the legislation, but the messages were not returned.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.
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