Technology

Ernest F. Hollings: Cyber-Legislator


Position: U.S. Senator

Contribution: As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he's in the thick of writing laws to foster e-commerce

Challenge: Cutting legislative deals that benefit consumers and put the telecom industry back on its feet

At 80 years of age, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) may be four times older than the most Netizens. But when it comes to policy issues facing the Web, the silver-haired lawmaker is on the cutting edge. Frustrated by the slow adoption of broadband services and e-business, Hollings has been grappling with ways to get more consumers interested in the new technologies.

"That's what is really needed for a modernized industrialized nation like the U.S.," says Hollings in his distinctive South Carolinian drawl. "I'm trying to see how we can get the telecom industry off its back and on its feet again."

The chairman works in ways sometimes mysterious to the world outside the Beltway. Hollings' likes the sledgehammer approach, introducing proposals that grab the attention of interested companies and business -- often making them howl in protest. Then he tries to prod them toward solutions they might not have adopted otherwise.

HOLLYWOOD'S BIDDING? Case in point: Last March he introduced the Consumer Broadband & Digital Television Promotion Act, in which he threatened to mandate a digital copyright-protection standard written in Washington if Silicon Valley and Hollywood can't agree on one of their own within a year. The goal is to get film, TV, and record studios to overcome their reluctance to put their products online for fear of widespread illegal copying via the Web.

The proposal, however, provoked the wrath of technology companies, which saw Hollings as doing the bidding of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. But he figures consumers will benefit if they can download high-quality movies and music using broadband technology.

Likewise, a Hollings bill introduced in 2001 would help keep broadband prices down by increasing penalties on Bell companies that fail to comply with measures to open the digital subscriber line (DSL) market to competitors. "We've had a persistent intramural fight with the Bell companies," he notes wryly. For years, Hollings has been sparring with his House counterpart, Representative "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), who's widely regarded as a friend to the Bells.

OFF-LIMITS INFO. This year, Hollings introduced legislation to encourage the building of broadband facilities in hard-to-reach rural areas via government loans and grants, and he's considering further legislation to foster high-speed connections. The senator also wants e-businesses to step up privacy protections for Web users and shoppers. In April, he offered a bill that bars companies from getting sensitive personal information, such as Social Security numbers, medical and financial data, and ethnic identity and religious affiliations, without consent. Consumers could sue in court if those rules are violated.

Hollings doesn't always get his way, but this octogenerian is always in the thick of the fight. He's one lawmaker to keep an eye on. By Cathy Yang in Washington


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