WASHINGTON — Halfway through a recent House hearing on MySpace and other online social networks, lawmakers had to switch gears to deal with another technology issue: a vote on Internet gambling.
But Congress isn't exactly a haven for the tech-savvy. The alert to rush to the House floor was delivered in low-tech fashion -- by dated pagers clipped to members' belts and clanging bells that made the halls of Capitol Hill echo like a 1950s high school.
Almost daily when Congress is in session, lawmakers are struggling to comprehend new technology and the government's role in shaping its future. In the biggest spurt of legislative activity since the dot-com boom, advocacy groups and businesses are seeking new laws to shape the fast-evolving digital landscape. The effort will resume in September, when Congress returns from its summer recess.
They say the nation's statutes once again must catch up to another generation of technology -- high-definition TV, satellite radio, video downloads and Internet phone calls -- just as they did a decade ago, when the World Wide Web, e-mail and digital music gained wide popularity.
Lawmakers this year could decide whether millions of Americans get TV piped through their phone lines and high-speed Internet access extended to their neighborhoods, how long Internet service providers retain Web-surfing records and how easy it will be to record programs broadcast over high-definition TV.
The task is all the more difficult because few in Congress understand what those engineers in Silicon Valley actually do.
One of the leading gatekeepers for technology legislation, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), has been lampooned on TV and tech blogs after recently describing the Internet as "a series of tubes." The lack of high-tech understanding is so pervasive on Capitol Hill that Vint Cerf, a Google Inc. executive known as a father of the Internet, is considering creating a comic book to show lawmakers how the global network operates.
The last flurry of high-tech legislation occurred in the mid- to late 1990s. Many industry observers believe Congress made mistakes, the biggest of which were in an overhaul of telecommunications law that was supposed to increase competition but instead led to more mergers.
Some say it's time to fix the errors. Others warn that new laws could cause another round of unanticipated problems as lawmakers attempt the always-tricky task of predicting where technology is headed.
"It's hard to forecast the future," said E. Floyd Kvamme, a longtime Silicon Valley venture capitalist and a technology advisor to President Bush. It's dangerous, he said, to assume "certain things are going to happen or not happen."
A convergence of events has made 2006 a hectic year for technology policy.
The controversy over domestic spying and the disappearance of a laptop computer containing the personal information of 26.5 million military veterans has sharply increased interest in electronic privacy and data security legislation. Bush's initiative to increase U.S. competitiveness has led to bills to increase high-tech research funding and tax credits.
The dramatic growth and popularity of social networking sites has spurred a new round of proposals to deter online sexual predators. And Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are looking to reallocate large amounts of radio-wave spectrum, which companies covet for new wireless devices, because of the 2009 deadline set earlier this year for the conversion to digital TV.
Then there's the biggest factor: the first major telecommunications legislation in a decade, which would make it easier for phone companies to offer television over their networks.
The fight over House and Senate telecom bills has sparked an estimated $1 million a day in lobbying and advertising by companies and advocacy groups. Urged on by politically powerful phone companies, Congressional leaders have been actively pushing the legislation. Recognizing the momentum, advocates for a variety of technology issues -- including a new Internet tax moratorium and anti-piracy measures -- are trying to tack on amendments.
But fear of unintended consequences and difficulties grasping the highly technical issues are making some in Congress hesitant to support technology legislation.
For example, Google, Amazon.com Inc. and other major Internet companies have led a push for strong regulations to prevent phone and cable companies from charging fees for higher-speed delivery of video and other data-heavy online content. The issue, known as "network neutrality," has been one of the major technology battles in Congress this year.
But legislation to enact those regulations failed to pass the House and a key Senate committee in recent weeks after many lawmakers said the issue hadn't been adequately explained.