Congress Races to the Finish Line Amid Shutdown Threat

Orhan Cam/

The Senate passed lots of tech-centric bills and set the stage for next year’s privacy debate.

As the 115th Congress enters its final days, lawmakers are pushing remaining legislative items over the finish line and introducing bills to set the tone for the next session. But with a partial government shutdown looming just ahead of the holidays, that doesn’t mean 2018 is tied up in a bow.

Here’s your rundown:

Privacy Preview

Senate lawmakers this week introduced broad legislation that would make private companies more liable for the consumer data they collect and use.

The Data Care Act, introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and 14 Democratic co-sponsors, would require companies to secure personally identifiable data, inform users when data breaches occur, and prohibit any potentially “harmful” uses of personal information. Companies would also be responsible for enforcing those principles with any third parties they share the data with.

Violators would be subject to fines from the Federal Trade Commission.

“People have a basic expectation that the personal information they provide to websites and apps is well-protected and won’t be used against them,” Schatz said in a statement. “Just as doctors and lawyers are expected to protect and responsibly use the personal data they hold, online companies should be required to do the same.”

The legislation will likely face opposition in the Republican-controlled (read: regulation-averse) Senate, but it could foretell House Democrats’ approach to privacy once they take the majority in January.

Eyes Off the Prize

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., introduced a bill on Wednesday that would strengthen the government’s ability to fight foreigners spying on U.S. companies.

The Deterring Espionage by Foreign Entities through National Defense Act, or DEFEND Act, would increase reparations for victims of trade theft and extend the statute of limitations of the Economic Espionage Act. It would also broaden the scope of the law to include cyber crime and hacking.

The bill comes amid growing outrage over China’s efforts to steal intellectual property and trade secrets from U.S. tech companies.

“As foreign agents develop increasingly sophisticated methods of stealing American intellectual property and trade secrets, we must strengthen the tools Americans can use to respond to this growing threat and take steps to secure our economy,” Harris said in a statement.

Quantum and Broadband and Websites, Oh My!

The Senate this week passed a quintet of bills that would support quantum research, quantify the digital divide, and otherwise promote technology that improves government and citizens’ lives.

Lawmakers passed the 21st Century IDEA Act by unanimous consent on Tuesday, sending the bill to the president’s desk. Introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., the legislation would give federal agencies one year to update existing websites to meet minimum standards for accessibility, security and ease of use. Agencies would also need to explore what in-person and paper-based services can be digitized, though an earlier version explicitly required groups to bring these functions online.

On Thursday, senators unanimously approved the National Quantum Initiative Act, which would direct the White House to roll out a 10-year plan for developing quantum information science and technologies. The bill would also prompt the National Science Foundation and Energy Department to fund basic research into quantum technology, something both organizations are already doing.

Also on Thursday, the Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband Act got a unanimous thumbs up in the upper chamber. The bill would require the Commerce Department to broadly examine the nation’s digital ecosystem, with specific attention paid to the effects of broadband, e-commerce and other digital infrastructure on the overall economy. It now heads to the House.

That same day, Senate and House lawmakers reached an agreement on the Department of Homeland Security Data Framework Act, which would require the agency to tie together it’s various datasets and systems with a consistent data framework. The bill would make it easier for analysts to access and crunch data across the department, which could give them a leg up in spotting potential terrorist threats, sponsor Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. said in a statement.

The Senate also passed Schatz’s AMBER Alert Nationwide Act, which would make AMBER Alert grants available to all U.S. territories. American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Island and U.S. Virgin Island are currently ineligible for funds to support the program, which has helped rescue more than 900 missing and abducted children over the last 15 years.

Furloughed For the Holidays

If Congress and President Trump can’t reach an agreement over border wall funding by Friday, roughly 41 percent of federal civilian employees would head into the holiday weekend not knowing when they’d return to work.

The border wall stands as the single point of contention that could derail the final 2019 appropriations bill, which covers the departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Interior, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as other independent agencies. Those organizations are currently operating under a continuing resolution that’s set to expire Dec. 21, and will close their doors until a new agreement is reached.

Coming Up

There are only three hearings on Capitol Hill next week, and none of them involve tech or cyber. Treat that as an early start to your holidays.