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Friday, April 29, 2011

United States Fire Administration: An Overview


Lennard G. Kruger
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA)—which includes the National Fire Academy (NFA)—is currently housed within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The objective of the USFA is to significantly reduce the nation’s loss of life from fire, while also achieving a reduction in property loss and non-fatal injury due to fire. The United States Fire Administration Reauthorization Act of 2008 was signed into law on October 8, 2008 (P.L. 110-376).

P.L. 111-83, the FY2010 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, provided $45.588 million for USFA, the same level as the Administration’s proposal. The Administration’s FY2011 budget proposal requested $45.930 million for USFA, an increase of 0.7% from the FY2010 level. The House Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Appropriations Committee both matched the Administration request for the USFA. The Department of Defense and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (P.L. 112-10) funded USFA at the FY2010 level of $45.588 million.

The FY2012 budget proposal requested $42.538 million for USFA, about 7% under the FY2011 level. The budget proposal reflects an overall $1.72 million program reduction.

As is the case with many federal programs, concerns in the 112
th Congress over the federal budget deficit could impact budget levels for the USFA. Debate over the USFA budget has focused on whether the USFA is receiving an appropriate level of funding to accomplish its mission, given that appropriations for USFA have consistently been well below the agency’s authorized level. An ongoing issue is the viability and status of the USFA and National Fire Academy within the Department of Homeland Security.


Date of Report: April 20, 2011
Number of Pages: 9
Order Number: RS20071
Price: $19.95

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Patent Reform in the 112th Congress: Innovation Issues



Wendy H. Schacht
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

John R. Thomas
Visiting Scholar


Congressional interest in patent reform has increased as the patent system becomes more significant to U.S. industry. Patent ownership is perceived as an incentive to the technological advancement that leads to economic growth. Yet, this augmented attention to patents has been accompanied by persistent concerns about the fairness and effectiveness of the current system. Several studies, including those by the National Academy of Sciences and the Federal Trade Commission, recommended reform of the patent system to address perceived deficiencies in the operation of the patent regime. Other experts maintain that major alterations in existing law are unnecessary and that the patent process can adapt, and is adapting, to technological progress.

Two omnibus patent reform bills introduced in the 112
th Congress, each titled the America Invents Act, would make significant changes to the patent system. Both S. 23 and H.R. 1249 would adopt a first-inventor-to-file priority system, allow assignee filing, establish USPTO feesetting authority, provide for post-issuance review proceedings at the USPTO, and introduce other reforms. Several of these proposals have been the subject of discussion within the patent community for many years, but others present more novel propositions.

Although S. 23 and H.R. 1249 have many similarities, the two bills differ in some respects. For example, S. 23 would address the residency requirement of judges serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, while H.R. 1249 would not. Unlike S. 23, H.R. 1249 would significantly broaden patent law’s first inventor defense. Other distinctions with respect to USPTO post-issuance review proceedings and other topics exist as well.

While the provisions of the proposed legislation would arguably institute the most sweeping reforms to the U.S. patent system since the nineteenth century, many of these proposals, such as pre-issuance publication and prior user rights, have already been implemented in U.S. law to a more limited extent. These and other reforms, such as the first-inventor-to-file priority system and post-grant review proceedings, also reflect the decades-old patent practices of Europe, Japan, and our other leading trading partners.

Some observers are nonetheless concerned that certain of these provisions would weaken patent rights, thereby diminishing incentives for innovation. Other experts believe that changes of this magnitude, occurring at the same time, do not present the most prudent course for the patent system. Patent reform therefore confronts Congress with difficult legal, practical, and policy issues, but also with apparent possibilities for altering and possibly improving the legal regime that has long been recognized as an engine of innovation within the U.S. economy.



Date of Report: April 21, 2011
Number of Pages: 38
Order Number: R41638
Price: $29.95

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Universal Service Fund: Background and Options for Reform


Angele A. Gilroy
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

The concept that all Americans should be able to afford access to the telecommunications network, commonly called the “universal service concept” can trace its origins back to the 1934 Communications Act. Since then, the preservation and advancement of universal service has been a basic tenet of federal communications policy, and Congress has historically played an active role in helping to preserve and advance universal service goals. The passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-104) not only codified the universal service concept, but also led to the establishment, in 1997, of a federal Universal Service Fund (USF or Fund) to meet the universal service objectives and principles contained in the 1996 act. According to Fund administrators, from 1998 through end of year 2010, $73.7 billion was distributed, or committed, by the USF, with all 50 states, the District of Columbia and all territories receiving some benefit.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is required to ensure that there be “specific, predictable and sufficient ... mechanisms to preserve and advance universal service.” However, changes in telecommunications technology and the marketplace, while often leading to positive benefits for consumers and providers, have had a negative impact on the health and viability of the USF, as presently designed. These changes have led to a growing imbalance between the entities and revenue stream contributing to the fund and the growth in the entities and programs eligible to receive funding. The desire to expand access to broadband and address what some perceive as a “digital divide” has also placed focus on what role, if any, the USF should take to address this issue. The FCC’s national broadband plan, Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan, calls for a major restructuring of the USF to enable it to take a major role in achieving the goal of nationwide broadband access and adoption. The FCC has initiated a series of proceedings to achieve this goal.

There is a growing consensus among policy makers, including some in Congress, that significant action is needed not only to ensure the viability and stability of the USF, but also to address the numerous issues surrounding its appropriate role in a changing marketplace. How this concept should be defined, how these policies should be funded, who should receive the funding, and how to ensure proper management and oversight of the Fund are among the issues framing the debate.

The current policy debate has focused on five concerns: the scope of the program; who should contribute and what methodology should be used to fund the program; eligibility criteria for benefits; concerns over possible program fraud, waste, and abuse; and the impact of the Antideficiency Act (ADA) on the USF.

It is anticipated that Universal Service Fund reform will continue to be a topic of congressional interest. The House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee have included USF reform on their agendas of issues for consideration and oversight. One measure (S. 297) relating to USF has been introduced to date. S. 297 amends Section 254 of the Communications Act of 1934 to provide for a permanent exemption for the USF from the Antideficiency Act.



Date of Report: April 11, 2011
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: RL33979
Price: $29.95

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Online Data Collection and Disclosure to Private Entities: Selected Federal Laws and Self-Regulatory Regimes


Kathleen Ann Ruane
Legislative Attorney

In recent years, there has been an increase in concern over the amount of data that companies, both online and offline, gather about individuals and the private entities to which such data is disclosed. Companies generally use this information for marketing purposes. However, consumers often may be unaware when their data is being collected, particularly in our current era where each click of a mouse on a website may be recorded by a marketing or data gathering firm. Some of the data gathered may be highly sensitive information like Social Security numbers or bank account numbers. Furthermore, this data may be merged with data collected offline, or shared with third parties. These risks have been the subject of congressional and regulatory scrutiny. The 112th Congress and federal agencies will likely continue to examine these issues and debate legislative and regulatory solutions.

The first major issue presented by this debate is whether data gathering and disclosure practices violate current law. Privacy laws in the United States are generally industry specific. Certain laws govern the collection and disclosure of financial data. Other laws govern the collection and disclosure of health-related data. A large amount of data collected about consumers, however, does not fall into the categories of data that are covered by these industry-specific laws. Thus, the primary federal mechanism for enforcing privacy protections, where the data at issue are not covered by more specific statutory protection, is Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Section 5 prohibits unfair and deceptive trade practices. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has successfully used this prohibition to hold companies liable for breaches of the privacy policies that they have developed.

There is also argument as to whether the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (both Title I, known as the Wiretap Act, and Title II, known as the Stored Communications Act) and the Communications Act of 1934, apply to online entities that are collecting data through click tracking, capturing search terms, providing web-based e-mail services and other methods. It is likely that in some cases these laws could be held to apply to such activities and that, in some cases, these methods of data collection could be forbidden unless consent is obtained from one of the parties to the communication or some other exception applies. This report will examine the application of these statutes in more detail.

The second major issue presented by this debate is whether new legislation or regulations are needed to govern consumer privacy. There are no current federal regulations specific to online advertising and data gathering. The FTC and the Department of Commerce recently published reports proposing frameworks for privacy in this rapidly developing market place. The proposed frameworks, in the agencies’ views, could be a combination of both government and selfregulation. This report briefly will discuss these proposals.

Private organizations such as the Network Advertising Initiative, Interactive Advertising Bureau, and Privacy Group Coalition have created policies, which many online entities have pledged to follow, that represent industry best practices for protecting the privacy of web users. Some of their self-regulatory regimes are discussed as well. For more information about the online advertising industry, see CRS Report R40908, Advertising Industry in the Digital Age, by Suzanne M. Kirchhoff.



Date of Report: April 1, 2011
Number of Pages: 23
Order Number: RL34693
Price: $29.95

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Access to Broadband Networks: The Net Neutrality Debate


Angele A. Gilroy
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

As congressional policymakers continue to debate telecommunications reform, a major point of contention is the question of whether action is needed to ensure unfettered access to the Internet. The move to place restrictions on the owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet, to ensure equal access and non-discriminatory treatment, is referred to as “net neutrality.” While there is no single accepted definition of “net neutrality,” most agree that any such definition should include the general principles that owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network, and they should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network.

A major focus in the debate is concern over whether it is necessary for policymakers to take steps to ensure access to the Internet for content, services, and applications providers, as well as consumers, and if so, what these steps should be. Some policymakers contend that more specific regulatory guidelines may be necessary to protect the marketplace from potential abuses which could threaten the net neutrality concept. Others contend that existing laws and policies are sufficient to deal with potential anti-competitive behavior and that additional regulations would have negative effects on the expansion and future development of the Internet. The December 21, 2010, adoption by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of its Open Internet Order, has focused attention on the issue. Although most concede that networks have always needed and will always need some management, the use of prioritization tools, such as deep packet inspection, as well as the initiation of metered/consumption-based billing practices have further fueled the debate.

A consensus on the net neutrality issue has remained elusive and support for the FCC’s Open Internet Order has been mixed. While some Members of Congress support the action, and in some cases would have supported an even stronger approach, others feel that the FCC has overstepped its authority and that the regulation of the Internet is not only unnecessary but harmful. Internet regulation and the FCC’s authority to implement such regulations has been a topic of legislation (H.R. 96, H.R. 166, S. 74, H.R. 1, H.J.Res. 37, and S.J.Res. 6 ) and hearings in the 112
th Congress. The House, on April 8, 2011, passed (240-179) H.J.Res. 37, to state disapproval of and remove the force and effect of the FCC’s Open Internet Order. It is anticipated that the issue of Internet access will be of continued interest to policymakers.

The net neutrality issue has also been narrowly addressed within the context of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA, P.L. 111-5). Provisions required the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in consultation with the FCC, to establish “nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations” as a requirement for grant participants in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). These obligations were released, July 1, 2009, in conjunction with the issuance of a notice of funds availability soliciting applications. Recipients of these awards have been selected and congressional oversight is expected.

The ARRA also required the FCC to submit a report, containing a national broadband plan, to both the House and Senate Commerce Committees; it was released on March 16, 2010.



Date of Report: April 8, 2011
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R40616
Price: $29.95

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