Business

How Washington will affect tech in 2014: 5 policy issues to watch

Image Credit: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

It seems that every year has gotten busier and busier in the world of tech policy — and that’s generally a good thing. This morning’s news that a federal court has struck down FCC net neutrality rules is a battle we will have to fight, but we should still take heart from the fact that the issues we have cared about for years are becoming more mainstream, and policymakers around the world are starting to listen. While we haven’t forgotten that 2014 is an election year, we’re confident that on the federal level there is room for improvement in a number of areas close to the hearts of innovators and entrepreneurs. So here’s a quick, early roundup of what we expect to be watching in 2014.

Patents
In the last weeks of 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Innovation Act, a litigation reform bill targeting patent trolls and their extortive, anti-innovation practices.

This year, we’re pushing for a companion bill in the Senate, a body that has signaled stronger wariness than we encountered in the House. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but we must make certain that 2013 was the last good year for patent trolls. Similarly, the House and Senate Commerce committees have both expressed an interest in demand letter reforms to tackle the current anonymity and vagueness.

Together with our many friends — retailers, real estate agents, and others — we will be working closely with the House and Senate to build legislation that is beneficial but does not risk being overturned by the courts on First Amendment grounds. But to lay the foundation for everything we do, we must remind Congress that we are the inventors driving our economy.

User Privacy
The technology we love makes information more accessible and useful. Usually that’s a good thing, but unfortunately it also means that private information sometimes gets out against our wishes. With some high profile breaches (think Target and Snapchat) at the end of 2013 we expect to see more political appetite for privacy “reforms”.

While we have yet to see any formal bills, we expect both federal and state-level reform efforts to tackle the big question of protecting consumer privacy without threatening needed innovation. Up until now, a lack of understanding on the part of lawmakers has often meant that reforms can do more harm than good by threatening to limit the free exchange of data and ideas. We need to be more mindful here, and at the same time we must work within the tech industry to safeguard user data, develop better security practices, and create easy-to-use tools that are available for the average user to help them monitor and protect their data.

Data Localization
We’re already seeing foreign governments use the Edward Snowden revelations as an excuse to slow the growth of US-based technology companies. Most concerning is a push toward what insiders are calling “data localization” — a requirement that all country-specific user data must be consistently maintained within that country. For example, French user data must only be analyzed or stored in France. That means service providers — since that data is used to provide a useful service — will be forced to maintain a duplicate set of infrastructure in every country. This is a problem because most countries lack the intellectual property and security standards we enjoy in the United States. And after all, it’s those policies that have long contributed to this country’s incredible record of innovative success.

Just this week, I had the opportunity to talk to new Commerce Secretary Pritzker about the challenges the U.S. will face should governments such as Brazil and France go ahead with mandated localization. It’s something credit card companies have faced for years, but now it’s a growing threat to technology companies whose businesses and users rely on the borderless functionality.

Forced data localization will drive up costs, slow deployment times, reduce innovation, push U.S. jobs overseas, and generally threaten our safety and security. The administration should make time for the right discussions with individual nations, and the U.S. Commerce Department should take the opportunity to caution against such moves, making certain that the legacy of this episode is one of increased freedom and actual security, rather than a paranoid, reactive clampdown on the free flow of information.

Copyright
We’ve been excited to see content distributors updating their revenue models and making more of their content libraries available through new and innovative channels. But we’re always cautious of the incumbent interests that troll the halls of government in the name of protecting creators. Data has shown that often these incumbents are misguided in their assertions.

While no one has offered-up a policy solution — lest it becomes the next SOPA —  Representative Goodlatte wants to undertake a multi-year, multi-stakeholder process aimed at comprehensive reform. And it all started last week with a Congressional copyright hearing.

Immigration
An outdated immigration system continues to be one of the greatest threats to American entrepreneurship and business growth. As we demonstrated in 2013, high-skilled immigration creates jobs and raises wages, and it is disappointing to have to use this year to continue to build our case.

With the mid-term Congressional elections ahead of us in November, the conventional wisdom in Washington generally holds that getting a deal on something as broad and controversial as immigration reform would be a non-starter. But as the pressure continues to mount on Congressional Republicans to take charge and fix our broken immigration system, there may be opportunities to advance that debate — and even pass legislation that would address the crisis. Having spent much of the last two years making the economic case for immigration reform, it’s up to all of us to keep the pressure on and make sure that an achievable fix becomes law. It’s a long shot this year, but we remain hopeful that as opportunities present themselves, we can all rise to meet the challenge.

Josh Mendelsohn is cofounder of Engine, a San Francisco-based research foundation working with startups and government to create better public policy.


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