Planting Seeds: Representing the Tech Industry on Capitol Hill

I recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet elected officials, their staff and regulators to discuss the state of the tech industry and how policies may affect businesses. At NeuEon we specialize in helping companies implement best practices in software development. For this reason, I’ve traveled to Washington D.C. several times as member of ACT | The App Association with the goal of representing the interests of our clients and the larger developer community. This year I joined executives from approximately 50 tech companies from across the country to advocate for an environment that encourages innovation and inspires growth.

During the visit, each of the ACT members met with several government officials to discuss our various policy concerns. I met with Massachusetts representatives including Senior Policy Advisor and Chief of Staff for Representative Katherine Clark of the 5th district, legislative staff for Representative Joe Kennedy of the 4th district, Senior Economic Policy Advisor for Senator Elizabeth Warren and legislative staff for Senator Ed Markey. I also met with legislative staff for Representative Jason Lewis of the 2nd district of Minnesota and staff of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. In all cases, we found great interest in our issues and a genuine desire to find solutions. Of course, there is frustration with all of the congressional roadblocks, but most of our issues have some bipartisan appeal. We also understand that we have to play the long game when dealing with Congress—planting seeds, educating and listening for opportunities to collaborate at the right time.

In addition to Congress, I met with the FCC commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Reilly along with their staff. Unlike Congress, the commissioners have the ability to affect change much more quickly by altering guidelines. As a result, talking with them gives the impression that they can have a more immediate impact. We let them know we want to support them in any way we can when it comes to opening up bandwidth for commercial use (faster internet) and supporting net neutrality so that the Internet doesn’t get locked into what only a few ISPs want us to see.

Finally, we went to the White House where we met with Kara McKee of the Domestic Policy Council. She was so new to her position that she didn’t even have an official title yet, however her focus on education, job training and moving the workforce forward was exactly what we wanted to discuss. The administration is looking for ways to help the workforce become more educated in the job skills of today and tomorrow, but it’s clear that they’re trying to make it budget neutral, which is frustrating. At one point, we discussed ideas for a business and community education collaboration and she commented, “Ivanka and Jared love the idea!” That was fun to hear. No matter how many times I visit, I always get a kick out of being at the White House.

At times, the meetings were detailed and comprehensive, while others were more cordial and light. We discussed a wide variety of issues but primarily I focused on the following:

Privacy

We want to protect the privacy of our customers to retain their trust. If the government has the right to this information, we want clarity on our obligations so we can do the right thing. However, we also don’t want to be put in the middle of a legal battle we can neither afford nor deserve. The federal laws governing law enforcement’s authority to obtain electronic data remain woefully outdated.

Considering that we use apps and smartphones more every day for our communications and transactions, we expect that information to be protected both from criminals and from unlawful seizure by governments. As a result, businesses and industries that we need to trust with our data take on more responsibility in an increasingly connected world.

Companies must protect their consumers’ privacy and security while still respecting the law of the land in the markets where they conduct business. With that said, there are limits to the burdens companies should be expected to take on in order to comply with law enforcement requests for information.

We discussed several possible improvements that I will detail in later posts.

Intellectual Property

We need our intellectual property protected so we can afford to take risks and innovate. However, companies that take advantage of rules without actually creating value should not be allowed to benefit.

Taxes

Tax law needs to catch up to the modern business environment. We need to incentivize businesses to build and bring their money into the United States.

Communication Infrastructure

We need to invest in our communication infrastructure. We hear so much about the crumbling highways but our communications are falling behind as well. As the need for more spectrum/bandwidth grows, consumers will be frustrated by increasing wait times to access their services and businesses will feel the impact directly.

Net Neutrality

Likewise, we believe in keeping the Internet open so that ISPs are not able to slow our service down just because a bigger competitor can afford to pay them to do so. Net Neutrality is important to small businesses and to consumers—which means all of us!

Fair Patent Use

We want to support the creation and sharing of standards that enable interoperability of products and encourages new uses for technology. This gets into a niche area where certain patents called “Standard-Essential Patents” (SEP) are offered to the community (think 802.11 Wi-Fi) and are then used by everyone. The creator of the standard may get some fair nominal benefit from this, although sometimes these standards are offered up inexpensively until someone starts to really prosper from them. Then the owner charges the successful company a “special” higher rate to capitalize on their success. This causes people to be less willing to use standards and may stifle innovation. So we spoke about something called “Fair, Reasonable, and Non-Discriminatory” (FRAND) obligations. This essentially means that if you have an SEP you want to contribute to a standard, you deserve a fair use fee, but you can’t set pricing for individual competitors.

Cyber Security

Cyber security is a real problem for businesses. Cyber security measures are used to protect U.S. citizens, saving billions of dollars and countless lives. However, laws can’t keep up with the pace of change. Therefore, we need to be careful that we don’t create cyber security laws that cripple businesses or put us at even greater risk. For instance, knee-jerk reactions to certain terrorist plots have caused some politicians to propose that all businesses create backdoors into their software so that the government can access terrorist phones, files or more. They likely imagined this scenario being like TSA locks at the airport; you have your key but the TSA can open it too. Unfortunately, this is a terrifying idea that would absolutely end commerce as we know it. It’s certain that if such backdoors existed, the “bad guys” would find it and no service could be entirely trusted by consumers.

Computer Science Education

Speaking of cyber security, the government and businesses are lacking thousands of much needed cyber security specialists. This is largely due to our lack of investment in computer science in the U.S., specifically in computer literacy, critical thinking and coding. In the 21st century, jobs across the private sector, our government and our military require a workforce equipped with computer science skills. However critical jobs in all sectors of our economy are going unfilled due to a lack of Americans with computer science backgrounds and qualifications.

The United States is failing to take the necessary steps to equip our current and future workforce with the computer science skills needed to succeed in these positions. This weakens our country and hampers economic growth. Despite an average salary exceeding $100,000, more than 500,000 computing jobs remain unfilled in America. By 2024, unfilled jobs in computer science are expected to exceed 1 million. If current trends continue, fewer than 400,000 American college graduates will be ready to fill them.

Only one in four schools offer dedicated computer science classes, leaving 75% of students without the opportunity to develop a skillset that could lead to a high paying and in-demand job. It’s projected that computing jobs will grow at double the rate of all other jobs over the next few years. We discussed this issue and suggested ways to address it with anyone willing to listen.

Conclusion

My recent trip to Washington was fast paced and comprehensive. The discussions were productive and I felt we were heard even when there was disagreement. Every time I make this trek, it’s an honor to represent such a great group of developers and entrepreneurs. I come back with so much information to share with our community and I look forward to continuing to do so in the months ahead. If you would like to learn how you can get involved with ACT | The App Association, check out their website at www.actonline.org.