It’s Time for the GOP Candidates To Finally Debate Tech
The tech sector is an ever-growing force in politics. No longer just a bunch of scrappy startups struggling for their place at the bargaining table, Silicon Valley’s top companies—Google, Facebook, Apple, and others—now spend millions of dollars a year lobbying for their industry’s interests.
Politicians like tech companies, not only because they paint a rosy picture of the future, but because they’re among the top job creators in the country. Plus, their idealistic, largely white-collar workforce tends to have deep pockets, turning the tech sector into a bigger source of campaign funding than other politically powerful and entrenched industries like defense and big pharma in recent years. Candidates are all too aware of this shift, so they make frequent stops at tech startups and carve out time on the campaign trail for fundraising trips to Silicon Valley.
Judging by any of the debates so far this election season, you would never guess just how influential the tech industry really is.
And yet, if you were judging by any of the first three debates of this election season (five, if you’re counting the Republican undercard), you would never guess just how influential the tech industry is. Amid talk of ISIS, Mexico, climate change, and the ethics of private email servers, the debates so far have been light on any mention of tech policy.
That could change during tonight’s debate, which CNBC says will revolve around the economy and touch on tech issues. We’ve rounded up the top issues concerning tech leaders this election season. Here’s hoping they get some attention tonight:
Increasing High-Skilled Worker Visas
Immigration reform is the tech industry’s pet issue. In fact, a recent survey of venture capitalists by the National Venture Capitalist Association found that a full two-thirds of investors cited immigration reform as the most pressing issue policy makers need to address. Of course, there’s been ample conversation about immigration reform in the early debates, but because so much of it has revolved around illegal immigration, the candidates have had far less time to express their views on high-skilled immigration, which is, after all, what the tech industry cares about most.
Groups like FWD.us, backed by Mark Zuckerberg, are pushing for an increase in H-1B visas, which would allow companies like Facebook to employ more foreign workers. But while it may not be as thorny an issue as illegal immigration, it’s a tricky one still. The fear echoed among Republicans has been that these visas would take jobs away from US citizens. On the other side of the aisle, Senator Bernie Sanders has expressed concerns over what more H-1Bs would do to wages, calling the push “a massive effort to attract cheap labor.” So far, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has been one of the most vocal supporters of lifting the cap on these visas. No surprise, then, that Zuckerberg has backed Rubio’s run for the Senate in the past.
Protecting Consumer Privacy
Consumer privacy is one of the biggest areas of contention between tech companies and the federal government, and it’s one of the few tech-policy topics that’s gotten any air time during the debates. Recall the face-off between privacy advocate and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the first Republican debate. Or the moment when former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said the government needed to “tear down these cyberwalls” that protect tech companies like Apple and Google from the prying eyes of the government.
More recently, during the Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton defended her vote in favor of the Patriot Act, which created the NSA’s surveillance program, but stressed the need for a “balance of civil liberties, privacy and security.” Sanders, meanwhile, received applause for voting against the Patriot Act in the Senate, saying he would shut down the NSA surveillance program as president.
According to Adam Kovacevich, who heads up US public policy at Google, this issue has been key to Google’s conversations with regulators and presidential candidates recently. Specifically, the tech community, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, are asking for an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to require the government and law enforcement to secure a warrant before intercepting people’s online communications and data. “We all have much more of our communications in the cloud than we ever used to,” Kovacevich says. “Unfortunately, right now we’re living under a 1980s-era law that provides less protection for documents stored in the cloud than a hard copy document.”
He adds that Google is also trying to enforce the idea that strong encryption is a “best practice” for Internet companies today, and that it is the first line of defense against hackers.
International Tax Reform
Activist investor Carl Icahn and the tech industry don’t always see eye to eye, but on the topic of international tax reform, at least, they do. Just last week, Icahn pledged $150 million to a new Super PAC that he said would work to fix the tax system to give US companies have fewer incentives to move their operations—and profits—overseas. It’s an issue that industry groups like TechNet have been fighting for, as well.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or the OECD, has been taking steps to crack down on this overseas tax avoidance, which could lead to an increase in taxes for these multinational companies. That’s tax money, says Linda Moore, CEO of TechNet and a former Clinton-era White House staffer, that ought to be brought back to the US. What’s more, she says, there may be strings attached, which require American companies to shift even more intellectual property and resources overseas. “They’re going to tax overseas profits that American companies have in their regions and put in place rules and incentives to keep that money flowing for years to come,” Moore says.
This election season, the tech community will be on the lookout for the candidates who propose the most compelling incentives to repatriate those profits. Hot tip: they’re probably not going to like what Sanders has to say.
Stopping Patent Trolls
Patent reform is one issue that impacts the entire tech industry, and yet it doesn’t mean tech companies stand united in what to do about it. On one side of the argument are companies like Microsoft, Apple, IBM, and others, with substantial patent portfolios to protect, who have lobbied against swift patent reform. On the other are companies like Google, which, despite its own substantial cache of patents, is still a major supporter of reform. “We continue to see patent lawsuits being a tax on innovation frankly,” Kovacevich says.
Etsy is another company leading the fight for reform, not only to protect itself, but to protect its sellers. “It’s something we’re very concerned about,” says Althea Erickson, global policy director at Etsy. “We’re supportive of Congress passing reforms to curb some of the most rampant abuses of patents.”
There are currently two bills before Congress that deal with patent reform: the Innovation Act and the PATENT Act. Erickson hopes at least one of them will be addressed by this congress before the 2016 election. And yet, any mention of patent reform tends to set conservatives on edge. As Florin wrote in an op-ed last year, they worry that any legislation to ward off patent trolls would necessarily weaken the patent portfolios of legitimate patent holders.
Protecting the On-Demand Economy (and Worker Rights)
Though the gig economy is still a small sliver of the overall economy in the US, the debate over whether these workers should be considered full-time employees or part-time contractors has already reached the national stage. While Uber and other on-demand startups argue that they are merely platforms on which people can find flexible work, labor advocates and the workers themselves say they are full-time jobs and ought to be classified as such.
It’s a niche debate that doesn’t necessarily impact the entire tech industry, and yet, as this model of employment becomes increasingly popular, both businesses and candidates are grappling over how to regulate it. For conservatives like Rubio, who has spoken at length about the on-demand economy, Uber has become a ready example of the dangers of over-regulating business. For Democratic candidates like Sanders and Clinton, on the other hand, it represents the dangers of letting worker wages and benefits go unprotected.
Enabling Data to Flow Freely Across Borders
It may be strange to think of data as a trade issue, but it is. The rise of cloud computing means US tech companies are now ferrying data to and from countries all over the world—and regulators in those countries are beginning to take issue with the unfettered movement of their citizens data across borders. Just this month, for instance, European regulators struck down the so-called Safe Harbor agreement, which allowed US companies to freely process European users’ data in the US. Without that protection, countries could force tech companies to store every country’s data within that country, making it much more expensive to operate overseas.
That’s one reason why TechNet, the Internet Association, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, and other members of the tech community have been working to ensure that more recent trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been criticized by presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle, guarantee cross-border data flow from the outset.
Expanding Broadband Access
The expansion of broadband access is in the interest of every tech company—and citizen—in the country, which is why Kovacevich says this specific policy proposal tends to get bipartisan support in Google’s conversations with candidates regarding Google Fiber. “All of them recognize that broadband access is important to the future of economic competitiveness,” he says.
According to Kovacevich, while local and state governments will have a big role to play in increasing access and easing local regulations, “the fed government can play a leadership role” in pushing for these changes. President Obama has already begun this work with both the ConnectEd and ConnectHome initiatives, which are public-private partnerships that aim to expand broadband access in low-income homes and schools.
So far, both Christie and Clinton have talked about the need for more broadband access on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Rubio proposed the Wi-Fi Innovation Act, which would not only open up unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi use, but would also create a pilot program to bring Wi-Fi to low-income communities.
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