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How To Make Sense Of Tech Policy In The Trump Era

On a SXSW panel, tech leaders talked about their biggest concerns and the most relevant issues impacting their business.

How To Make Sense Of Tech Policy In The Trump Era
Photo: Flickr user Angela N.

For a tech industry guided by data and judged by reliable metrics, the unpredictability of the Trump administration is generating plenty of headaches. At the largest companies, executives are still trying to figure out what’s next, and some of them outlined their strategies and expressed their feelings about that sense of unease at a SXSW panel called Tech Policy Outlook in the 45th Administration. Long story short: It’s complicated.

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“Not engaging is not an option. You need a perpetual engagement strategy, no matter who the president is,” says Tiffany M. Moore, VP of congressional affairs at the Consumer Technology Association. And more than 50 days into the Trump administration, tech companies are still unclear on what’s next–key executive branch offices have yet to be filled, and it’s hard to get answers from many agencies.

Here’s a rundown of the biggest concerns and issues discussed on the panel:

Tech Policy Impacts Everything

In 2017, tech policy means business and lifestyle policy since it pervades almost every aspect of our lives, said Jesse Blumenthal of the Charles Koch Institute, a right wing-leaning think tank:

It is important to us, because in a lot of the industries ripe for innovation, such as health care, financial services, manufacturing, and transportation, what you find are legal and regulatory frameworks that as often as not didn’t envision certain technology, business models, or new ways of doing things. You now pull a phone out of your pocket, have a stranger show up in minutes, and take you where you need to go, and all without paying cash–this was radically unthinkable a few years ago.

Because tech moves faster than policy, this creates big problems–especially for emerging technologies like self-driving cars and on-demand workforces (which primarily impact transportation and employment law).

The Tech Industry Doesn’t Like Trump’s Immigration Policies

Multiple speakers onstage expressed deep concerns about Trump’s immigration policies and what they could mean for U.S. tech companies.

Intel’s senior counsel and director of government relations, Norberto Salinas, put it bluntly when speaking of recent executive orders on immigration: “They scared us into thinking about what sort of future we have if the Trump administration is focusing on trying to close off the borders.” Salinas adds:

Our hiring system focuses on grad students in STEM fields. The majority of those students happen to be foreign nationals on student visas. When we go out there to look at the pool of available workers, many of them are foreign nationals. Once their student visa is done, they have to return to their home.

What we’d like to do is keep them here because they are the best and brightest; they strive for growth and innovation. If they’re not in the United States, they’ll end up in China, India, and Canada. This is bad for us.

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Trade Legislation Impacts The Tech Industry

Multiple panelists expressed deep concerns about the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The trade deal, a complicated multinational treaty dealing with many aspects of global trade that was effectively canceled by the U.S.’s withdrawal, contains clauses on intellectual property that many tech companies strongly supported.

Karen Kornbluh, Nielsen’s executive vice president of external affairs, also raised concerns about the confusion and duplication that arises when multiple government agencies are involved in regulating a specific issue or technology.

“One interesting thing I’m following is privacy,” Kornbluh says, “And broadband privacy as a result of net neutrality at the FCC [Federal Communications Commission]. The FTC [Federal Trade Commission] previously regulated it. However, AT&T won a decision saying that the FTC couldn’t regulate companies doing any kind of broadband.” Kornbluh was speaking about a case AT&T won over throttling customers on unlimited data plans that, on the surface, has nothing to do with privacy. However, the consequences affect online privacy. Kornbluh continued:

Now the privacy order may be reversed, leaving a huge gaping hole in terms of which regulator regulates privacy in broadband. It’s possible some companies may be so surprised and concerned that they could look for legislation to clarify, since we haven’t had privacy legislation in so long.

Obviously the Trump presidency is just getting started, and the next few years will be full of unpredictable changes and shifts. No matter what happens next, it’s best to be prepared.

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