What Is Tech Policy And Why Is It Relevant?
This question reminds me of the time we were driving by a golf course as it was being irrigated with huge sprinklers. My five-year old son asked me what the sprinklers were for. This was during that phase when he asked questions about anything and everything, with each explanation followed by a “but why?” I was tired at the end of this particular day, so I said to him sternly, “I think you can figure this one out for yourself.”
A long silence. Then I heard him say in a subdued tone: “Oh, right, to wash the grass.”
Parent of the year award.
Tech policy is like energy policy, tax policy, or environmental policy. It is . . . policy that impacts technology. Obviously. But what that means specifically gets complicated fast—no small amount of analytical spade work is involved in identifying the issues, becoming aware of the relevant political dynamics and deciding whether and how to engage.
Earlier this week, I moderated a Silicon Slopes panel involving Congressman Chris Stewart and one of Utah’s startup Sherpas, Nicole Toomey Davis of VentureWrench. We covered areas that Congressman Stewart has unique perspectives on due to his role as a senior member of both the House Intelligence and House Appropriations committees, things like federal funding of R&D, cybersecurity, and of course data privacy. We even discussed the mega trend in this space—whether big tech should be broken up. Here are a few takeaways.
Data privacy is relevant to nearly every business. For one, data doesn’t stop at the border, so rules governing its use in countries like Europe and China impact what companies do here. On our panel, Ms. Davis noted how a small business in the US could, in theory, face criminal penalties in Europe simply by sending emails to mailboxes of EU persons without having taken the proper steps first. She was referring to the EU’s GDPR framework, which allows for hefty penalties in cases of violations, and she was right. Our clients in the U.S. spend meaningful amounts of time and resources to ensure compliance even if they don’t operate there.
Congressman Stewart walked us through how China makes heavy use of personal data for surveillance and control while at the same time enacting laws that disrupt the flow of data internationally. Recently, businesses have expressed serious concerns that China’s new cyber security laws will be deployed in a way that discriminates against U.S. businesses. If so, it seems clear that the ongoing trade disputes with China are spreading to data and access.
Here at home in the US, the evolution of data privacy laws is uncertain. There are several bills making their way through congress offering varying approaches, ranging from empowering the FTC to do more of what it has been already doing to enacting approaches similar to the EU’s GDPR. Another idea involves a registry where consumers can opt out altogether from online tracking and third-party data sharing. These ideas may seem theoretically interesting, but business models will rise or fall depending on the outcome.
Big tech of course gets most of the political headlines these days in terms of tech policy. Antitrust law, once perceived as an ivory tower legal specialty, now seems to be on everyone’s lips, as people debate whether the Googles and Amazons should be broken up. None of the FANG stocks is headquartered in Utah, but all of us are in their infospheres, and many Utah tech companies partner or compete with them. As such, where this debate ends up will determine opportunities for Utah-based insurgents. It should be noted that Utah has a strong voice in this debate. Senator Mike Lee chairs the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust.
Ten years ago, big tech had virtually no lobbying presence in D.C. Now those companies are arguably the most actively engaged on the Capitol, with large in-house lobbying teams and record-setting expenditures. The reality is that tech policy is moving fast, and the value of engagement has never been higher as rules are being shaped that we will likely be living with for decades to come. Congressman Stewart made the point well to a room of small and large tech companies. “I don’t think you appreciate how much influence you could have to come back and meet with members of Congress. . . especially right now when we’re trying to figure it out.”