June 11, 2012
As in past years, the Sixth Tech Policy Summit held in serene Napa Valley highlights the very Silicon Valley-Washington divide which it seeks to bridge. While the SOPA fight, the passage of the CROWDFUND Act and greater tech engagement on Capitol Hill are major signs of improvement, the divide was glaring at the conclusion of the two-day event when a panel on the 2012 election focused more on technological platforms and processes (which is consistent with Silicon Valley’s role as a facilitator) rather than particular policies to be advanced by Silicon Valley as members of the body politic.
Summit participant and C-PET President Nigel Cameron aptly summarized the divide as a “shared myopia”. As one who has played the role of translator on both coasts, I left the Summit believing that what feeds the divide is the extent to which neither community speaks nor fully understands the language of the other. The passage of the CROWDFUND Act and the recent introduction of the bi-partisan “Startup Act 2.0″ are signs that progress is being made, which is critical since Cameron correctly points out that both communities are vital in defining the future of this nation.
The Startup Act 2.0 is intended to respond to Silicon Valley’s persistent concern over the inability to recruit or retain works in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (“STEM”), by permitting immigration authorities to grant permanent residency to graduate students actively engaged in STEM areas (the bill also provides R&D tax credits and a capital gains tax exemption for start-ups). This, however, is merely an interim solution. Overlooked, to an extent, was the fact that the Summit began on the 34th anniversary of the passage of the seminal anti-tax measure – Proposition 13 – which has brought about a steady decline in California education (dropping from 7th to nearly 30th in per pupil spending) and the long-term solution may not be more visas but increased investment in our home grown talent.
As the Summit began, the internet was buzzing over LinkedIn being the latest major company to experience a significant hacking event, but consensus on how to deal with cyber security remained elusive. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which recently was passed by the House of Representatives despite strong opposition from many in the internet community, remained a divisive issue; but, surprisingly, panelists were flat out dismissive of any governmental effort to require the private sector to improve the level of security despite acknowledgement in the tech sector that current investment in security is insufficient.
While Silicon Valley is largely Democratic, what few appreciate is that there is also a strong libertarian streak in the community which makes them very distrustful of government intervention (which is not uncommon among western states). This is especially the case when the process is shrouded in secrecy as was the case with the now-failed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Thus left and right unite in opposing efforts by foreign governments to gain greater control over the internet via treaty in order to prevent a mass uprising as we saw with Arab Spring. Neither left nor right, however, commented about repressive regimes’ use of technology developed in Silicon Valley to suppress Internet speech and/or the tech community’s success in boycotting Pakistan’s invitation to bid to supply such technology.
The biggest divide in the room, however, may not be between Sand Hill Road and K Street, but between Silicon Valley and Hollywood as a discussion over copyright battles proved to be the most contentious of all the panels. University of Southern California’s Jonathan Taplin, a veteran of the film and music industry who has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan and Martin Scorcese, sounded a conciliatory note by conceding that the Motion Picture Association of America’s rhetoric during the SOPA debate had been “poisonous”. Taplin, however, did not exactly set a different tone as he seethed with contempt for Techdirt’s founder Mike Masnick throughout their debate over intellectual property rights in the post-SOPA world.
The lack of consensus on a tech agenda, however, should not discourage either party from attempting to articulate a tech agenda. President Obama has been aggressive in pursuing tech initiatives from a Democratic perspective from net neutrality and broadband deployment to a privacy bill of rights, while Republicans have also sought to claim the mantle of leadership in this area with the CROWDFUND Act and Start-Up Act 2.0. These initiatives demonstrate that while the divide between Washington and Silicon Valley still exists, the two camps clearly are communicating more than ever no doubt due in part to events like Tech Policy Summit.