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What To Expect From Congress In 2013 On Immigration, Privacy, And Patent Trolls

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Beyond their own pet projects, members of Congress often know little more than the public about what the legislature will actually accomplish in a given year. The International Consumer Electronics Show provides a rare escape for America’s tech-savviest policymakers, who are normally inundated with budgets and crises, to focus on their geeky agenda. We sat down with the members in attendance at this year’s show to give you a glimpse of what Congress will–and will not–accomplish in 2013 on privacy, immigration, intellectual property and cybersecurity.

Intellectual Property – Free software zealots may get a small present this year, as a few congressmen, including those close to the powerful Judiciary Committee, are aiming to exempt software from strong patent protections. Members seem to agree that crazy attempts to patent obvious technologies, such as Amazon’s ‘one click to purchase‘ button, demonstrates that software is uniquely prone to abuse.

Democrats and Republicans were also happy to demonize so-called “patent trolls,” those companies who purchase patent rights solely to extort others, with no intention of innovating themselves. “There’s a tremendous amount of bi-partisan support,” says Representative Peter Defazio (CrunchGov Grade: B), for a surgical approach to patent reform, especially on software and litigation issues. “we are focused on getting at the worst actors out there and confront them with costs,” he says, who believes that Congress should be able to pass a law that requires patent trolls to pay legal costs if they lose in court.

Given the recent comprehensive intellectual property legislation, the America Invents Act, no one was optimistic that there will be any broad redefinition of how the U.S. approaches intellectual property.

Immigration — Don’t expect any love for high-skilled immigrant visas without comprehensive immigration reform. After last winter’s spectacular failure to pass the STEM Jobs Act, which would have given out 55,000 more STEM-related visas at the expense of unrepresented nations, it became clear that congress will likely need to solve low-skilled and high-skilled issues at the same time. “There are certainly those who insist that any immigration legislation be apart of a comprehensive, broad-based plan,” says Sen. Jerry Moran (CrunchGov Grade: A), sponsor of the Startup 2.0 Act, which aims to create a visa for self-employed entrepreneurs.

So, can the sequel to the ‘do nothing Congress’ actually pass immigration reform, after failing to pass the comprehensive DREAM Act? “I think we have an opportunity, potentially, because of new Republican leadership interest in getting this issue behind them so they can once again elect a president,” says Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CrunchGov Grade: A), referring to Republicans need to appear immigrant friendly to win over minority voters in future presidential elections.

Privacy – After Gen. David Petraeus’ email snooping scandal demonstrated that even the nation’s top spies don’t fully understand the scope of state surveillance, there was strong support to require warrants for email spying. All legislation needs to be renewed after the election of a new Congress, but Sen. Ron Wyden (CrunchGov Grade: A) seemed to think his colleagues will again broach a law balancing privacy and security.

The specter of Sen. Al Franken’s location privacy bill loomed at CES, though the SNL-writer-turned-policymaker was not in attendance. Franken’s proposal would place new rules related to smartphone location data, especially how often users would have to expressly give applications consent to use data and how they could seek legal redress for violations.

Honorable Mentions – there are a few low-flying issues to keep an eye on

  • Pandora founder Tim Westegren donned a button-up shirt to push the Internet Radio Fairness Act, which aims to equalize royalty rights between streaming internet radio and traditional radio.
  • Data Caps – a few policymakers, including Senator Wyden, expressed concern over telecommunications companies imposing limits on the amount of data users can download, so-called “data caps”. Whether rules over data caps will come from congress, or the Federal Communications Commission, is anyone’s guess.

There you have it folks: the (partial) tech agenda for 2013. Some people may be uncorking champagne bottles in the streets; others may be crafting tinfoil hats in a makeshift bunker. But, don’t get too excited, since all of this requires them to get along to some degree.