Here's How The Government Can Fix Silicon Valley: Leave It Alone

I interviewed most of the presidential candidates about their positions on technology issues in the 2008 election. After those interviews I endorsed one candidate from each party – Barack Obama and John McCain. Neither of them were leading the primaries at the time, but they seemed like the best candidates, solely from a tech policy perspective.

I’ve always believed that government tends to screw up whatever it touches, but Obama in particular seemed different. He understood tech issues that left the other candidates bewildered. Part of it may be his age. But whatever the reason, I had real hope that he could help lead us into a new century of technology leadership and growth.

I don’t really believe that any more.

Mostly because of the broken promises. From my interview with him:

He is staunchly in favor of net neutrality, and has promised to make it a priority to reinstate it in his first year in office. He has proposed intelligent programs for increasing technology education and access to children. He doesn’t believe the FCC went far enough in their proposed rules for opening up the 700MHz spectrum auctions. He wants to see increases in the number of H1-B visas given out each year. He strongly supports research into renewable energy sources and he has a realistic, market based approach to capping carbon emissions.

None of these things happened, nor seem likely to happen under his presidency.

But it’s more than broken promises. Our government is just way too interested in mucking around in Silicon Valley by creating and enforcing rules based on little or no understanding of the consequences. A perfect example – recent proposed financial reform legislation by Senator Chris Dodd added on a few random provisions that could have devastated Silicon Valley’s delicate venture capital ecosystem.

Earlier this year I was invited to a small closed door meeting with Victoria Espinel, the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator appointed by Obama. In attendance were CEOs and other senior executives of a number of large and small Silicon Valley companies. The meeting was supposed to be about how her office can help Silicon Valley thrive. But it became very apparent very quickly that Espinel has a single agenda when it comes to copyright issues – helping the music labels and TV/Movie studios deal with the Internet on their own terms.

The meeting was strictly off record, which is why I didn’t write about it immediately after leaving the room. And the things that she said in that meeting will remain off the record as I promised. But I will say this – I walked out in utter frustration after an hour. And among the many things I said in that room was this:

The government can keep pissing in our flowerbed, but pretty soon all the flowers are going to be dead.

The problem with Espinel is that she has to follow the lobbying dollars, and those dollars come from the old entrenched players – TV and movie studios, and record labels. And as she said in the meeting to me (the one quote I’ll use), “My job title is Intellectual Property Enforcement after all.”

So, ok, fine. But why do we need a presidential appointee who’s main job seems to be to try to shut down startups that freak out the labels and studios? Those guys have piles of private money and a variety of civil lawsuit options to protect their rights, they certainly don’t need the government to be adding yet another layer of bullying to the mix. And why bother coming to Silicon Valley to pretend you want to find a way to let startups thrive in a country with excessively restrictive copyright protections that were designed for a world without the Internet?

So tonight I read an email from a good friend with amusement:

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has asked for some ideas on how the President and the Federal Government can increase high-tech entrepreneurship in America, and I thought that you might have some good ideas in this area.

They are looking for both goals and tactics. The tactics could involve legislation, Federal spending, public-private partnerships, political will, etc. Given your standing in the community, I am sure that you have some thoughts on goals. I am looking to pull some ideas together for them in the next few days.

My response was basically the title of this post – we don’t want their help, because they tend to turn everything they touch into toxic waste anyway. Just leave Silicon Valley alone please. Please.

I’m seeing way too many friends spending time in Washington posing for photos with Obama and Hillary Clinton lately. God knows what they’re actually telling these politicians while they’re busy playing Mr. Important Person. But I doubt it’s what they should be saying – leave us alone, stop pissing on our flowerbed.

If the government wants to help innovation in this country they should get busy with infrastructure. Lay fiber to every home and business in the U.S. Actually start building some of these high speed train networks to make travel easier. Get computers into the hands of every child in the country as soon as they are physically able to press buttons. Heck, put a woman on the moon. I don’t know if that last one will do much, but at least they’ll be busy not screwing up Silicon Valley while they’re at it.

I would have said let in any highly educated person in the world that wants to live here, but I know that isn’t going to happen. We will continue to shun the next generation of brilliant foreign entrepreneurs because of some absurd fear that they’re going to take away our jobs. In a few years those entrepreneurs will no longer want to live here anyway.

Silicon Valley has fueled much of the growth in our economy over the last few decades and has created amazing (and highly profitable) companies that are making the world a much better and more interesting place to live. All that happened while the government ignored us.

We don’t want handouts. We don’t want “public-private partnerships,” and we sure as hell don’t want legislation. Just let us do our thing and maybe say thanks to those companies that create jobs by the hundreds of thousands and send in those humongous corporate tax payments on profits. Because all you can do is screw up something beautiful. Really.