How Silicon Valley And Washington Can Come Together

Editor’s note: Promod Haque serves as senior managing partner at Norwest Venture Partners, focusing on systems and IT infrastructure, healthcare IT, software and services.

As technology permeates nearly every aspect of our lives, it has become an increasingly political topic. On one hand, Washington and Silicon Valley have seemingly never been closer with recent visits to the Valley by President Obama, new cybersecurity legislation, news at RSA that the Department of Homeland Security plans to open an office in the Valley, as well as the surge of Silicon Valley veteran hires in Washington.

On the other hand, the two power centers continue to tangle on basic approaches to fostering innovation. This conflict was clearly illustrated when Yahoo, Google and Facebook chose not to send their CEOs to the security summit Obama hosted at Stanford University earlier this year.

But despite the hurdles, the stage is set for a historic opportunity in which effective policy and regulations can be enacted without hindering technology market innovation. It will take the concerted effort of both players to make it happen, but a simple collaborative approach can get it started.

The Bi-Coastal Rift

The cybersecurity and healthcare technology sectors are frequent battlegrounds for policy makers and technologists.

Cybersecurity has quickly become a focal point for government and policy discussions within the United States, and was recently labeled a national emergency by the President. And for good reason: constant infrastructure probing, the attack on Sony and even attacks against the White House are suspected to be nation-state driven.

But even with the cybersecurity’s new, elevated stature, both officials from government agencies and Silicon Valley businesses are voicing their opinions on information sharing and encryption from opposing sides.

The rift is evident in the language found in the proposed amendments to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which could put many white hat security researchers and their methodology under legal scrutiny if approved. It’s the equivalent of taking the scalpel from the surgeon and asking them to conduct an operation. Already, security researchers are concerned about the legal implications.

In healthcare, regulatory policies and technology advancements are also increasingly at cross-purposes. This is particularly concerning as initiatives like Obamacare pick up traction and our healthcare IT infrastructure, powered by companies like Health Fidelity and Health Catalyst, catch up to the rate of innovation. There needs to be careful consideration for how and when regulations come into play.

Recently, the FDA decided not to regulate technologies that transmit, store or display information from healthcare devices; and it did the same for mobile medical applications. In some cases, this decision makes perfect sense; however, there is a subset of devices in which smart regulation is needed. Think about how the FDA regulates prescription medications that have a direct impact on health but keeps its hands off multi-vitamins and supplements.

In the same vein, devices like Telcare that affect key aspect of health like regulating blood glucose levels should be guided by policy, but  ‘wellness’ apps that track fitness activities should not be subject to regulation. It’s about laying down the right rules with the right advice instead of taking a hands-off approach that could actually muddy the waters of progress.


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Bridging the Divide

To close the gap between the Valley and Washington, an effective method of collaboration needs to be leveraged in a joint venture that aims to make policies and adhering to them a seamless and pain-free experience. It can start with something as simple as having tech meetups in Washington, where tech professionals can communicate their needs and concerns on relevant legislation affecting their particular fields.

And on the other end, technology companies could do something as easy as adding more people with policy backgrounds and governmental understanding as consultants to ensure the governmental mentality is not entirely forgotten.

To illustrate, in the case for cybersecurity, many policy makers want more privacy protection, businesses think there is enough because it still allows them to collect enough customer data to optimize user experiences, and researchers think they’re being hobbled with legislation that criminalizes their daily jobs.

No one is pleased, putting a wrench in the policy-making process. But perhaps with the input of researchers and other technology experts, the government could be better aware of what’s going on in the space and change how it forms and implements its policy in order to produce the optimal decisions.

It’s the same in the case of healthcare technology. Adding regulation would weed out the imitators from the tech businesses that are actually delivering actionable results, but it should not be overbearing. Washington and Federal agencies need to become better aware of what products need to be certified and regulated, versus those that simply deliver a cool “wellness” experience for the user.

In short, there needs to be better communication and understanding between the White House and Silicon Valley. There are already signs of this mentality, as exemplified by tech meetups at the White House and Obama’s string of Silicon Valley hires for new administrative roles like chief data scientist, chief digital officer, and director of IT. But it’s time we really rethink our approach and ensure that the technology market has the opportunity to innovate and grow.

middle image: shutterstock/Ray_of_Light