The New Technology Policy Battlegrounds Are Getting Closer To Home

Technology is transforming policy fights across the nation, reshaping the focus, issues and battlegrounds. Not so long ago, the primary debates and decisions on major policy issues were centered in Washington, D.C. And today, there are, of course, major battles being waged in Washington that have far-reaching impacts on our global competitiveness — think international tax reform, trade, cybersecurity and efforts to make our country more welcoming to the best and brightest minds around the world.

However, a new crop of issues is emerging centered much closer to home, in state legislatures, city councils and local commissions across the nation — in Austin, Boston, Sacramento, Seattle, Springfield, Tallahassee and Albany. This is the direct byproduct of a new wave of technology that is emerging — the Internet of Things, wearables, unmanned aerial vehicles and sharing-economy platforms. And the move to the states will only accelerate as more technologies develop.

As a broad principle, most policymakers agree that state and local governments shouldn’t take actions that stifle innovation, but the devil is in the details. So what guidelines should we keep in mind to take that principle and turn it into reality?

First, do no harm. Proposed rules shouldn’t be arbitrary, punitive or designed to shut down new business models or industries. That may seem obvious, but recent California legislation to limit the ability of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) to operate commercially or by hobbyists would have hamstrung an entire new industry. Thankfully, Governor Jerry Brown had the wisdom and foresight to veto the legislation.

Winners and losers should be determined by consumers, customers and users, not legislators and regulators.

Second, don’t apply decades-old regulations to disruptive technologies. To be sure, in most cases, a reasonable balance can be struck between new and old. But in the case of ground-breaking ride-sharing applications like Uber and Lyft, there are some who want to ban the services outright in favor of monopolistic taxi companies, which have proven over time to be unresponsive to customer wants and needs. A more balanced approach that opens the door to new business models and job creation makes much more sense.

Third, state policies and laws should be technology neutral and designed to address the dynamic changes taking place in the industry. Winners and losers should be determined by consumers, customers and users, not legislators and regulators.

And fourth — in the long run — jobs and R&D dollars will go to the states and localities with policies that foster innovation. This is simple logic. If companies have a choice of where to locate, they will go to the places that are most welcoming and supportive. That’s why states like Nevada, North Carolina and Texas have been so successful in luring technology companies to build a significant presence in their cities. Other states — by imposing significant burdens on tech — are actively discouraging investment.

These days, technology companies simply can’t afford to focus on Washington at the expense of the states, or focus on the states at the expense of Washington. That’s why TechNet launched a 50-state initiative last year to educate state and local policymakers on the issues, and to lay out the financial, regulatory, technology and jobs impact of proposed legislation. This program has advanced policies that encourage innovation, like putting digital textbooks in classrooms across the nation, and helped block legislation that would have stifled innovation.

It has been said that the states are the laboratories for democracy. That’s undoubtedly true, and at least on technology issues, this has led to all kinds of proposals — some good and some not so much — that will determine whether our nation continues to lead when it comes to developing new and innovative technologies.