Tech and government: The state of our union

Technology innovators tend to operate with an ethos that they consider diametrically opposed to that of government, frequently leading to friction and adversarial attitudes. They view tech as fast-moving, inventive and needing to be free of bureaucracy — while government is staid, stodgy and constrained by restrictive red tape.

Government, however, remains an ever-present force in the operations of any company, technology or otherwise, and can be friend or foe.

Given the current regulatory, legal and political climate in our country, and while technology becomes increasingly more pervasive in our society, there is an urgent need for members of the tech community to devote greater attention to what’s happening in Washington, D.C. All branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — contend with a host of weighty issues that carry high-stakes consequences for the industry.

In recent years, Congress has confronted a growing number of technology-related topics, like intellectual property, immigration reform, privacy and surveillance. Decision-making in Congress follows a tried-and-true system, with established industries deploying lobbyists, consultants and advocacy groups to relentlessly court legislators in largely the same manner they have for decades. These entrenched interests that are evident in so many government fights have battle-tested resources, long-term relationships with policymakers and experience at navigating the halls of Congress.

Notably, significant new coalitions and advocacy groups have recently emerged to help guide the technology community through Congress’ playbook. A recent fintech event on Capitol Hill, for example, which brought together leaders in blockchain technology, was a promising example of a burgeoning new industry creating inroads with the elected officials who wield influence over its regulatory future.

The speed of technological change can sometimes have federal regulators playing catch-up. Take unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, for example. Planes have historically had a protracted production cycle; to design, assemble and certify a new aircraft takes considerable time. This lengthy manufacturing process seemed to fit the regulatory process well, which by its nature is deliberate and circumspect.

The relationship between technology and government will become ever more significant to the future of our economy.

However, the change in pace of drone technology is rapid, and with half a million recreational drones already registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the widespread use of drones for commercial purposes just around the corner, government must move fast to keep pace in this new environment. Fortunately, concrete action is being taken by numerous government agencies to ensure that drone policy is crafted responsibly.

On August 2, the White House hosted The Workshop on Drones and the Future of Aviation, which brought together leaders in government, academic and private industry to discuss the near and long-term implications of drone technology. In addition, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has committed $35 million to “accelerate the understanding” of how to regulate drone usage and how to unlock the technology’s full commercial and civic potential.

This new industry, which will impact sectors ranging from construction to retail and create thousands of new jobs, should be forged collaboratively by both private and public actors. The White House’s initiative, coupled with action by the FAA and NSF, demonstrates that the government can also gather the appropriate stakeholders to strengthen interdisciplinary dialogue around technology policy solutions.

Or take the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has found itself at odds with certain technology companies, namely Internet Service Providers, as it has solidified and advanced open internet and net neutrality regulation. Some in the tech community are concerned that the FCC’s regulatory policy will create an ecosystem overly favorable to streaming platforms.

Technology companies are also finding themselves increasingly engaged with local governments, where intense regulatory battles are unfolding.

The technology community also should be closely monitoring what’s happening in the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court.

Take ridesharing behemoths Uber and Lyft’s recent showdown over whether to impose fingerprint background checks when screening drivers in Austin, Texas — one of the country’s fastest-growing technology hubs. After a contentious, multi-million-dollar campaign, voters approved the new ridesharing security measure by a whopping margin. This created an untenable business environment for Uber and Lyft, and both companies swiftly ceased operating in Austin.

Uber and Lyft seemed to expect — and rightfully so — that both their customers and Austin’s technology workers would come out in full force to support their right to operate. To the contrary, they stayed home and, in turn, handed the opposition, a portion of which had never even used either service, a resounding victory.

The technology community also should be closely monitoring what’s happening in the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court. Pending and future cases carry high stakes for tech innovators — small and large — and consumers alike.

Consider the closely watched trial between Apple and Samsung over design patents. If the Supreme Court doesn’t reverse the lower court’s ruling, it could deal a shock to our intellectual property system. It could encumber innovation and investment and make companies that create technology products vulnerable to costly litigation and attacks by patent trolls. This is but one example of a legal case with significant implications for the entire technology community.

Finally, at times certain technologies have been antagonized by interest groups that blame innovation for lost jobs and diminished opportunities. These interest groups have reached out to aggrieved communities seeking to fan the flames of discontent. The pain of disruption is very real, and policy makers should take concrete steps to both mitigate potential job losses and allay unfounded fears.

Still, technology innovators mostly strive to improve the lives of their customers and seek to save them money, make their businesses operate more efficiently, bring them prosperity and access and connect them to people around the world. This message often gets lost and misconstrued amid economic turmoil.

It is clear that the relationship between technology and government will become ever more significant to the future of our economy. If innovators in Silicon Valley, or startups hoping to become the next unicorn, think that government will not play a role in shaping the technology sector, they are uninformed or naive.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a graph that displayed the top 12 private companies by valuation. For half of these companies, which as of 2015 represented a combined valuation of $113 billion, interaction with government is core to their business. An equally misguided position would be for government officials to believe that technology innovators and entrepreneurs will cease looking for ways to solve problems, disrupt inefficient systems and industries and catalyze regulatory change.

The goal should be to forge an economy that is both conducive to prosperity and cognizant of the dramatic and sometimes painful changes that can occur with rapid progress. Our future should not be shaped exclusively by giant technology companies or overreaching government bureaucrats but by sedulous professionals on both ends of the spectrum dedicated to employing judiciousness and patience in the pursuit of common goals.