Tech politics: Friends up on Capitol Hill

From 'net neutrality' to foreign worker visas, the new Congress may be the most technology-friendly in history.

By Chris Taylor, Business 2.0 Magazine senior editor

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Amid all the post-election noise, Democrats haven't been subtle about their top priorities once they take control of Congress: boost minimum wage, reform Medicare, rescind the 2001 tax cuts, and clean up "the swamp" of Washington lobbying.

With such a teeming legislative plate, the tech industry might be feeling like table scraps right about now. It shouldn't. The 110th Congress could be the most technology-friendly in history.


Here's why: Yes, Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive new Speaker of the House, hails from one of the most liberal parts of the country, San Francisco. But she also represents a city that's near the heart of America's tech sector.

A year ago this month, after extensive meetings with VCs and entrepreneurs, Pelosi unveiled an "innovation agenda" that called, among other things, for broadband access for all Americans, whether it comes via Wi-Fi, Wi-Max or a fixed line by 2010.

Pelosi's pledge surprised no one inside the Beltway or Silicon Valley. Lobbyists say Pelosi is close to Silicon Valley Democrats Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren. Eshoo's constituents include Steve Jobs, David Filo and most of Hewlett-Packard (Charts). Lofgren, meanwhile, represents the high tech hub of San Jose.

"We are optimistic when it comes to Democrats and high tech," Bill Archey, President of the American Electronics Association, the largest technology lobbying group in the US., told the San Francisco Chronicle this week. "To use a Silicon Valley term, they tend to get it."

Hungry for H-1Bs

One issue that's near and dear to Silicon Valley's heart: H-1B visas. These permits allow foreign engineers, programmers and other highly-skilled professionals work in the United States for three to six years. The base number of visas issued each year for skilled workers is capped at 65,000, which is a huge concern for tech giants, like Intel and Hewlett-Packard, which have an insatiable appetite for engineers and programmers from India and China.

The H1-B ceiling once approached 200,000 before Congress started curtailing visa applications in recent years. Legislative efforts to raise the ceiling have failed, including two attempts in the current Congress that were defeated amid the broader debate over immigration. Republican leaders didn't want to appear soft on the issue.

Now that Rep. George Miller (D-California) is likely to chair the Education and Workforce committee, tech companies are optimistic the H-1B cap will now be increased.

Another hot-button tech issue likely to get resolved: net neutrality. This is a complicated battle with telecoms and the cable industry allied in one corner, and consumer advocates in the other. The telecoms want to charge premium rates to allow customers to navigate the Internet at top speeds. Opponents like Intel (Charts), Microsoft, eBay (Charts) and Google (Charts) contend that high-speed lanes would create a digital divide between the rich and poor - and, ultimately, stifle innovation.

A proposal outlawing high-speed toll booths failed in the House earlier this year, and met with a heartbreaking 11-11 tie in the Senate's telecom committee. But now that both House and Senate are in Democratic hands, it's far less likely telecoms and cable companies will succeed.

Nancy Pelosi is a staunch supporter of net neutrality, as is Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who called the telecom's plan "private taxation of the Internet." Dingell will chair the telecom committee in the house, and told reporters on Wednesday that "we're going to have to address the question of network neutrality."

The privacy party

Of course, the Democrats aren't always pro-technology. How can they be, when most Hollywood campaign contributions wind up in Democratic coffers?

The major studios and Silicon Valley have long been at loggerheads over legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The 1998 law imposed a vice-like protective grip on Hollywood's intellectual property by making certain software illegal if used - even in theory - to circumvent copyright protection.

The DMCA was a bipartisan piece of legislation. And now some Democrats want to go further to help the entertainment industry.

Rep. Howard Berman, a Hollywood Democrat who may end up as chair of the subcommittee on intellectual property, once sponsored legislation that would have let the studios and record labels legally hack into peer-to-peer networks like LimeWire and disrupt them. The proposal, which failed, gave computer security experts nightmares.

Here's where this debate gets interesting: Berman isn't the only contender for that subcommittee post. Rick Boucher, a pro-Silicon Valley Democrat, may get the appointment. In contrast to Berman, Boucher has indicated he'll try to soften the DMCA. Boucher believes privacy trumps copyright.

Indeed, Democrats are fast becoming the party of privacy.

Fourteen bills related to technological privacy - including one that would have imposed tougher sentences for spyware makers and another that would have required companies to disclose when consumer data was stolen or misused - failed in the last two years.

Now pro-privacy stalwarts like Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein (California) and Patrick Leahy (Vermont), and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) are likely to push their cause with a vengeance.

The takeaway this week for top-tier tech companies, online privacy advocates, and believers in equal Internet access for all? The future looks very bright.

At least until 2008. Top of page

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