This Week in Tech: House returns to patents

A House panel this week will renew the congressional debate on patent reform.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property will hold a hearing Wednesday on the Patent and Trademark Office. According to a committee aide, the oversight hearing’s sole witness will be Michelle Lee, deputy PTO director.

According to a PTO aide, Lee will discuss the state of the agency.

The hearing comes after a concerted push from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to reform the country’s patent system. The House passed the comprehensive patent reform bill, the Innovation Act, late last year, but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) shelved a companion effort in May after failing to reach a consensus. 

Officials at the PTO such as Lee, a former Google deputy general counsel, were vocal advocates for reform. At a White House event in February, Lee and other members of the administration pushed tech companies to take a more active role in helping the PTO improve patent quality and called on Congress to pass a legislative overhaul.

Another issue that could come up at the hearing is the vacancy at the top of the agency.

Former PTO Director David Kappos stepped down in early 2013. Former Deputy Director Teresa Stanek Rea filled the top spot as acting director until last September, but the job has been open ever since, much to the frustration of some in the tech industry.

When reports surfaced last month that the White House was eyeing pharmaceutical lawyer Phil Johnson, who argued against certain patent reform measures in front of the Senate, comprehensive patent reform advocates pushed back, causing the White House to distance itself from Johnson.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on wireless “cramming,” unauthorized charges on a consumer’s monthly cellphone bill. 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) launched an inquiry into the issue of phone-bill cramming in 2012. He sent letters to the major wireless companies — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — last year, repeating concerns about “the growing incidence of cramming on wireless telephone bills.”

Since the start of Rockefeller’s inquiry, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have announced investigations into T-Mobile for alleged cramming. The FTC announced earlier this month that it is bringing T-Mobile to court for making “hundreds of millions of dollars” off of the unauthorized charges.

The immigration crisis on the southern border will veer into the tech world on Thursday, when a House Science subcommittee examines the technology needed to safeguard the border. Analysts from academia and the Rand Corporation will provide testimony alongside the head of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security wing. 

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee is scheduled Tuesday to take a look at the “small solutions” in nanotechnology, which the panel said can “drive big innovation.” 

On Tuesday morning, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) will hold an event in the Capitol to present preliminary findings of a Government Accountability Office report on broadband data caps, which Internet providers sometimes use to limit the amount of data consumers use.

According to an Eshoo aide, the congresswoman plans to submit the preliminary findings, based on input from consumer groups in four major cities, to the FCC as it rewrites its net neutrality rules. The issue of “data caps is an important component” of the net neutrality debate, as they can be used to discriminate in favor of certain Internet traffic, the aide said.

Off Capitol Hill, FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright is speaking at a TechFreedom lunch discussion Thursday about the commission’s recent enforcement actions against Apple and Amazon.

Over on the West Coast, the Department of Commerce will host two roundtables on copyright issues next week. The Wednesday meeting will take place in Los Angeles, while the Thursday meeting will take place in Berkeley, Calif. Both meetings will be live-streamed on the websites of the PTO and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.