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An unlikely but real threat to online schooling: Patent trolls

An unlikely but real threat to online schooling: Patent trolls
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To confront the coronavirus pandemic, many school districts pivoted exclusively to online learning. However, in communities without broadband internet connections and access to tablets and smartphones, many of them underserved communities, the 2019-20 school year effectively ended at spring break. For the sake of our students, that must change.

As families, schools, companies and governments scramble to provide solutions and expand access to distance-learning technology in a time of unprecedented need, a single patent troll directly threatens this progress by launching a case that would cut access to the vast majority of mobile devices sold in the U.S.

More than a year ago, the Pew Center identified a “homework gap” linked to income. A third of low-income households with school-aged kids lacked a high-speed internet connection. Pew also has found that minority and low-income families depend on smartphones for internet access more than their more affluent peers. For example, it is common for kids in African American and Hispanic families at the economic edge to have to compete for a single smartphone to complete homework.

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News stories have covered the digital divide’s persistence and its implications. The longer the pandemic grips the country, the greater the education risks for poor families, including those in Hispanic and other minority communities.

As previous interruptions such as snow emergencies have proven, it does not take long for unconnected students to fall behind. Without reliable connections during the COVID-19 pandemic, distance learning is unlikely to serve our students well. 

The digital divide is not new. There long has been bipartisan support for expanding access to rural and economically disadvantaged urban communities. It makes sense to connect businesses and customers, job seekers to employers, and students to teachers. The pandemic has made the divide’s consequences immediate and reminded us of the pressing need to close the gap.

Crises such as these can bring out the best in us — and in our institutions — as we unite to help those who are hardest hit. Unfortunately, however, while most are pulling in the same direction, activities by a single company before a lesser-known federal agency could stymie the access necessary to face this crisis.

Neodron, a recently created company based in Ireland that has acquired a few patents related to touchscreen technology, has fired up profiteering litigation against nearly every major mobile device manufacturer that supplies the U.S. market. Neodron is the epitome of a “patent troll.” These entities do not make anything. Instead, they acquire patents, allege infringement (often dubiously) and hope to collect a settlement.

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Patent trolls increasingly have petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), an agency that is supposed to focus on protecting the U.S. economy from unfair foreign trade practices. Typically, patent trolls seek an “exclusion order” that bans importation of the supposedly patent-violating goods.

Neodron has filed two cases that together cover over 90 percent of the smartphones and tablets, as well as touchscreen laptops. These include products with household names such as Apple, Amazon, Dell, HP, Microsoft, Motorola and Samsung. Neodron is asking the ITC to exclude all of these millions of products from the United States.

If Neodron succeeds, it is no exaggeration to say that millions of American families will suffer greatly. It would become even harder to gain access to the devices that are indispensable to students and their teachers. Many of the most affordable mobile devices no longer would be options, and the few remaining would spike in price. This would disproportionately harm low-income and minority communities that already face major challenges accessing the technology that drives modern society.

No one should want the prospect of closing the U.S. market to the mobile devices that help shrink the digital divide and offer a critical lifeline to education and much more. Yet this very real threat provides an example of how individual government agencies exploited by bad actors can stymie critical government efforts at relief. 

Fortunately, Congress has made clear that the ITC must consider the public interest before issuing an exclusion order. Hopefully, the ITC will recognize that it is wrong to strip these critically important digital tools from the communities so desperately in need of them.

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes liberty, opportunity, and prosperity for all Americans. Follow him on Twitter @MarioHLopez.