Tech's bad year in Washington

Tech's bad year in Washington
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It's been a bad year for the tech sector’s issues in Washington.

Practically every interest group has things to complain about after Congress put to rest its second least productive term in history, but the tech industry has spent millions on its campaigns, and repeatedly come up short.

Perhaps even more frustrating for tech backers, many of the issues that they have advocated have significant bipartisan support and earned the backing of one chamber of Congress or the other.

“For this Congress we had a lot of half-victories and very few touchdowns, if you will, or very few winning games,” said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association.

Here’s a look at the tech hopes that went unfulfilled this year.

 

Patent reform

Heading into the year, few issues seemed to be as well-supported as reforming the nation’s patent laws to prevent “trolls” from harassing companies with scores of lawsuits.

A patent reform bill cruised through the House last December, and President Obama highlighted the issue in his State of the Union address as one of his 2014 priorities for Capitol Hill.

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Yet despite months of work from some of the Senate’s most senior lawmakers in both parties, the reform push was killed just before completion, at the request of Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidKamala Harris to young Black women at conference: 'I want you to be ambitious' Obama calls filibuster 'Jim Crow relic,' backs new Voting Rights Act bill McConnell warns Democrats not to change filibuster rule MORE (D-Nev.).

“It’s been frustrating,” said Shapiro. “We have real frustration with Majority Leader Reid on patent trolls. We had the votes and he personally held it up.”

The switch in control in the upper chamber could give tech companies and other backers of reform reason for optimism, since Senate Republicans have said that they want to hit the ground running next year.

 

NSA reform

The National Security Agency (NSA) captured headlines across the globe over the last year and a half, but it took just two votes to prevent action in Congress.

Tech companies say that the public’s loss of trust in their companies will cost them billions of dollars and could force other countries to enact strict new laws that undermine the integrity of the global Internet. To focus their efforts on legislation, titans like Google, Microsoft and Facebook joined forces as the Reform Government Surveillance coalition and hired lobbyists to bend lawmakers’ ear.

Companies had lobbied vigorously for the USA Freedom Act, which would have given them more ways to report instances where users’ information gets handed to the government. It would also have ended the NSA’s ability to collect and search virtually all Americans’ phone records.

The House passed a watered-down version of the bill that many companies ultimately did not support, but legislation in the Senate appeared to be moving in a way they could get behind. In November, however, the bill failed to gain the 60 votes needed to move past a procedural hurdle, despite winning the backing of all but one Democrat and a handful of Republicans. 

It failed 58-42.

NSA reform, too, is on tap for early next year, however. The provision of the Patriot Act authorizing the NSA’s phone record program is set to expire in June, and lawmakers will need to reform the program in order to reauthorize the critical law.

 

Email privacy

More than half the House signed on to co-sponsor legislation to protect people’s emails, yet it went nowhere.

The Email Privacy Act would have updated a 1986 law to require government agents to get a warrant before searching through people’s emails.

Under current law — which was created before anyone could predict how important the Internet would become — authorities are allowed to search emails, pictures and other documents stored in the cloud that have been there for at least 180 days.

The bill never got a vote in the Judiciary Committee. Among other issues, lawmakers’ attempts to attach other items to the legislation and the lack of full support from Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlattePress: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself USCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids MORE (R-Va.) appeared to sink it.

In the Senate, a companion bill written by Judiciary Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyYates spars with GOP at testy hearing Vermont has a chance to show how bipartisanship can tackle systemic racism VOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage MORE (D-Vt.) passed through the panel but never made it to the Senate floor.

It’s unclear what the bill’s prospects are for next year, given the lack of support from Republican leaders. Civil liberties groups and supporters of the bill have pledged to fight on.

 

Immigration

Tech companies were some of the strongest supporters of comprehensive immigration reform.

When that effort failed, however, many began to push Congress and the White House for more flexibility to hire and retain high-skilled foreign workers, which tech companies say they need to beef up their ranks of coders and developers.

But when President Obama announced his major executive action last month, some tech groups felt left out.

“I fear it’s a little bit light on the high-skilled piece,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Engine, an advocacy group for startup companies.

While the White House cannot unilaterally raise the total cap on visas for high-skilled workers entering the United States — known as H-1B visas —many advocates had hoped that it would grant new flexibility to reissue unused visas or make other moves to help companies out. Instead, the president’s plan would allow some immigrants’ spouses to work in the U.S., among other measures.  

Critics of the move say that the companies are merely trying to undercut U.S. workers and keep pay down.

Still, many industry sources appeared hopeful that Congress won’t abandon the issue next year, even as Republicans take control.

“I think there’s going to be legislative vehicles available on immigration and there’s widespread support for H-1B visas and reforms that are important to the tech sector,” said Craig Albright, the vice president for legislative affairs at BSA | The Software Alliance. “We’ll be looking for opportunities to add those provisions to any im