Tech looks for megaphone in trade negotiations

Tech looks for megaphone in trade negotiations
© Getty

America’s biggest tech companies are eager to make sure they don't get left out of the Obama administration’s trade plans.

Companies are intensifying their focus on lobbying members of Congress so that server farms and Facebook pages are taken as seriously as prescription drugs and auto parts.
"There’s certainly a coordinated effort to educate lawmakers of both parties on the value of digital trade to the U.S. economy,” said Noah Theran, a spokesman for the Internet Association. The group represents Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and other Internet companies in Washington.


“It’s essential to Internet companies that U.S. trade policy reflects the importance of the Internet to today's economy,” he added.
This last week, the industry group hosted a briefing to talk trade with congressional staffers. As part of the effort, it brought in small business owners who starred in a video it produced showcasing the value of the Internet, including a Washington-based paper producer who sells her goods on Etsy and a North Carolina barbeque sauce maker. 
Groups across the industry have been rallying their forces.
“We’ve been up there talking about it; companies have been up there talking about it,” said Vince Jesaitis, vice president of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group that counts AOL, Apple, Google and others among its dozens of members.
In addition to old fashioned shoe leather lobbying, his group is trying to drum up public support through social media and through a website detailing how trade “fosters innovation” and “works for you.”
Last week, the Software and Information Industry Association urged House Democrats to support President Obama’s call for a “fast-track” bill to speed up negotiations for deals with Europe and Asia.
BSA-The Software Alliance — another software industry trade group — has also pressed Congress to move forward on a “21st century” trade deal in a letter to Congressional leaders this month.
In large part, the new urgency comes from perceptions that “fast-track” trade authority may be one of the few items that congressional Republicans can work on with President Obama. The issue has caused a splinter between Obama and many congressional Democrats, who have stymied his efforts to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in the past.
Tech companies aren’t just up against the politics, however.
Congress last passed a TPA bill in 2002, when Mark Zuckerberg was just enrolling as a Harvard freshman. At that time, the iPhone was still just a figment of Steve Jobs’s imagination and wouldn’t be unleashed to the public for another five years.
That could be a barrier, one industry veteran said.
“Most people who don’t have my gray hair have probably not done these trade issues in a major way,” said an industry lobbyist who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely.
“We’ll see how smart they are and how effectively companies push their stuff,” the lobbyist said. “It’s unclear to me how various companies are going to know how to use the process and how effective they’ll be, and how well they can coordinate with each other.”
Tech companies face different challenges than other industries, and some of their biggest trade issues involve nuanced details of copyright and intellectual property law.
In the U.S., current law shields companies like Facebook and Yelp from liability for libelous, offensive or politically controversial things that people post on their site.
American law also includes a number of copyright exemptions that allow people to share some protected material online. And if someone posts something that infringes on someone else’s copyright — such as a pirated copy of a movie — there’s a legal system that allows those companies to take down the content without being held responsible.
Those same laws don’t apply overseas, however, which has at times forced companies to restructure their businesses.
Late last year for instance, Google announced that it would end its Google News platform in Spain because of a new law that would have forced it to pay news outlets for republishing headlines and snippets of text.

Those U.S. copyright and liability protections are "part of what has allowed the Internet to flourish in the United States,” said Theran, the Internet Association spokesman. “It is essential that those types of provisions also be extended abroad."
A TPA bill released last year included intellectual property language that was too harsh on Web companies, the Internet Association told leaders of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees in a letter earlier in January. The group urged lawmakers to change course this time around.
Another hurdle for tech companies are barriers to the flow of data between nations and foreign laws that force firms to locate servers within a country’s borders or otherwise restrict them from processing data globally.
Some governments have eyed those types of restrictions for years, in order to exert more power over the data or curtail possible foreign spying, but the calls have mounted in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency.
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has called those types of rules “a form of trade barriers” and said last year that the trend could “end up breaking the Internet.”
Companies are also pushing for rules that let people easily pay for things and ship devices back and forth between the U.S. and other countries, among other provisions.
Judging from early statements on Capitol Hill, the lobbying is at least partially paying off.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP confident of win on witnesses Republicans signal renewed confidence they'll avoid witness fight The Hill's Morning Report - Bolton charge ups ante in witness showdown MORE (R-S.D.) has warned that other countries’ purported concerns about privacy can be used as a front for them to prioritize their own digital goods, while restricting imports from the U.S.
Not only does that hurt U.S. companies, Thune said last week, but it also risks relegating whole portions of the world to second-class “netizens.”
“Just as we have long fought against protectionist barriers that harm American manufacturing and exports, we now need to ensure that digital protectionism does not lead to the balkanization of the Internet,” he said.
Last Congress, Thune and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenTax season could bring more refund confusion Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Wyden asks NSA to investigate White House cybersecurity | Commerce withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon objects | Warren calls on Brazil to drop Greenwald charges Wyden vows push to force release of Khashoggi assessment MORE (D-Ore.) introduced the Digital Trade Act, which would have ensured that American negotiators are staffed with digital trade experts and that they promote an “open, global Internet,” among other provisions.
Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchKey Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Trump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske Trump holds more Medal of Freedom ceremonies than predecessors but awards fewer medals MORE (R-Utah), the head of the Finance Committee, is the leader of the GOP high-tech task force. However, he may lean too heavily in favor of copyright protection, potentially at the Web sector’s expense.
In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Friday, he called intellectual property “the backbone of our economy” and "a high priority for me."
Still, Hatch seems committed to protecting Silicon Valley’s interests.
During the speech, he called for a “complete revision” of the 2002 law with respect to digital issues, so that it recognizes “the central role the Internet plays as a platform in international commerce.”
— Mario Trujillo contributed