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Tech Policy and the State of the Union: What to Watch For


Besides cold temperatures, inevitable musings about an Ovechkin-led Capitals being positioned to make a run at the Stanley Cup (followed by them falling off a cliff), and the occasional wayward arctic fowl, January in the District of Columbia comes with at least one constant ritual: the time honored tradition of speculating on what will be included in the State of the Union.  (And, in recent times, the SOTU-themed drinking games that flow from the anticipation… even the Washington Post has one this year).  Although some of the suspense has been dampened with media leaks and a multi-week presidential tour highlighting important SOTU themes, some surprises remain.

With political watchers fixated on what President Obama will and will not include in this year’s SOTU, I thought it was a good time for DisCo to lay out a potential tech policy roadmap for what to watch for this year in the President’s annual “setting priorities” exercise.

High-Speed Broadband

High on the President’s slate of tech priorities is increasing the speed and availability of broadband access in the United States, particularly to underserved rural communities.  As part of this rollout, over the past two weeks, President Obama has travelled to different parts of the country on a “Road to the State of the Union” tour.  On January 14, President Obama went to Cedar Falls, Iowa to announce plans for helping more communities build faster and more affordable broadband networks.  Likening broadband access to “the electricity of the 21st century”, President Obama compared the federal government’s plans to encourage rural broadband buildout to the work done under the Rural Electrification Act in the 1930s, which helped lay the foundation for the economic boom that followed WWII.

He explained policy objectives of ending laws that harm broadband competition, expanding the national movement of local leaders for better broadband, announcing a new initiative to support community broadband projects, unveiling new grant and loan opportunities for rural providers, and removing regulatory barriers and improving investment incentives.

President Obama will likely highlight work done by the USDA’s Community Connect broadband grant program that “offers financing to eligible rural carriers that invest in bringing high-speed broadband to unserved and underserved rural areas.”  Furthermore, he will most likely promote NTIA’s BroadbandUSA initiative “aimed at finding new ways to assist communities seeking to ensure their citizens have the broadband capacity they need to advance economic development, education, health care, and public safety.”

Net Neutrality/Open Internet

In November, President Obama called on Chairman Wheeler and the FCC to protect an Open Internet and reclassify internet service under Title II.  (See the White House video about the plan here).

He may respond to the recent announcement of a bill from Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune and House Energy and Commerce leadership Reps. Fred Upton and Greg Walden that would boost the FCC’s 2010 rules, but would prevent the FCC from moving ahead with Title II reclassification or using its authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act.

More on this from Politico’s Morning Tech:

“In a letter Friday, the White House reiterated its view that the FCC should move ahead with its reclassification plans despite the Republican bill. ‘As technology continues to evolve, and uses of it continue to increase, the FCC needs the right balance of flexibility and strong authorities to promote competition and access,’ Katie Beirne Fallon, the White House director of legislative affairs, told Thune in the letter. ‘Equally vital is the FCC’s ability to enforce, interpret, and flexibly apply, the principles of an open Internet.’”


Given the numerous high profile breaches in the last year, including the recent Sony hack, President Obama will outline legislative proposals and executive action.  He will likely urge Congress to pass legislation designed to increase information sharing between the private sector and the government, modernize federal cybercrime statutes, and create federal standard for how companies notify customers of data breaches.  Included among these goals are a White House Cybersecurity Summit, and an executive action that will direct the Department of Homeland Security to promote the development of private sector cyber-threat Information Sharing and Analysis Organizations.

The true impact of these initiatives lies in the details of the legislative proposals and the guidelines that ultimately result from the President’s executive actions, but they provide a good indication that the Administration intends for Congress to address digital threats to America’s economic and critical infrastructure early in the 114th Congress.

Consumer and Student Privacy

On January 12, President Obama stopped by the FTC to discuss protecting consumers from identity theft and children’s privacy.  The President will encourage free access to credit scores and propose legislation for a new Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, along with “the Student Digital Privacy Act,” which would prevent companies from selling student data collected in the classroom to third parties for purposes other than education.

The President’s proposals, which will likely be touched on in tonight’s address, remain largely under wraps.  A key focus for the Administration will be to ensure consumers are well-protected from breaches without introducing restrictive requirements on innovative technologies and services.


The President is also likely to promote his aggressive trade agenda, which includes the no less than four major trade agreements that are currently being negotiated.  His first priority will likely be encouraging Congress to pass so-called “fast-track” authority, in which Congress commits to an up-or-down vote on trade deals, in exchange for upfront Congressional guidance on what should and should not be included in U.S. trade agreements.

Although the president is unlikely to go into much detail as to the specifics of the agreements, a number of tech-policy priorities are under consideration (I have touched on this before on DisCo), including free-flow of information principals, server localization language and balanced intellectual property provisions.

The short takeaway: increasing attention to trade agreements is probably a positive, but followers of tech policy need to watch closely to ensure that these trade agreements adequately reflect and prioritize the Internet, as it is the single greatest driver of global commerce in the 21st century.  As with most of the other policies the President is likely to highlight in the SOTU, the devil will be in the details.


This list is not exhaustive.  Last year, patent reform received a mention from the Commander-and-Chief, and Congress still needs to finish the job this year.  Since patent reform is one of the few legislative issues that has a chance of bipartisan support in this Congress, don’t be surprised to hear a passing nod to patent reform.

If the President really wants to burnish his tech policy credentials on national television (and this is a reach!), he might even touch on drone policy.  In the past, President Obama has discussed the military’s policy on drones, but 2015 is likely to feature a robust debate on the commercial use of drones.  (I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, but I needed to throw in at least one longshot.)

Also, for the unapologetic tech nerds (like myself), there is SOTU tech policy bingo.

Digital Trade

Companies rely on clear, predictable rules that facilitate digital trade to export their products and services around the world. These rules include balancing the competing interests between encouraging investment and enabling information access; promoting the free flow of information online; and maintaining balanced intermediary liability regimes.


New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.


Trust in the integrity and security of the Internet and associated products and services is essential to its success as a platform for digital communication and commerce. For this reason we’re committed to upholding and advocating for policymaking that empowers consumers to make informed choices in the marketplace while not impeding new business models.