Startup News Digest: 12/11/2015

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Our weekly take on some of the biggest stories in startup and tech policy. 

Net Neutrality Has its Day in Court. The net neutrality debate that has dominated tech policy headlines for the past two years finally got its day in court last Friday. A panel of three judges from the DC Circuit heard oral arguments in the lawsuit brought by a consortium of ISPs to invalidate the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Proponents of the FCC’s rules came away from the hearing fairly optimistic. A majority of judges seemed to side with the FCC in the most crucial aspect of the dispute: whether or not the Commission had adequate authority to reclassify Internet access as a “telecommunications service.” The court pushed back more significantly on the FCC’s authority to reclassify mobile broadband and the adequacy of the notice the FCC provided about the final rules it adopted. While we remain optimistic about the Court’s ultimate decision, the net neutrality debate will almost certainly not go away when the Court issues its ruling early next year. It seems likely that the case will ultimately end up before the Supreme Court, and Congress continues to ponder whether it should pass anti-net neutrality legislation.

Feinstein Wants Tech to Report Terrorist Activity. As terrorists attempt to use Internet platforms to mobilize followers, disseminate propaganda, and coordinate attacks, working to diminish militants’ capacity to organize through social media is critical. But the Requiring Reporting of Online Terrorist Activity Act, introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) earlier this week, is not the answer. The bill would require tech companies to report “any terrorist activity” that they have knowledge of to law enforcement. This obligation seems innocuous on its face, but as often happens, difficulties arise in determining how to actually apply this standard. Emma elaborates on all of the reasons the bill’s controversial (and previously rejected) framework could potentially do more harm than good here.

Computer Science in Classrooms. An education bill signed into law on Thursday acknowledges computer science as a foundational academic subject. By doing so, the bill puts computer science “on equal footing with other subjects when state and local policymakers decide how to dole out federal funds.” This new designation could potentially accelerate computer science's introduction into classrooms across the U.S. and ultimately help address the country's growing tech talent shortage.

Bill Would Cut Back H-1Bs. Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) introduced a bill this week that would reduce the number of H-1B visas available by 15,000 and also modify the way those visas are allocated—requiring they go to workers who will earn the highest wages. The H-1B program allows companies to hire foreign high-skilled employees, including those with expertise in science, engineering, and computer programming. While these visas are highly coveted within the tech industry, accounts of program abuse have galvanized members of Congress to restructure the program. “This bill directly targets outsourcing companies that rely on lower-wage foreign workers to replace equally-qualified U.S. workers,” Sen. Nelson said in a statement. While attempting to prevent bad practices by specific outsourcing companies, this bill would unduly harm the wider tech industry by further limiting global talent from contributing to U.S. companies, big and small. 2015 saw a record number of H-1B applications: 233,000 for the current 85,000 spots.

Investment Crowdfunding for Tech? Not So Fast. An article in this week’s Wall Street Journal highlighted a few of the shortcomings of investment crowdfunding, a new fundraising tool for startups made legal last month with the release of SEC rules. Those rules contain numerous burdensome requirements for companies raising equity from the crowd, potentially deterring high-growth technology startups. For instance, once a company takes on over 500 investors or grows to a certain size, it must file regular disclosures with the SEC: “It is all the pain of an IPO without the benefits of the IPO.” We’ve previously detailed some of the other issues with those rules, concluding that policymakers must continue to work to lower the cost of raising seed capital through crowdfunding or the impact of investment crowdfunding for startups will be modest.

What We Heard in Iowa: Earlier this week, Engine teamed up with the Technology Association of Iowa to discuss technology policy with Iowa entrepreneurs, caucus goers and two of the 2016 presidential candidates in Cedar Rapids. As the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported, the candidates agreed that education is “vital to innovation” but, not surprisingly, disagreed on the federal government’s role. O’Malley’s address focused on his track record as governor of Maryland. While Fiorina took a different approach, focusing on national security and technology “as a tool and a weapon” in those efforts. The forum offered a glimpse on where at least two candidates stand on a handful of important tech issues and as we look to 2016, we hope to hear a lot more.

Patent Suits Cost Universities. Universities have been getting more involved in patent reform policy and a recent Brookings article explains why. Its author also emphasizes that universities are turning observers off by engaging in offensive litigious actions, which is seen as contrary to the public mission of a university. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense for universities to be involved in patent reform conversations since universities as a group do not have a financial interest in patenting: 87 percent of tech transfer offices operate in the red. Since there is a false belief among some that without patents there would be no innovation, it is important that the public voice of universities acknowledge “that the debate on the impact of patents on innovation is not settled and that this impact cannot be observed in the aggregate, but must be considered in the context of each specific economic sector, industry, or even market.”

Where are the Women in Tech? A new list was published on the “Best Cities for Women in Tech” and Washington, DC topped it, with women making up about 37 percent of the tech workforce (New York, NY comes in at number five and San Francisco, CA at 23). Kansas City, Missouri (at number two) was one of the only two cities in the study where women in tech don’t face a gender pay gap. Recruitment of women and underrepresented groups in the tech community remains a large part of the diversity conversation: language used in outreach and job descriptions could be turning well-qualified applicants off from even applying. One startup, Textio, is trying to address this problem with their product that “applies a form of artificial intelligence (AI) called natural language processing (NLP) to study the verbiage in documents” and can help highlight words with certain negative connotations.