Visiting the Rust Belt with Rise of the Rest ...
Startups Oppose Senate Bill Creating Exceptions to Bedrock Internet Law. A bipartisan group of Senators introduced legislation this week that would undermine Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), the fundamental intermediary liability law that protects Internet companies from being held legally responsible for what their users say on their platform. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act has the admirable goal of cracking down on sex trafficking online, however, injecting an exception like this in to CDA 230 would create a huge litigation risk for early stage companies that could drastically diminish investment in the sector. While we continue to work with legislators and victims groups to curb the horrific practice of sex trafficking, Engine has opposed this legislation. If you are a startup, sign onto our letter and tell Congress not to undermine the protections that created the Internet. Also, check out our op-ed with the Charles Koch Institute on the importance of CDA 230 to the success and growth of the Internet.
The First Comment Period for the FCC NPRM on Net Neutrality Closes. Monday was the deadline for the first round of comments to be filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that addresses the 2015 Open Internet Order. Engine was one of over 10 million groups and individuals to file comments with the Commission. The deadline for reply comments extends to August 16. In its submission, Engine explained the need for clear regulations to protect startups from threatening behavior by ISPs and incumbents. “The NPRM’s indifference to the ISP abuse of their terminating access monopoly power is incredibly dangerous to entrepreneurship. Without bright line rules banning anti-competitive ISP practices, startups will be put at a structural disadvantage in competing with well-heeled incumbents, causing venture investment to dry up and innovation to suffer,” Executive Director, Evan Engstrom, wrote. The White House, which has been mostly mum on the topic, also weighed in on the debate this week. “The best way to get fair rules for everyone is for Congress to take action and create regulatory and economic certainty,” deputy White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement.
Supreme Court Delivers Blow to Patent Trolls. The Supreme Court delivered a blow to patent trolls this week by unanimously reversing the Federal Circuit’s decision in TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC. The high court ruled that defendants in patent cases can only be sued where they are incorporated or have a regular and established place of business. The decision will make it significantly harder for patent trolls to file lawsuits in jurisdictions that patent-friendly but otherwise unrelated to the claims at issue—most notably the Eastern District of Texas, where almost forty percent of patent cases were filed last year. In a statement reacting to the ruling, Engine Policy Director, Rachel Wolbers, noted, “The Supreme Court’s decision in TC Heartland is another important step to preventing abusive patent litigation tactics that disproportionately impact startups...While this ruling is a significant victory in the in the fight against patent trolls, Congress must continue to work to protect startups from abusive patent litigation...We are thankful for today’s ruling, but know there is much more work to be done.”
Engine Examines the Limits of Filtering. In a congressional briefing on Tuesday, Engine Executive Director, Evan Engstrom, and Princeton University professor Nick Feamster introduced the report they co-authored exploring various content filtering technologies and the impact that their mandatory application could have on startups. Feamster, a computer scientist, explained the primary modes of filtering and each of their shortcomings in identifying copyright infringing material. Engstrom addressed the implications for startups if policymakers moved to require the use of these technologies. Not only would companies suffer because of the limited ability of the current methods to accurately filter infringing content, he said, but they would also be unable to pay the extremely high price required for full-scale operation of the filtering technology. The full report, which elaborates on the speakers’ remarks, can be found here.
Earlier this week, it was announced that President Trump had tapped Ajit Pai to chair the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Pai is currently the senior Republican commissioner at the agency and as such, his nomination will not require Senate approval. Engine is hopeful that as chairman, Pai will preserve Chairman Wheeler’s tradition of championing America’s innovators and ensuring that startups and entrepreneurs have a voice in the critical debates impacting our 21st century innovation economy. While we have disagreed with Commissioner Pai on a number of issues during his tenure (most notably on net neutrality), we see promise in areas such as his proposal for the creation of Gigabit Opportunity Zones and his efforts around promoting the growth of internet-based services. Expanding access to broadband and preventing incumbent gatekeepers from undermining competition are critical to fostering a thriving startup ecosystem, and we look forward to continuing the important work of ensuring that our communications infrastructure supports innovation in all corners of the U.S.
With a population of almost 3 million (that is growing by 100,000 every year), ten Fortune 500 companies, and a strong network of regional universities, it may be unfair to call Denver a city on the rise. However, Denver residents will be the first to recognize that the city’s environment for early stage entrepreneurs and startup innovation is continuing to develop and there is still a lot of room for the city to grow. The Rise of the Rest tour, with Steve Case at the helm, spent its second day on the road in Denver to learn from the successes and challenges of the ecosystem and inspire the wider business, policy, and educational leaders in the area to support its many entrepreneurs.
In the 1860s, the First Transcontinental Railroad was constructed, connecting Omaha, NE to Sacramento, CA. It was fitting, then, that we kicked off Rise of the Rest’s western tour with a symbolic visit to to Lauritzen Gardens, the original site of the railway. While the rail line was one of Nebraska’s earliest “startups,” today there is a new startup scene taking hold in Omaha and Lincoln—one fueled by growing investment, exceptional local talent and ideas, and a unique culture around support and community.
An Engine-championed bill that would make it easier for startup employees to exercise their stock options cleared important hurdles in Congress this week. Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed the Empowering Employees Through Stock Options Act, and a companion bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee earlier in the week. Even with partisan divisions higher than usual in this contentious election year, Democrats and Republicans came together to support EESO, passing the bill unanimously in the Senate Finance Committee and with substantial bipartisan support in the House. As we’ve written in the past, because employees exercising certain types of stock options must pay an immediate tax upon exercise (even though there is no public market on which to sell some of the newly acquired shares to pay the tax), startup employees are often unable to purchase their shares, making it difficult for startups to attract and compensate top talent. EESO allows employees to defer the tax payment on options for seven years or until the underlying shares are actually sold, providing workers with the flexibility they need to realize the value of their contributions to their companies. We are hopeful that the full Senate will consider the bill as expeditiously as possible so that it can head to the President’s desk before the end of his term.
For years, the startup community has been calling for reforms to our immigration system that would allow immigrant entrepreneurs to build their companies in the U.S. It’s a no brainer, especially in light of the fact that more than half of the current group of U.S.-based “unicorns” (startups valued at more than $1 billion) have a foreign-born founder. While reforms in Congress have stalled, the Administration is proposing a new International Entrepreneur Rule that will allow foreign entrepreneurs to live in the U.S. for up to five years to help scale their business. To be eligible, the entrepreneur must have a 15 percent or greater ownership stake in the company and play an active and central role in its operations.
The American Dream is built on the premise that regardless of who you are or where you’re born, if you work hard you can achieve greatness. Over the past century, entrepreneurs have embodied this ideal. The son of a Syrian migrant created one of the world’s most valuable companies out of his garage in California. Companies that were started in dorm rooms and university labs have changed the way we live and work.
Back in May, regulation crowdfunding went into effect, allowing anyone to invest in a startup through an online platform for the first time ever. But, as Engine has previously explained, we’re skeptical about the extent to which this market will truly take off given the current regulatory framework. We welcomed the House’s passage of Rep. Patrick McHenry’s Fix Crowdfunding Act (H.R. 4855) last month, which makes a couple of fixes from the startup community’s wish list like permitting special purpose vehicles. But the bill was heavily amended before passage, and as Evan argues in Bloomberg this week, it is missing a number of the startup community’s desired changes.
Three weeks ago, Engine took a look at how the Democratic Party’s draft platform would impact the tech and startup communities. This week, the party released their final platform to coincide with the beginning of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Building on their draft, Democrats committed to rolling out broadband to every American and added language around the deployment of next-generation 5G technologies and free, public Wi-Fi. Some changes were made around encryption as well. While the initial draft did not even mention the issue, the final platform pledged support for a “national commission” on encryption, an idea that has been championed by Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Michael McCaul.
Engine is excited to announce that we will be hitting the road again this October for Revolution’s fifth Rise of the Rest tour. Rise of the Rest is a road show to highlight and support entrepreneurship across America. Over the past four tours, we’ve had the chance to see thriving startup ecosystems in places like Baltimore, Nashville, and Detroit.
Do you run a growth accelerator, incubator, co-working space, shared maker-space, or other entrepreneurial ecosystem organization? If so, you might be eligible to compete for a $50,000 prize from the government. Last week, the Small Business Administration (SBA) launched its Growth Accelerator Fund Competition for the third year in a row. Each year, the agency awards $50,000 prizes to selected organizations to help cover part of their operating budgets.
Across the country and far beyond Silicon Valley, new centers of startup activity are on the rise. Among them, Miami, Florida is one of the more exciting and dynamic cities emerging as a hub for startups. Not only are more entrepreneurs calling Miami home, but a real ecosystem is forming, complete with a new co-working and events space in the heart of Miami’s Wynwood district, investor groups with a renewed commitment to South Florida entrepreneurs, and a slew of meet-ups, conferences, and hackathons attracting students, programmers, entrepreneurs, and investors eager to be part of this transformation.
Our weekly take on some of the biggest stories in startup and tech policy.
Trade Secrets Bill Resurfaces. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA), a bill purportedly meant to help curb international trade secret theft by creating a federal cause of action for trade secret appropriation. However, like most intellectual property laws, trade secret litigation is rife with abuse as companies regularly use trade secret claims to stifle competitors and hinder employee movement. The proposed legislation would exacerbate these problems by creating an ex parte seizure procedure whereby a party can—without detailed factual inquiry and without a presentation of both sides of the case—ask a judge to seize a defendant’s property. In this regard, the DTSA goes well beyond what state trade secret law provides, making it a potent tool for incumbents to use the courts to unfairly hinder legitimate competition. And, international trade secret thieves will be able to avoid this federal law as they have avoided prior state laws by simply being outside of the US, it’s hard to see how this bill would actually address the problem it claims to address.
Net Neutrality Hearing. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments today in the challenge to the FCC’s net neutrality rules. A group of telecom companies filed suit against the FCC shortly after the Commission issued its net neutrality rules this spring, arguing that the decision to reclassify violated administrative rules and exceeded the FCC’s delegated authority. While most net neutrality supporters believe that the Commission’s rulemaking is likely to withstand legal challenge, the DC Circuit is notoriously unpredictable. The hearing itself was not broadcast due to the DC Circuit’s strict rules on recording proceedings, so we’ll have to wait for reports from those in the room to get a read on how the judges received each side’s arguments. We’ll be tracking closely.
Starting Up the Broadband Economy. In an op-ed in re/code, Engine Policy Director Evan Engstrom elaborates on why policies that encourage a competitive broadband market are essential to the continued success of the startup economy. Increasing competition ensures America’s entrepreneurs can use their limited funds to build their businesses, rather than lining the pockets of a few huge incumbent providers. There is still a long way to go towards a robust, healthy Internet ecosystem. But we are working to ensure that startup voices are heard and that real reform happens now.
Trouble for ECPA Reform? The broadly supported Email Privacy Act ran into opposition from law enforcement authorities at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday. Calls for an emergency exception and a carve out for civil agencies are nothing new, but they are preventing the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, from backing the legislation. Despite being one of the most popular bills in Congress with over 300 bipartisan cosponsors, it won’t move until Rep. Goodlatte gives the go-ahead. We’re tracking.
Add “Lobbying” to List of Startup CEO Responsibilities. Engaging with lawmakers is just another part of being a startup leader now, reports the New York Times. “In addition to knowing the language of computer code, founders are speaking the language of Washington, keenly aware of the potential regulatory battles that could be on the horizon.” In a shift from the historical status quo, startups are no longer eschewing politics, but increasingly embracing a dialogue with D.C. instead.
Patent Lawsuits Filed Set New Record. On November 30, 257 new patent litigation cases were filed—a new one day record. Furthermore, 196 of these cases were filed in the Eastern District of Texas, a notoriously plaintiff (and troll) friendly court. This is clear proof of forum shopping and further evidence that patent reform legislation should also address venue abuse. The mass amount of filings are likely tied to the fact that December 1 marks the effective date of significant changes in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for patent cases—i.e. going forward, plaintiffs may be required to provide more information in their initial claims.
Women in STEM. Michelle Lee, the Director of the US Patent Office, authored an op ed in which she cites a study that found that only 15% of all inventors are women. She writes, “The lack of gender parity is not just a social issue, it is an economic imperative.” In response, the Patent Office has launched, in partnership with Invent Now, an “All in STEM” initiative to get more girls interested in STEM and more women in flourishing STEM careers. Meanwhile, the latest diversity numbers from tech companies demonstrate the continuing need: women employed globally by Microsoft decreased from 29% to 26.8%.
Cities and Innovation Ecosystems. It takes years for cities to build up a “critical mass” of tech companies and workers to the likes of the Bay Area. But in some of the nation’s smaller cities, the environment has proven conducive to small companies and large companies cooperating in a way that has become engrained in the DNA of Silicon Valley—where startups are built off the API of large companies and interoperability is part of the culture. A recent report by the World Bank discusses what factors affect the growth of entrepreneurship ecosystems across different cities.
Conversations Around Capital Access. Before taking a break for Thanksgiving, Engine attended a forum hosted by the SEC on capital access issues for startups. Participants honed in on the JOBS Act rules: how they’re playing out in practice and whether there are policy modifications that could facilitate their success. Read Emma’s run-down of the discussions here.