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Why the FTC must regain its power as the top cop in online privacy

By Tim Sparapani

There are a few things that are constant in this world: death, taxes, and the fact that every new administration rethinks regulations.

That can be a big problem, especially when it comes to consumer privacy rights. The rules that govern how companies collect, use and share consumers’ data shouldn’t ebb and flow like the tides. They should be cemented in place to give companies and consumers desperately needed assurance that the landscape won’t keep changing.

For years, privacy advocates like me have pushed for protections on consumer data collected on and offline. We urged that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) be given additional resources to focus specifically on the misuse of consumer data collected offline and merged with online data.

Unfortunately, the FTC’s wings were clipped when another federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission, expanded its previously narrow privacy authority. While that might sound like something privacy advocates would applaud, it’s a move that’s only muddied the waters and, arguably, reduced protections for consumers’ online privacy.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) self-approved expansion of authority actually displaced the FTC entirely. FTC staff had consistently policed online privacy with an impressive level of authority and competency.

That not only left consumers’ privacy in limbo, it pushed innovators and startups into a chaotic, unpredictable regulatory landscape for all online products and services that make use of consumer data.

The confusion that resulted from this was compounded by the election. Before the FCC could even hire privacy experts or prepare policy pronouncements, a new commission was ready to walk through the door. That’s why it is long past time for Congress to impose some order on the privacy landscape. One easy thing Congress can do is return the FTC to its place as the top privacy cop on the internet beat.

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This piece was originally published in The Hill 

For the Economy’s Benefit, Trump Should Drop the Idea of a Travel Ban

By Tim Sparapani

The Trump travel ban sent a signal to the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims — and the rest of the world — that the United States is no longer open for business. It was a dagger pointed not at the heart of ISIS, but at the heart of the U.S. innovation economy. The president missed an opportunity Tuesday night to walk away from a policy that is terrible for our Constitution, our economy and our values.

As a former ACLU attorney, one who practiced constitutional law and led the ACLU’s efforts on privacy and immigration, I can say unequivocally that the executive order was unconstitutional and would have failed a U.S. Supreme Court challenge. As a former director of policy at Facebook, and currently an adviser to dozens of tech startups, I can tell you that from a business point of view, it is a direct threat to our global innovation leadership.

The U.S. is in constant competition for software coding and engineering talent. Wherever that talent goes, capital and the innovation economy follow. For generations, people with brilliant new ideas, talent and the desire to work hard and take risks have flocked to the U.S., producing an incredibly dynamic and powerful economy. Tech workers earn more than twice the average private sector wage. There are roughly 7 million of them employed in the United States. If we shut our doors, these talented thinkers and workers will go elsewhere, taking their dynamism and productivity with them. U.S. innovation leadership is not an immutable fact. While novel ideas and access to capital certainly matter, the most precious resource for innovative companies is talent.

Simply put: The companies with the most talented staff usually win. The greatest cost to most companies is engineering talent. Right now, more than 80 percent of companies looking for engineers are having trouble hiring. There are never enough people with the highest skills and creativity to fill these roles. In fact, the time needed to fill job openings is the longest it’s been in nearly two decades. In the next 15 years, net migration will be the only significant source of labor force growth, according to The Conference Board,an influential global economic research group. U.S. colleges and universities produce insufficient numbers of highly-skilled workers in software, hardware coding and engineering. Code academies and other training courses help, but they cannot fill the gap.

There’s nothing especially magical about Silicon Valley or the United States that forces the most innovative and successful companies in the world to be established and built here. Look around — whether it is Tel Aviv, Berlin, Nairobi or Beijing, dozens of other cities and countries are vying to be the next Silicon Valley. Their emergence has been slow only because the United States, until recently, has been perceived as the finest place to build ideas into companies. But a report by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2020, Bangalore, India, will overtake Silicon Valley as the largest IT cluster in the world.

From a civil liberties perspective, the travel ban and any future policies or executive orders like it are anathema to our values and our Constitution. Depriving lawful permanent residents and visa holders of travel rights violates both the constitutionally-protected “right to travel” enunciated in many legal cases, as well as the substantive and procedural due process clauses of the Constitution.

Trump has promised to revise the ban. For the good of our innovation economy and the good of our democracy, we should ban any future bans.

This piece was originally published in Morning Consult.

Technology Hits The Fields

By Mike Montgomery

During a recent blizzard in Massachusetts, Sonia Lo, CEO of FreshBox Farms, was in a grocery store suggesting to skeptical patrons that they sample her leafy greens. “They were picked yesterday,” is what she told tasters. She also told them no, they weren’t picked elsewhere and flown in that morning. Lo’s greens — over 30 different types — grow year-round in an airtight modular box in Millis, Massachusetts. Every plant’s tray is attached to a sensor to determine just the right amount of water, nutrients and LED lighting the plant needs.

“We have an algorithm for every plant variety,” says Lo. They measure around 10,000 data points per plant for factors such as environment, nutrients, plant stress and LED light. “We have our own software intended to identify if the plants are unhappy. We don’t use chemical controls — we rely on these digital points to pre-empt plant stress and allow for extraordinary things like faster grow times.”

As corporate investors start putting their money into agriculture technology (ag tech) startups, shoppers might just start seeing a lot more fresh crops at their local stores, even in the dead of winter.

Ag tech — from hobbyist to huge commercial farms — is taking off. CB Insights defines ag tech as “technology that increases the efficiency of farms (in the form of software), sensors, aerial-based data, internet-based distribution channels (marketplaces) and tools for technology-enabled farming.”

A recent report from Boston Consulting Group says that “new technologies are revolutionizing agriculture.” In fact, according to this report, venture capital firms have upped their ag tech investments by 80% since 2012 — even though commodity prices remain volatile.

Cleveland Justis, the executive director of the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of California, Davis says his campus is seeing a lot of traffic from venture capitalists as well as big industry companies who are looking for fresh agricultural technologies. Researchers at UC Davis are working on food growth technologies such as gut microbiome innovations, precision farming and drought-friendly cultivation.

“Companies are seeing this as a hub of science around how we feed people and make more resilient crops with less,” Justis says. “How are we going to feed 9 billion people in the future? Not with a simple software program. We’re going to have to use really deep, cutting-edge research to inform these processes.”

The software market for precision farming (such as yield monitoring, field mapping, crop scouting and weather forecasting) is expected to grow 14% between 2016 and 2022 in the United States. Dale Jefferson, president and COO of CropZilla Software Inc., says that in less than two years, his precision farming startup’s software has been installed in farms across the U.S. and Canada, and it is even being tested in Italy. His software takes into account every aspect of a farm, from the types of seeds planted to the number of workers and combines in use.

“We create a digital model,” he says. Farmers can use the software to play with variables and see how potential changes — such as an expensive combine purchase or hiring 10 new field hands — can affect their forecast. For instance, a Midwestern farmer recently used CropZilla to see what would happen if he took his soybean planting schedule from one 12-hour shift to two 10-hour shifts. “The numbers worked out to a five bushel-per-acre increase,” Jefferson says. The farmer made an additional $170,000 from his soybean yield after making this change.

“With corn and bean prices down, farmers are turning to technology to help them survive,” Jefferson says.

This piece was originally published in Forbes. 

In These Chaotic Times, Democrats Need to Rethink Priorities

By Mike Montgomery

It was crunch time. With less than two hours to go before the U.S. Senate narrowly confirmed the controversial Betsy DeVos as the next secretary of education, a group of prominent Democratic senators huddled on Capitol Hill for a press conference about … something else.

What could have been more important? The so-called travel ban? President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda or the onslaught against federal environmental regulations?

No, they gathered to talk about the future of net neutrality and the concern that at some point in the future, the FCC might decide to alter its approach to governing the internet.

Don’t get me wrong: I fully support a free and open internet, but more fundamental issues must take precedence in these trying times, especially when a torrent of constituent feedback can permanently turn the tide on matters of national importance — where focusing on net neutrality today may mean a constituent decides not to weigh in on opposing Steve Bannon’s spot on the National Security Council.

As a parent and a progressive Democrat, I am disappointed to see vital energy and focus diverted from the DeVos vote. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed the unqualified DeVos to run the department that serves 50 million students across more than 100,000 schools. Why was discussing something like net neutrality, on that day specifically, more important than discussing a contrasting progressive vision for the future of our public school system or supporting actual education voices?

That’s not to say that net neutrality isn’t important. It is and will remain so. But progressives who are also net neutrality proponents should be disappointed that any attention was deflected on an historic and consequential day to discuss what the FCC might do in the future regarding net neutrality.

DeVos was confirmed by the narrowest of margins – and perhaps if senators were focused on that issue and not net neutrality, perhaps there could have been at least one more last-gasp attempt to convince one additional Republican to vote against DeVos. Instead, they were preparing for a press conference that did not need to be held that day.

Unfortunately, what’s done is done. There is no reset button for anyone to push. DeVos is the secretary of education, and net neutrality is in place as firmly today as it was earlier this week.

Net neutrality deserves attention and protection — but it needs a thoughtful legislative conversation to codify an open internet, not press conferences and partisanship. For those who want to preserve the basic principles of net neutrality but are fearful that the FCC will abolish the Open Internet order, it’s time to take this fight to Congress. As we’ve said all along — only by cementing net neutrality into law can the government hope to create a stable environment for consumers and existing and future tech companies alike. We need bipartisan legislation that will remain immune to the whims of any particular administration and survive partisan politics.

Many people I know feel displaced and voiceless in today’s political environment. The last few weeks have shown that activists are finding new ways to express their points of view – but the firehose of issues is unrelenting and daunting. Health care, immigration, education, the Supreme Court, the environment – the list goes on. We all need to remind ourselves that there’s a proper time and place for important debates like net neutrality. Tuesday was not that day.

Mike Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a nonpartisan coalition of tech companies, founders, funders and nonprofits determined to make the new economy a reality.

Originally published in Morning Consult

Let’s Stop Treating The Internet Like A Utility

By Kish Rajan

What do the iPhone, the “Internet of Things” and solar panels all have in common? They’re all fantastic technologies that make our lives better, and none of them were invented by utility companies.

They could have been. People consider phone companies to be utilities. Same with electric companies. But thanks to decades of heavy regulations, these sectors have had little to no incentive to innovate due to outdated laws and regulations that stifle rather than encourage investment and competition.

Those disrupters have been able to move quickly and build innovative new companies, thanks to the internet, which has arguably been the single largest engine for growth in this country since the auto industry.

It’s safe to say that the internet does not behave like a utility, but too often, it is treated as one. Until a few weeks ago, the same committee in the California Assembly that dealt with utilities also handled internet issues. The Utilities and Commerce Committee handled everything from ride-sharing issues to the transition to renewable energy. Last session it was overwhelmed by 140 bills.

Kudos to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon for spearheading a new alignment for that committee. It is now two different groups: the Communications and Conveyance Committee and the Utility and Energy Committee.

This new division more closely reflects the reality of the internet. It’s not a utility – it’s a technology.

It’s an important distinction.

The internet is often lumped in with utilities when it really shouldn’t be. Take the California Public Utilities Commission, for example. The PUC has oversight of California’s utilities – including the internet. Four years ago the Legislature concluded that the PUC was holding back the development of internet phone service. It moved oversight of that industry to the Legislature, and since then it has flourished.

Last year we were supportive of Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s efforts to disband the PUC (though his bill might have been a step too far). That bill ultimately failed, but it had the right idea. There are utilities and then there is technology, and the two shouldn’t be regulated in the same way.

That’s not to say that the Legislature should take a completely hands-off approach to the internet. We need regulations, but they need to be smart regulations that promote innovation, investment and competition.

Regulations should suit the demands of our technology-reliant world. They should promote broader access to fast internet, help close the shrinking digital divide and make sure our emergency systems are operating at the highest level of security and reliability.

The more we think about the internet as a utility, the more we’ll slow progress. And that’s not what anyone wants.

Kish Rajan is chief evangelist at CALinnovates and former director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s GOBiz initiative. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Originally published in the Sacramento Bee 

 

New Report Shows Californians Are More Connected Than Ever

California’s communications industry is currently in a period of astonishing growth, with the promise of an even brighter future to come. You might even call it a broadband boom. A recent study by Dr. David W. Sosa bears this out. Sosa is a principal at the Analysis Group, an economics consulting firm. His research shows that Californians are embracing the wireless lifestyle.

From 2008 through 2015, California’s total wireless subscriptions jumped by 9.5 million, or 29 percent. At the same time, broadband voice residential connections increased by 220 percent, or 4.9 million users. Meanwhile, legacy wireline users dropped by 36 percent. California’s embrace of broadband and wireless is helping keep the state at the center of the growing technology industry.

To read more about this topic, click here to read a recent op-ed by CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan.

CALinnovates Calls on Congress to Enact Bipartisan Net Neutrality Legislation

February 7, 2016

The following quote can be attributed to CALinnovates Executive Director Mike Montgomery:

“To quote Yogi Berra, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ Well into a decade of debate about Net Neutrality, it simply won’t go away. CALinnovates takes very little satisfaction in saying we saw this coming, but we’ve been calling for a Third Way that could affirmatively cement the tenets of Net Neutrality into law forever. Instead, Net Neutrality is apparently back on the table, perhaps having experienced a slightly longer shelf life than a ripe banana.

“By passing bipartisan Net Neutrality legislation, Congress can enshrine lasting laws into place that will remain immune to the whims of any particular administration and survive partisan politics. A regulatory roller coaster makes consumers and the business community queasy. Let’s settle this issue once and for all. The time is now.”

How To Build A Crowdsourced Company, From the Ground Up

By Mike Montgomery

We have all heard the traditional story. You have an idea and take it to an angel investor early on — or a venture capital firm after developing a prototype — to get funding. But this model has its drawbacks. Investors can make demands that a founder might not agree with. Many VCs are only interested in an exit, not building a sustainable company, and VC-backed companies often fall just as quickly as they rise.

What if there were a better way? Dirk Ahlborn, the CEO and co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, thinks there is.

Back in 2012, Ahlborn was part of an online business incubator called JumpStartFund that harnessed the power of online communities. “If you think about it, you do everything online: your dry cleaning, your groceries, even finding love — but building businesses still very much happens offline,” he says. Ahlborn recognized the power of online crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter to bring people together, and he wanted to find the best way to harness the wisdom of passionate communities.

The opportunity arrived in the summer of 2013 when Elon Musk published a famous white paper proposing the hyperloop concept: massive magnetized tubes that could carry passengers at 700 mph from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Ahlborn thought the project would be a perfect fit to show how a crowdsourcing business model would work and asked Musk for permission to put it on the JumpStartFund platform. Ahlborn invited anyone to participate as long as they were willing to work in exchange for stock options. After sifting through hundreds of applications, he enlisted the help of 100 engineers. Many of them had day jobs at places like Boeing, NASA, Google and Airbus.

Read the full article here.

Staying In A D.C. Hotel For Inauguration Weekend? Prepare To Be Gouged

By Mike Montgomery

This weekend will be a historically busy one for Washington D.C. Today, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States in front of the U.S. Capitol, where his fans were out en masse to watch. Saturday, hundreds of thousands will flood the streets of the city to protest his presidency.

No matter which side of the fence they’re on, every D.C. visitor staying in a hotel had one thing in common: They all paid an insane amount for lodging.

We did some research into rooms this coming weekend and found that hotels are jacking up their prices by more than 800%. Book a room at the Fairmont in Georgetown earlier in January and you would have paid $190 per night for a room with a king bed. The weekend of the inauguration? That same room will cost you $1,600 per night (and you’ll have to book for at least three nights.)

Prices won’t be any better in Dupont Circle. A room at the Kimpton Carlyle Hotel, which would typically go for $99 per night, will cost you $899 per night the weekend of the inauguration.

It is a shame that these absurd rates put hotel rooms out of reach for most Americans who might want to either see democracy in action or protest the people who are soon to be running the country.

Read the full article here.

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