Leaders of the tech sector are in Washington this week for a series of high-level meetings with senior White House officials and members of Congress.
So what are they asking for? The tech industry is hardly monolithic, but certain matters of public policy that tend to draw broad support among IT firms. Between a morning meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials and a series of afternoon visits on Capitol Hill, several tech leaders dropped by the Bipartisan Policy Center to share five message they bring to Washington.
1. Immigration Reform
It may be no coincidence that the day the tech executives made the rounds of official Washington also happened to mark the opening of the application process for H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled foreigners to remain in the country as guest workers. Many tech firms argue that the cap on those visas — currently set at 65,000 with an additional 20,000 for advanced degree holders — is insufficient.
"Unfortunately it's this old adage: 'Here today, gone tomorrow.' It's aptly applied to H-1Bs," says Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president.
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Each year, the agency overseeing the H-1B program is inundated with applications for the visas. Last year, the application period ended after just four days when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received more than 120,000 applications, well exceeding the cap.
"We don't actually know yet what day they'll close it down in the next week, but it's a fair bet that the number of applications that have been filed today is probably greater than 85,000," Smith says.
Easing restrictions for skilled foreign workers is generally seen as one of the less controversial aspects of the broader immigration debate, though a number of prominent academics and many frustrated domestic IT workers challenge the notion of a worker shortage. Instead, they see in the push for H-1B visas a cynical ploy by tech firms to win access to cheap labor. In particular, critics note that the three biggest users of H-1B workers are offshoring companies: Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant.
The tech leaders lobbying for H-1B expansions, of course, counter that the shortage of skilled workers is quite real and lament a system where foreign students are trained in American colleges and universities, only to be sent back to their country of origin to find work and, presumably, compete against U.S. firms.
What's more, Cisco CEO John Chambers argues, skilled foreign workers bring a multiplier effect to the labor market, citing an industry figure that 40 percent of the high-tech startups in the country were founded by first-time citizens. "This is where I think we make a mistake as a country, thinking that jobs that come from outside our country take American jobs."
So Chambers, Smith and others are working to revive momentum for immigration reform that would invite more skilled foreign workers, along the lines of provisions in a bill that passed in the Senate as part of a more comprehensive overhaul. But momentum for any big reform of the immigration system appears to have stalled in the House in the near term, particularly as mid-term elections approach.
2. STEM Education
In keeping with the theme of a shortage of workers trained in technical fields, the tech delegation is also pressing for reforms to the nation's education system that would expose more students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the so-called STEM fields — particularly at the K-12 level.
Smith offers an estimate that of the tens of thousands of high schools in the country, only around 2,500 offer an AP course in computer science. Some believe STEM education should be mandatory in secondary school.
"They all need to take computer science classes," says Weili Dai, president and co-founder of Marvell Technology Group, a semiconductor company. "If our country could do this, that's a game-changer."
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In pushing for policies to promote STEM education, the tech lobby can cite ample economic data suggesting that degree holders in those fields are in greater demand and earn higher salaries than their non-STEM counterparts — though there are also studies that argue the counterpoint. But the White House champions efforts on both immigration and education reform to increase the supply of skilled workers, positioning the issue as a cornerstone of economic growth.
As Microsoft's Smith puts it, "When we're not educating enough people in our own country, and we're not bringing in enough people from other countries, the one thing we are doing is creating a recipe for jobs to move somewhere else."
3. Intelligence Reform
Many companies in the tech sector, particularly those offering cloud services to consumers, have sharply criticized some of the intelligence-gathering practices that have come to light from the disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
One such critic is Microsoft, which has joined Google and Yahoo in litigation seeking the ability to make more disclosures about the types of information the government is requesting, and how the companies that receive those requests respond.
It's a message tech leaders continue to bring up in meetings with policymakers and members of Congress, warning that the Snowden revelations have created a trust problem for many cloud companies, giving users and potential users fresh concerns about the safety of their information.
In that light, Microsoft and its allies press for an update to the legal framework for how the government can access people's digital information, including an overhaul of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
"The climate's different. It changed last year. We're in a post-Snowden era, and people have more questions about how technology is used," Smith says. "We've advocated that governments work pursuant to the rule of law — and it will be good if there's a clear modern legal framework that all of us work in."
4. Faster, More Secure Broadband
Chambers, Smith and others spoke excitedly about the global surge in mobile technology, citing projections that some 10 billion mobile devices could come online in the next decade. Then there's the emergence of the Internet of Things, where all manner of smart devices ranging from parking meters to refrigerators are brought onto the network, where they can be more efficiently and effectively managed.
That new traffic will bring with it an enormous strain on the broadband networks that carry it. Web companies have long advocated for policies to increase broadband access, speeds and affordability. In recent years, they have turned their attention to mobile broadband, calling for reforms that would free up spectrum to enhance capacity for wireless networks.
The Federal Communications Commission is receptive to those concerns. The agency plans a set of auctions to transition a portion of the airwaves from TV broadcasters to mobile broadband, and earlier this week the FCC voted to make 100 MHz available for Wi-Fi applications.
For many in the tech sector, particularly in areas of critical infrastructure, simply expanding capacity to support the Internet of Things isn't enough if the networks aren't secure. That's especially true of the energy grid, where a host of innovative firms are working to realize the dream of the smart grid but deal with an aging infrastructure that many see as a soft target.
"The grid has a security problem," says K.R. Sridhar, CEO of Bloom Energy, a firm specializing in efficient energy generation. "Not only do we need to upgrade our infrastructure, it needs to be resilient. It needs to be robust."
5. Patent Reform
As a matter of political reality, many of the priorities tech leaders pressed in their meetings in Washington are issues for the long haul. The odds of an immigration bill advancing this year are getting longer, and the feds aren't going to solve the country's broadband challenges overnight.
A possible exception: Efforts to reform the patent system to curb frivolous litigation from outfits, sometimes known as non-practicing entities or patent trolls, which hold patents but don't produce any products based on the covered innovations.
Many tech firms complain that they are the target of incessant lawsuits brought by patent trolls, arguing that the system needs reforms that would saddle losing plaintiffs with attorneys' fees and introduce transparency around the identity of the organization that owns the patent in question.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leady (D-Vt.) has authored a bill, which other members of the panel are currently evaluating, to address some of those concerns. With broad bipartisan support for targeted legislation to rein in patent trolls, the tech delegation seems to sense that that could be their best chance for a big policy win in the coming months.
"We're here talking about innovation, and patent reform is the near-term thing we could do," Chambers says. "We urge the Senate to pass a strong patent reform bill."