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Commentary: A Tech To-Do List for Washington in 2013

Rob Pegoraro tries to make sense of computers, consumer electronics, telecom services, the Internet, software and other things that beep or blink through reporting, reviewing and analysis — from 1999 to 2011 as the Washington Post’s tech columnist, now for a variety of online and print outlets. He wrote this guest blog.

People often treat the gadgets, apps and digital services we rely on as if they sprang fully-formed from minds of engineers and developers. But the government has helped and hindered their advance over the last 40 years, often in non-obvious ways with laws that seemed like good ideas at the time. As President Obama’s second term nears, what actions can and should Washington take — or avoid — to give technology a shove in the right direction?

The United States had a decisive election with consequences, except for one area where nobody campaigned too hard: technology policy.

So it would be a mistake to expect Congress or President Obama to push any major changes to the laws governing the digital tools we use to communicate, work, play and shop. The major players did not ask to be hired on that basis, and they’re not likely to be fired for failing to act in those areas.

But what more subtle changes could and should happen anyway? Consider the possibilities around five key policy questions:

Can I protect my privacy as I put ever more of my life on the Internet and mobile devices?

This is the likeliest focus of government action. The Federal Trade Commission — which has been busy negotiating sweeping settlements with the likes of Facebook and Google to remedy past privacy violations — has recently turned its attention to how mobile apps deal with personal data, especially that of kids.

It’s also continuing to work on a possible “Do Not Track” standard, through which your browser could tell websites not to profile your activity for advertising use. The idea is to get all of the major browser developers and online advertisers to sign onto this, but the FTC isn’t ruling out pushing for legislation.

But the Feds should not forget that they represent one of the bigger threats to online privacy. It’s not only too easy for the government to conduct electronic surveillance without a warrant, it doesn’t even have to disclose how often it engages in such snooping. Now would be an excellent time to remedy that — along with closing the indefensible, 26-year-old loophole that strips most protection from e-mail stored online for more than 180 days.

Will I have a better choice of broadband, TV and wireless providers?

Most Americans won’t see their selection of high-speed Internet access or subscription television services improve this year or anytime soon. The Telecommunications Act of 1996’s dream of cable and phone companies barging into each other’s markets died when Verizon and Comcast started selling each other’s products this year, and the high cost of launching new wireline service weigh against this changing anytime soon.

But in the airwaves, things look better. The Federal Communications Commission (which just approved Dish Network’s bid to launch a new wireless service using spectrum it had reserved earlier for satellite use) plans to free up additional spectrum for wireless-broadband use next year. A more ambitious project, an “incentive auctions” scheme under which TV stations would profit from a transfer of their unused and underused frequencies to new data services, won’t really get going until 2014.

But it’s not enough to open the air to more firms that will run on traditional wireless business models. The FCC would do well to remember the spectacular success of WiFi and ensure that unlicensed devices can tap into some of the spectrum it’s freeing up.

Are patent fights going to keep limiting the features and inflating the costs of my gadgets?

Probably. Congress spent years enacting a patent-reform bill, the America Invents Act, that wound up making relatively few changes when it finally passed in 2011. Meanwhile, tech companies have found they must sink more resources into building patent arsenals and defending patent-infringement lawsuits — a majority of which, one study just found, come from companies that don’t even make anything.

(Forget the billion-dollar verdict in the Apple-Samsung trial; suits from those “non-practicing entities” cost U.S. businesses an estimated $29 billion in 2011.)

The best thing Congress could do would be to raise the cost of “patent trolling.” For example, one bill introduced this year, the SHIELD Act, would invite courts to stick frivolous software-patent plaintiffs with the winners’ legal fees.

The judicial branch could have its say, too. But while the Supreme Court has corrected some past excesses of patent law, it’s shied away from making such sweeping changes as invalidating software and business-method patents in general.

Am I going to get a better choice of entertainment options online to complement radio and TV?

Probably not, but at least things shouldn’t get worse. After years of the tech industry trying to slow attempts to legislate stronger copyright protection online, something funny happened in early 2012: Hollywood got crushed in the battle over the Stop Online Piracy Act, a frightening law that would have fractured the Internet’s routing system.

The music and movie industries seem a lot less eager for new laws (though they wouldn’t mind getting more voluntary agreements by Internet providers and Web services to pursue copyright infringers). And the defeats of two of the entertainment industry’s biggest congressional supporters, Reps. Howard Berman and Mary Bono Mack (both Democrats from California) won’t help their cause either.

But will we see such overdue reform as, for instance, cutting the steep and discriminatory rates that Web-radio stations must pay musicians and record labels (satellite radio pays less, FM pays nothing)? We should, but I wouldn’t bet much on it yet.

And for serious change to happen in our menu of online entertainment, incumbent entertainment firms need to stop trying to defend their old business models by artificially limiting what they sell online — a self-defeating move that abandons the market to unauthorized file-sharing services. Unfortunately, you can’t outlaw foolishness.

What can be done to ease the way for the next great tech startup?

If you want better technology, it would help to get more people working on it. Last year’s JOBS Act opened new funding possibilities for startups, and a logical sequel would widen the talent pool.

One bill, the so-called Startup Visa, would invite immigrants with funds to back new companies; another, the “STEM Jobs Act,” would encourage foreigners pursuing U.S. degrees in science, technology, education and math to stay here. But either could get hung up in the broader debate over immigration reform.

Photo of computer by Flickr user Stuart McKinnon.

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