U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene is perhaps best known as an advocate for progressive technology policy. Before taking office as the representative for Washington’s 1st Congressional District, she was a Microsoft executive and CEO of Nimble Technology.
She champions STEM education, privacy, and other internet protections. DelBene spoke about those issues with GeekWire after the Tech Alliance’s annual State of Technology luncheon in Seattle on Friday. But she also had some thoughts to share about the Affordable Care Act replacement bill that narrowly passed the House last week.
“This is really a terrible bill, kicking people off health care, if it goes through and becomes law,” she said. “We should be looking at the opportunities we have to continue to improve what we have today and unfortunately, this bill wasn’t moving us in the right direction at all.”
On the topic of technology, the Democrat has worked with other lawmakers to create two technology-related policy groups last week — the Congressional Caucus on Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality Technologies, and the Digital Trade Caucus. Speaking with GeekWire’s Todd Bishop, DelBene shared her thoughts on how the innovation economy will fare under the Trump administration, privacy, and other issues in the interview below.
Continue reading for the edited transcript.
Todd Bishop: I’d love to start by getting your overall sense for the state of support for science, innovation, technology with the current Congress, the current administration, the state of the Democratic party. What’s your overall take on where things are right now?
Suzan DelBene: Well, when we talk about building a strong long-term economy, a big part of that is making sure we’re investing in research and development that are coming up with great new ideas for the future. I mean, today, we have an economy built on great ideas that came decades earlier that are fueling our economy today and we need to keep that process going. So, I’ve been very concerned about proposed cuts from the Trump administration in investments and research, whether it’s in NIH and life sciences or NSF or even in areas like USDA and agriculture research. These are hugely beneficial in terms of giving us a great return on our investment but also breaking open new opportunities or coming up with new therapies and treatments for diseases. So, I’m a big supporter. I think it’s a long-term important investment and a big economic driver. And I’m happy we have this omnibus that went through that increased funding for example for NIH for $2 billion, something I helped champion in getting members of Congress to sign a letter to support that. That ends at the end of September, so what happens on Oct. 1 going forward is a concern and the support for science and research is something we’ve got to speak loudly about because it’s not something certain going forward.
Bishop: So, the two caucuses that you’re involved in are the Virtual Reality Caucus and the Digital Trade Caucus. The VR Caucus would probably surprise some people because I don’t think they would see that necessarily as a big legislative agenda or an economic agenda.
DelBene: Well, I think actually, a lot of the issues of technology that we see are one, educating members of Congress and legislators about these issues. When we started the Internet of Things Caucus, people said what’s the IoT Caucus for? And technology people laughed when they heard that but it’s true these are issues that not all of our legislators, lawmakers, staff members understand. So, Internet of Things Caucus is a way to help educate people on technologies going forward. When we see augmented, virtual, mixed reality type of technologies coming forward, we want to let people understand what those are, what the potential and opportunities are but also address issues that may come up with security and privacy that have been concerns and frankly, we are behind in legislation to adjust these issues. Then also, I helped start the Digital Trade Caucus because issues of cross-border data flows and data localization, free and open internet, these are important issues for trade and services, an area where the U.S. actually has a big trade surplus. It’s a very important sector of the economy and it’s not an isolated sector, it’s a piece of a lot of different industries. So, bringing attention there and understanding that this has to be part of future trade policies and trade negotiations as people are looking at these issues going forward or if trade agreements are opened up, we want to make sure that people understand the issues involved and we’re putting forward good ideas.
Bishop: Privacy I know is a big issue for you as well. We’ve seen the rollback of the telecommunications privacy regulations and then the states come in and try and do their own piecemeal things. What’s you take on where that’s headed and do you see a solution on the horizon?
DelBene: Well, I’m very concerned. I think we’ve seen an FCC chairman who has some differing points of view on where he wants to take, not only privacy on some of these issues but the internet and net neutrality. I think it’s an issue that is an important issue across the country and it’s also an international issue. So, I understand why states want to take a role here but I do think that it’s something that’s important that we do at the federal level and something that is going to be important. We talk about these issues of information sharing across the country or around the world. We have to understand what our national policy is in terms of protecting data so that we can also work with other countries and how that will work internationally.
Bishop: Given where things are at the FCC, do you see an opening for Congress to do something that could counteract the trends against privacy and net neutrality there?
DelBene: Well, I think we need to make sure we have a lot of members of Congress here speaking out, but yes, Congress could act. It doesn’t necessarily just have to be that the FCC decides. We can put forth legislation to say, ‘Here’s what we want the law to be.’ But we need people engaged and involved and making sure that there’s a focus on these issues and that’s something I’ve been working on and will continue to work on as somebody who’s been really focused on this but we need to get more people engaged involved and I know I’ve heard from many folks in the general public too, who are concerned about these issues. Hopefully, we can do the right thing in terms of protecting privacy and putting forward investments in innovation and starting to be forward-looking in our policy.
Bishop: What about the email privacy act, in particular, do you see that resurfacing this year?
DelBene: So, you get out the basic things we could do that should be easy to get done. Email Privacy Act passed the House already so, it is done in the House but we need to get it through the Senate. As they say, ‘it ain’t over ’til it’s over.’ We’ve got work to do there. That’s an important one and that should be really simple, just a warrant standard. Just like a piece of paper in your file drawer, digital information should be treated the same. Most people think it already is. So, let’s get that through. That should be a starting point, cause we got a lot of old, outdated laws but this should be an easy one. So, I’m hopeful but we’ve still got to convince the Senate.”
Bishop: We just heard Reid Hoffman from LinkedIn talk here. One of the things he talked about was the Seattle-Silicon Valley connection and obviously, you’ve had a front row seat on that in your past with your executive roles. Was there anything there that struck you that you’d want to build on or talk about in terms of the regional strengths and just the tech economy acting as one versus multiple regions?
DelBene: Yeah, we still have our competition between California and Seattle.
Bishop: Who are the major representatives down there that you sort of would spar with on this?
DelBene: Gosh, representatives are Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren, Nancy Pelosi, so it can be everything from technology to the Seahawks versus the 49ers which I think we’ve pretty much been the winners on that one.
Bishop: We’re good for now.
DelBene: But the interesting thing is, I actually think that when we talk about technology, we also talk about technology in agriculture and in manufacturing and global health and this intersection between biology and informatics which was discussed — great work happening with big data at Fred Hutch. I actually think we have a very unique opportunity because we have this broad cross section of technology having a horizontal impact in so many industries versus just it being an industry on its own which we’re also strong in. I actually think that’s a huge, really unique, incredible opportunity in our region that makes us very distinct and unique. Despite all the back and forth as well.