Trending: Why some open-source companies are considering a more closed approach

Chris Liddell
Chris Liddell, White House deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, discusses tech policy during a Washington Post mini-conference.

In the wake of Tuesday’s power-shifting midterm elections, the White House plans to stay the course in tech policy and may even work with Democrats on beefing up the nation’s broadband infrastructure, a trio of Trump administration officials said today.

“We’re on the biggest IT transformation of all time,” said Chris Liddell, a former Microsoft executive who currently serves as White House deputy chief of staff for policy coordination. “I’ve worked inside the private sector for most of my life, for large companies, 100,000 people or so, but this is for literally millions of people. That’s a 10-year journey. That really hasn’t changed as a result of Tuesday.”

Liddell and two other White House officials — Abigail Slater, special assistant to the president on technology, telecom and cybersecurity policy; and Michael Kratsios, deputy U.S. chief technology officer — sized up the road ahead at Technology 202, a D.C. mini-conference presented by The Washington Post.

The federal government spends roughly $100 billion annually on information technology, Liddell noted, and he expected that trend line to continue even after the Democrats take control of the House. “It will last past this administration, and on to multiple administrations,” he said.

“I see that as very bipartisan,” Liddell said. “I hope that the new House will continue to fund things like the Modernizing Government Technology Act — the funding there, that’s incredibly high ROI projects, but otherwise most of that is done through internal policy.”

Expanding broadband internet access, particularly for rural communities that don’t currently have high-speed access, will be a priority in discussions with Democrats about future infrastructure spending.

“If there was an infrastructure conversation to be had, expect broadband to be fully part of that process,” Slater said.

Kratsios agreed: “Broadband is a big part of the agenda,” he said.

During a separate panel discussion, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said broadband access would be toward the top of the agenda for the new House leadership as well. “We need to make sure every person in the nation has access to the internet,” he said.

However, Democratic lawmakers are also likely to turn up the dial on issues such as net neutrality, which suffered heavy blows under the Trump administration. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an appeal that would have revived the net neutrality debate, but Khanna signaled that the issue would be addressed anew in Congress next year.

Liddell acknowledged that White House officials don’t always see eye to eye with tech executives and policy advocates.

“We have moved from a conversation on everything to a conversation on issue by issue,” Liddell said. “The most successful CEOs are the ones that say, ‘Look, we don’t agree with you on X, but we definitely agree with you on modernizing government technology. Who couldn’t? So we are going to embrace you on that.’ ”

He singled out Apple CEO Tim Cook as being particularly effective on that score.

On other topics:

  • Limitations on H-1B visas: From a regulatory point of view, the White House wants to see H-1B visas used to promote “highly skilled as opposed to outsourcing roles,” Liddell said. Tech companies should welcome the administration’s push for merit-based immigration policies, he said.
  • Social-media regulation: Slater said “there’s definitely a need for a conversation” about regulation of social-media content, ranging from hate speech to terrorist information. She noted that European countries have proposed rules to have terrorist content removed within an hour of notification, but said U.S. action on this issue would have to reflect American values. Slater acknowledged that recent events, including a mass shooting that was signaled in advance on the Gab discussion platform, have added to the timeliness of the policy debate. “It was also timely last year,” she said. “It will be timely again for another reason next year.”
  • eBay’s lawsuit against Amazon: During an earlier Technology 202 session, eBay CEO Devin Wenig touched upon the lawsuit that his company recently filed, alleging that Amazon was trying to poach eBay sellers for its own selling platform. “We have a network that we’ve built up over 20 years. We saw activity that we thought was violating our agreement and was not OK,” Wenig said. “We tend to try to resolve disputes without lawyers. This one couldn’t be resolved without lawyers, so we’ll see what happens.”
  • Should Amazon face an antitrust investigation? “I’m not going to comment about any particular company or party, but I do think that what you’re seeing … is an evolving definition of what antitrust is,” Wenig said. Consumer pricing may not always be the sole yardstick for judging antitrust violations, he said. “I think that we’ve really got to ask, if you’re endlessly allowed to bundle services, does that end in a robust, competitive consumer market with choice, or the opposite?”
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