This year will be a contentious one for tech policy, as policymakers continue debating net neutrality, cybersecurity and limits on government surveillance. President Obama laid down his vision for the nation's future Tuesday in his State of the Union address — and although he didn't drop many bombshells, his remarks reflect a clear attempt to frame that discussion.
The first tech moment of the evening occurred even before the president took the stage. By posting Obama's full remarks to Medium, the White House effectively bypassed reporters who typically get an early look at the speech, opting instead for a direct appeal to the electorate.
Here are the tech-specific highlights of Obama's address:
Net neutrality and the future of the Web
The president didn’t utter the term in so many words — which leaves this pre-SOTU chart largely unchanged — but he repeated his vow to preserve an open Internet and linked the nation’s information networks to more traditional examples of infrastructure such as bridges, ports and oil pipelines.
"Twenty-first century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet," he said.
“I intend to protect a free and open Internet,” Obama added, “extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”
The rhetorical move comes as the Federal Communications Commission weighs adopting stricter rules on Internet providers and knocking down state barriers that make it harder or illegal for cities to build competitors to the likes of Comcast and Verizon. The FCC last year also voted to expand broadband subsidies for schools and libraries.
Cybersecurity got a lot of attention in the runup to the State of the Union address — with the president announcing new proposals on everything from cybersecurity information sharing and student data privacy last week. So it’s no surprise that cybersecurity was the subject of a solid quote:
No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids. We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyberattacks, combat identity theft and protect our children’s information. If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable. If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe.
But that’s pretty much the only time the issue was mentioned in the speech. Millions of Americans were affected by a spree of breaches at retailers over the past year, while fallout from the explosive Sony Pictures hack kept cybersecurity at the forefront of the policy conversation in 2014 — but cybersecurity got much more attention from the president before addressing Congress than during it.
At a speech at the Federal Trade Commission on Jan. 12, the president announced a set of data privacy proposals — including a notification standard for federal data breaches and a student data privacy plan. The next day, he announced a slew of cybersecurity proposals, including a threat intelligence sharing plan and new authorities for law enforcement to use in investigating and prosecuting cybercrime.
Legislative efforts to rein in government surveillance efforts were largely unsuccessful in the last Congress and the president didn’t spend too much time discussing the 2013 revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden -- but said that although others have moved on, he hasn't
As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties — and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks. So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I haven’t. As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.
America’s quest for the stars got a shout-out at the same time as the photo-sharing service Instagram.
I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs: converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid; pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay. Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a reenergized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars. In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain — and make sure to Instagram it.
Requisite tech company shout-outs
Instagram wasn’t the only tech company the president named. In another line about innovation, he checked off a few big tech names:
But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn’t even exist 10 or 20 years ago — jobs at companies like Google and eBay and Tesla.
The love for Tesla actually was part of a theme for the night.
Silicon Valley tax shenanigans
Much scrutiny has been focused on U.S. companies — particularly tech companies, such as Apple — that pay lower taxes by keeping their money abroad. In his speech, Obama took aim at the practice.
For far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. Let’s close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America. Let’s use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home.