Many of the issues could end in easy wins for the industry based on the White House's willingness to engage with them, according to industry figures such as Victoria Espinel, chief executive of the BSA, or Software Alliance, which represents software companies including Microsoft, Oracle and Apple.
“The mood music on this has been all about whether tech can work with the new administration, but it’s in both their interests to find a way to do that,” said Alan Davidson, until recently the director of digital economy at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and formerly Google’s head of public policy in Washington.
“There are certainly areas where our employees and CEOs have disagreed and haven't been shy about it, but it shouldn’t stop us from engaging with the process,” said Michael Beckerman, chief executive of the Internet Association, which represents companies ranging from Google, Facebook and Twitter to Netflix and Uber. “There are a lot of economic issues where there will be agreement, and there should be a seat for us at the table.”
Last week, leaders from major tech companies discussed some of these priorities — including the need for highly skilled immigrants — with the president during a day of White House meetings. They said they hope to make headway in coming months on other concerns, such as tax and trade, including the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The trade pact between the United States, Canada and Mexico went into effect in 1994. Because NAFTA was negotiated more than tw0 decades ago, it doesn’t include any references to the
Internet and the support of digital assets, including the transfer of data or intellectual property across borders.
The Trump administration has noted that NAFTA falls short of addressing today's tech issues. In a letter to Congress in May, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer wrote, “Many chapters are outdated and do not reflect modern standards … for example, digital trade was in its infancy when NAFTA was enacted.”
During a public hearing Tuesday with the U.S. trade representative on the modernization of NAFTA, tech industry groups pressed Lighthizer on the issue, arguing that the Internet should be integral to NAFTA 2.0, given its prime importance to the U.S. economy.
“The engagement of the administration with the tech sector on this has been positive,” said Linda Moore, a veteran presidential campaign staffer and chief executive of industry advocate TechNet, which includes senior executives from Oracle, Apple and Microsoft. “What’s really noteworthy is that digital trade grew about 45 times in 2014 and had a greater impact on the global economy than actual goods.”
Moore, who did not attend the NAFTA hearing, added, “We are actively advocating with the administration … for free flow of data across borders, stronger protection of IP and reduction of tariffs on IT.”
Another issue important to the tech community is easy access to global talent. “If it’s true that the next Facebook, Google or Microsoft can be created in more than a dozen countries around the world, then what is the U.S. doing to maintain and extend its global lead?” said Rep Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is working to make H1-B visas available to tech companies that need them the most. “That’s the number one … question for the administration to answer.”
According to Issa, the president is considering ways to give a helping hand to tech-savvy H1-B applicants, with two bills in Congress being discussed. Tech executives will be “knocking on an open door when it comes to H-1B reform,” Issa said, based on his recent discussions with Trump.
The tax question is one that Trump and the tech community are aligned on. Trump's early plans for tax reform would allow tech firms to reduce their tax bills and bring billions of dollars that are overseas back to the United States. “When money is elsewhere, it gets invested there, so what are the chances that investments would be made in a U.S. company?” Issa said. “Tax policy will follow this.”
The issue of an open Internet, however, remains a contentious one between the administration and Silicon Valley. Tech leaders support net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers should allow equal access to any content on the Web without favoring one site over another. But Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, has started moving toward rolling back these rules, causing a furor in the tech world.
“The ecosystem exists because of protections in net neutrality. It would be a shame if that went away and the sector we know today is frozen in time,” said the Internet Association's Beckerman.
On July 12, tech giants such as Netflix and Amazon are joining forces in a day of protest against the FCC's position on net neutrality.
Ultimately, creating the jobs of the future is the tech world's top priority. Every industry will need digitally trained local workers. “For most tech companies, talent is the number one concern. We want the pipeline to have highly skilled homegrown U.S. talent to take these jobs,” Moore said.
Said Davidson, a fellow at the nonpartisan think tank New America: “The tech industry knows they are part of this conversation. How we deal with people transitioning to doing different types of work is a longer-term issue and will be important to make progress on.”