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Plenty for Tech to Be Happy About In President’s Latest State of the Union Speech

The state of the union is – wait for it – strong but is in need of some technical upgrades, President Obama says.

Re/code screen grab via NBC

The White House promised that this year’s State of the Union speech would be different and not just be a laundry list of ideas (that would mostly be ignored by the Republican-controlled Congress anyway).

That was true, in a way. The White House spent the last two weeks previewing many of the major ideas in the speech, including ideas about free community college and a new tax proposal. The president went into far greater detail about those plans in preview speeches than he did Tuesday night.

Details about the proposals outlined broadly in the speech were mostly found on social media, which the White House was saturating Tuesday night since a dwindling number of households were expected to tune in. Last year, 33 million watched the State of the Union, the lowest number in 13 years. (By contrast, each NFL playoff game this weekend drew more than 40 million viewers.)

The 59-minute speech still served up a laundry list of issues; many of the proposals were little more than a rehash of previous administration ideas. But their inclusion in the high-profile speech at least provides them elevated importance as Congress gets to work this year.

In case you didn’t watch, here’s a quick look at what he said about some major issues of importance to the tech community:

Cyber Security and Privacy

There’s nothing partisan about the debate over new cyber-security and privacy laws, since most people agree that they want to be safe online and not have their data shared without their knowledge.

But Congress has been unable to move legislation on either issue for several years because of arguments between the business community and privacy advocates about how to craft those laws.

Last week, the president called for new data-privacy laws to protect students and a national standard for alerting consumers whose information had been stolen, as well as a new law to provide liability protections for businesses that share information about cyber attacks with federal law enforcement or security agencies.

White House State of the Union graphic.
White House State of the Union graphic.

North Korea’s alleged hacker attack on Sony Pictures has revived interest in Washington for doing more to encourage companies to share data with federal law enforcement or security agencies to help prevent future attacks. President Obama last week offered a variation on a threat-data-sharing proposal that would give companies limited liability protection in exchange for their cooperation.

Congress debated similar legislation last year, but privacy advocates had strong concerns about companies sharing consumer data with the federal government. The new White House proposal calls for the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to develop limits for the retention and use of the data.

Meanwhile, the White House’s new data-breach proposal would institute a national standard for hacked companies requiring them to notify consumers within 30 days. Most states currently have data-breach notification laws, and the business community has pressed for years to have one national standard. But consumer groups have worried that Congress will settle on a weaker standard that would preempt some tougher state laws.

“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 cyber-attacks, 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.”

NSA Mass Surveillance Program

Congress didn’t get very far last year with a proposal to curb the National Security Agency’s mass data-collection program. The effort died in the Senate in November. But President Obama hasn’t forgotten all of the Americans (and wealthy tech giants) freaked out by the mass surveillance programs.

“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.”

Trade

President Obama’s request for expanded authority to negotiate trade agreements didn’t sit well with some of his strongest allies, but his focus on negotiating new trade pacts was cheered by many in the tech community.

“21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages.

But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.

That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.

Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense. But ninety-five percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities. More than half of manufacturing executives have said they’re actively looking at bringing jobs back from China. Let’s give them one more reason to get it done.”

Intel, for one, was thrilled.Intel strongly supports robust free trade agreements which open up foreign markets and level the playing field so that American businesses can keep growing,” the company said in a blog post late Wednesday night.

“Expanding trade is also critical to the competitiveness of the technology sector,” said Linda Moore, chief executive of TechNet, in a statement.

They’re excited about the possibility of the U.S. reaching a deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would expand U.S. access to markets throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Broadband

Last week, President Obama complained about how little competition there is among high-speed broadband providers in many communities. He made the comment during a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he toured a local electric company that has become a model, of sorts, for communities interested in building out their own broadband networks.

The speech came just two months after the White House changed the long debate about rules for Internet lines, when President Obama suggested the FCC use a particular legal authority (Title II of the Communications Act) when crafting new net neutrality rules.

White House State of the Union graphic
White House State of the Union graphic

That move was cheered by consumer groups and net neutrality advocates, who worried that the agency might rely on a different, weaker legal authority. Internet providers weren’t nearly as happy and they’ve done everything they can (intensive lobbying and legal threats, mostly) to keep the FCC from that path.

During the speech Tuesday night, the president made a passing nod to both net neutrality and better broadband for everyone:

“I intend to protect a free and open internet, 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.”

Today, there will be two congressional hearings about net neutrality and a legislative proposal unveiled by Republicans last week who hope to prevent the FCC from taking action, as planned, in February.

A few issues left off the list

Immigration: The issue was mentioned twice, mostly in the context of the President not wanting to fight past battles. He didn’t mention anything in the speech about allowing more H-1B visas or proposals to enact more comprehensive immigration reform.

Patent Reform: Tech companies hoped last year they might be able to squeeze through legislation to curb patent trolls and smooth over other issues with the U.S. patent system. That didn’t quite work out. And while tech lobbyists still have hope that they can reach some compromise, they didn’t get any help from the White House Tuesday night. The word “patent” didn’t make the speech.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.