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President Trump's tech policy is a mystery

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
President Trump. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

We know President Trump has strong feelings about Twitter (TWTR). But his thoughts on the rest of the tech industry remain a guessing game five days after his inauguration, and more than a year and a half after he announced his candidacy.

Tech policy experts spent Monday in Washington discussing what’s in store under the Trump administration at the State of the Net Conference, and struggled to get past guesses and hypotheticals. That’s not just a problem for the tech policy wonks at the annual conference held by the Internet Education Foundation, either. See, the Trump administration’s policies will shape everything from your choices of internet providers, the market for streaming video, your online privacy and security and more.

“It’s difficult to predict whether the White House will take a primary leadership, or whether Congress will, or whether these issues will be on the front burner for any part of government,” R Street Institute senior policy analyst Mike Godwin explained during an interview at the conference.

Net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, which prohibit internet providers from blocking, slowing or surcharging websites, something Sen. John Thune (R.-S.D.) called an “aggressively activist and partisan agenda” during a speech at State of the Net, have looked dead since Election Day. Trump’s recent promotion of FCC commissioner Ajit Pai to chairman of the agency made net neutrality’s death all but official.

Pai has denounced net neutrality regulations from the start. And now that Obama Democratic appointees Tom Wheeler and Jessica Rosenworcel have left the commission, Pai can start undoing those rules.

But reversing an FCC rule happens no faster than enacting a new one, and net neutrality remains a popular concept. Thune suggested that the way forward was a bipartisan bill upholding narrower open-internet rules. Another speaker, Sen. Brian Schatz (D.-Hi.), endorsed that goal but said the timing was wrong: “It’s too polarized.”

In the meantime, don’t be surprised to see internet providers push the boundaries of the current rules — picture things like exempting their own video services from their wireless data caps, something AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) already do.

Broadband

Even Trump opponents have sounded relatively optimistic in talking about the president’s desire to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure — especially if they include extending broadband internet access to more Americans. But will they? Great question!

A panel discussion about rethinking telecom policy had no answers. According to Larry Downes, a fellow with Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy, the core problem with Trump’s infrastructure plan is “We don’t know anything about it.”

Trump’s inaugural address only mentioned roads, tunnels, bridges, railroads and airports, so counting on broadband might be a mistake. But panelists suggested that having an infrastructure bill mandate that those new projects include facilities for future broadband expansion — so-called “dig once” rules — would represent a valuable improvement.

Cybersecurity

“The new administration takes cyber very seriously and it’s a top priority,” said Technology CEO Council executive director Bruce Mehlman in a panel titled “Stopping the Hacks.” “I can’t tell you where it will end up.”

Still, even with abundant evidence of Russian attempts to hack into U.S. institutions, beyond just the Democratic party, the same panel couldn’t agree if Trump would continue existing sanctions against Russia.

Speakers did seem confident that Trump would not seek to compel tech companies to weaken encryption systems to allow access for law enforcement. In the day’s opening panel, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (D.-Va.) and Cybereason CEO Lior Div agreed that such a move would be, as Goodlatte put it, “not a realistic way of looking at this problem.”

Then again, the written answers Trump’s attorney-general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) provided to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) include the assertion that it’s “critical” that “national security and criminal investigators be able to overcome encryption.”

I sat down with Div after his panel to ask if he had any insight about Trump’s cybersecurity agenda. The cybersecurity executive’s answer? ”We don’t have any information about it.”

Privacy

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986-relic that lets law-enforcement investigators access people’s mail stored online for more than 180 days without a warrant, remains pathetically overdue for replacement. Can Congress finally do that, and what will Trump say about it? Two more fine questions we don’t have answers for.

In an onstage interview Rep. Suzanne DelBene (D.-Wash.) said some kind of change should finally happen, noting that the House voted unanimously for a reform bill last year. Trump, however, has been silent on the subject.

Another conference speaker, Adam Klein of the Center for a New American Security, suggested that the past opposition to ECPA reform might lead Trump’s business-friendly administration to support replacing this law.

It’s easy to bet on continued gridlock, and to some in Silicon Valley that would be fine. “We like to be ignored as much as possible,” Downes during his panel appearance.

But as Schatz noted in his own talk, the decisions of private companies set policy in their own right. He pointed to the growing ranks of household devices shipping with their own form of connectivity and their own privacy agreements — which without “rules of the road” enforced by government might yield a world that “requires that I click ‘agree’ to participate in life.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.