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A 2017 tech-policy forecast: Washington slams the 'undo' button

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

President-elect Donald Trump may not have said much during the campaign on the subject, but the Republican majority in the House and Senate doesn’t think much of most of President Barack Obama’s current policies. The only question is how many of them will be undone in the coming year.

Net neutrality

Most of the GOP eyes the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality regulations with almost as much fury as the Affordable Care Act. These regulations ban internet providers from blocking or slowing lawful sites or charging them for faster delivery of their content. But just as repealing Obamacare isn’t such a simple proposition, nuking net neutrality may also get complicated.

A new Republican majority at the FCC — chairman Tom Wheeler and commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, both Democratic appointees and net-neutrality advocates, are both exiting — can immediately stop enforcing net-neutrality rules.

Still, that might not differ much from the current regime, which waited until December to voice an objection to wireless carriers exempting video services they own from data caps imposed on their subscribers.

But a move by the FCC to dump the existing rules risks the same populist groundswell that led Obama’s FCC to reverse course on a 2014 plan to retreat to a gutted set of net-neutrality rules that would have allowed “paid prioritization” deals. Voters correctly saw those as a surrender to two of their least-favorite corporations, the cable and the phone companies.

A move by Congress to rewrite the Telecommunications Act to stop a future Democratic FCC from reviving net-neutrality rules would risk the same feedback — and is a task that has eluded Congress’s grasp since 1996.

Telecom consolidation

Big Telecom should also face fewer obstacles in Washington to bulking up through mergers. AT&T’s (T) purchase of Time Warner (TWX) now looks to be a go; candidate Trump denounced that, but President-elect Trump’s nominees and tech-policy advisors oppose regulation and have backed prior mega-mergers.

Some Wall Street analysts keep chirping away about the odds of Sprint buying T-Mobile, but that looks more like the product of their fetish for deal-making than a rational analysis of what would help Sprint, a company that should know what it feels like to buy a competitor, Nextel, and see billions of dollars in value vaporize.

Telecom companies also get a boost from Washington if Trump’s infrastructure program includes an expansion of broadband internet access — something the US needs badly and soon.

Cybersecurity

A year filled with headlines about email phishing, data breaches, ransomware attacks and Internet-of-Things botnets should be all the evidence that businesses’ and government agencies’ cybersecurity remains inadequate.

Unfortunately, too many of Trump’s statements over what he referred to as “the cyber” in the second presidential debate can be fairly summarized as “boy, I don’t know.” The president-elect has acted as if successful attacks against Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party by attackers who increasingly seem to have been Russian-sponsored only means that hackers enjoy “pwning” Dems.

The executive branch’s new occupants should realize that, yes, it can happen here. I trust that the tech executives who met with Trump earlier in December offered their help with cybersecurity, and I hope that Trump’s administration accepts it.

I fear, however, that Trump’s law-and-order focus instead means more unproductive debate over why the tech industry can’t remove terrorist propaganda from the internet and develop “strong” encryption that still somehow allows the government to get back into a smartphone or a tablet.

A bipartisan report issued Tuesday by the House Energy and Commerce and Judiciary Committee’s Encryption Working Group, urging law-enforcement agencies to give up asking tech companies to grant special access to their crypto, should be required reading for Trump.

Expect more inaction on privacy and patents

The safest prediction to make in any new year’s tech-policy forecast is that Congress will do nothing, and why should 2017 depart from that pattern?

Its failure to reform the obsolete Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1996 relic that invites police investigators to grab email stored online (fortunately, web-mail services insist on a warrant), now seems an even bigger mistake.

Why will Congress want to burn political capital on fixing this under a law-and-order administration? Why would it also want to take on reforming an even older, also-broken law, 1986’s Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, that criminalizes some security research?

Congress also failed to do anything about patent reform this year, even as “patent trolls” continue to make a dishonest living by buying up overly-broad patents and then using them to shake down companies and their customers for allegedly infringing on the questionable inventions described in those patents.

The combination of a Republican Congress — this issue represents a fine chance to kick the Democratic constituency of trial lawyers in the shins — and a Republican president who’s also worked a lifetime in business ought to yield a law that jams a wrench into the gears of the patent-troll business model. But I was almost as optimistic about patent reform in prior years.

And since I was wrong each of those times, maybe you shouldn’t put too much stock in these predictions either.

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