President Obama's Last State of the Union and What Could Have Been

On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union Address. After highlighting notable accomplishments over the past seven years in office, the president also presented his goals for his final year in office. Among the goals he rattled off were things like college tuition reform, cancer research, tax cuts, regulation reform, and importantly, a redoubling of our efforts to train more computer-savvy kids. Said President Obama, “we should [be] … offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one and support more great teachers for our kids.” 

This is welcome news given the state of the U.S. economy. In today’s global marketplace, where data and innovation are more than just catchy buzzwords, the United States continues to pump out bright minds with really transformational ideas. The innovations these minds are coming up with are changing lives both here and abroad. However, in order to continue on this path, policymakers need to make sure today’s students have the tools to enter a workforce that places a premium on skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

President Obama’s recognition that the nation needs to invest in its workforce in order to remain the world’s innovation leader should be commended far and wide. This investment is both economically sound and morally just.

But it bears mentioning that there are other avenues to ensure the nation’s status as the world’s innovation leader – avenues that should be explored today. While the long-term investments in education mature, our policymakers should be investing in software developers, giving them the necessary guidance on international data flows, shielding them from unscrupulous patent trolls, and promising that American businesses will not be burdened with undue data requests and surveillance. Bringing these issues to the forefront during Tuesday’s address would have helped quell the fears that many developers are experiencing.

To begin, President Obama could have used Tuesday’s address to remind the nation how important the free flow of data is in today’s marketplace. About 95 percent of the world’s consumers live somewhere other than the United States, and access to these potential customers is critical to ensure job and economic growth here at home. However, without a renewed Safe Harbor agreement between the U.S. and European Union (EU), this growth is at risk.

Late last year a high court in the EU struck down the Safe Harbor agreement, which provided an avenue for companies on both sides of the Atlantic to collect, transfer, and store consumer data between the two continents. Without a new agreement, US companies, large and small, are left in a holding pattern, trying to figure out what is and is not legal when transferring and storing customer data across international boundaries.

Additionally, President Obama might have implored Congress to address the growing patent troll problem. Patent trolls, those entities that wield overly broad, never-should-have-been-issued patents to extort payouts are running roughshod over businesses of all stripes and sizes around the country. They stifle innovation and kill great ideas in the cradle. The Innovation and PATENT Acts, which are unfortunately stalled in the House of Representatives and Senate, respectively, would go a long way to ending these harmful abuses. The bills, if signed into law, would shield legitimate innovators from troll con artists, and provide the stability and certainty every business needs to grow.

Finally, Tuesday’s address presented an opportune time for President Obama to speak about encryption. Presidential support for the widespread adoption of end-to-end encryption would help bring to an end the debate over whether Internet privacy must be sacrificed to protect the homeland. Building in so-called “backdoors” or granting special access for the “good guys” – law enforcement entities – creates an unacceptable vulnerability for everyone that could be exploited by hackers and thieves. Technologists, privacy experts, and industry representatives all agree that any weakness in our data security is a terrible idea. End-to-end encryption secures personal and commercial data while protecting Americans from crimes and overreaching government surveillance. According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, the White House should have clearly stated “no backdoors.”

In his closing remarks, President Obama asked how we can make our politics reflect what is best in us. We in the software sector like being part of the solution. Problem-solving is our ethos, and everything we do is done with an eye towards progress. Cooperation in Congress can be hard to come by, but tackling the aforementioned Innovation and PATENT Acts, along with bills like the Email Privacy Act and the Judicial Redress Act would send a signal to Americans and the world that our politics can reflect what’s best in us. Each of these bills enjoys broad, bipartisan support, creates jobs, would grow the economy, and on the whole, benefits the nation. The Email Privacy Act would afford our emails the same legal protections as the mail on our desk, and the Judicial Redress Act would not only enable our EU allies the opportunity to correct personal data the US government might have on them, but would also help to finalize the Safe Harbor 2.0 agreement.

As President Obama enters the final stretch of his term, we applaud his work to make STEM education a priority. Making sure our workforce is prepared for an ever-changing economy is a terrific idea. In the near-term however, we urge President Obama and Congress to tackle those issues outlined above to help Americans everywhere.

Smith Manee

Legal Fellow