State of the Tech State in Texas

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A mid-term review of tech policy in the Texas legislature

As we near the end of the 85th legislative session, Data Foundry is reviewing all of the technology and innovation related bills filed, and how they are rated. Our first session rating bills with the Texas Policy Scorecards has been eye opening. We feel encouraged that legislative offices have reached out to us for technical knowledge and advice. We are also pleased to see some pro-innovation and cybersecurity bills this session. However, given the importance of the technology industry to the state, the lack of technical understanding and institutional knowledge available to legislators and their staff is a bit disheartening.

Some interesting and hopeful pro-innovation bills will be up for a vote this session, such as Senator Kelly Hancock’s SB 451 that prohibits municipal governments from banning short-term property rentals and Senator Don Huffines’ SB 113 that prohibits municipal governments from regulating ride-sharing or Transportation Network Companies (TNCs). A few much-needed bills for establishing cybersecurity processes in state government agencies and protecting energy infrastructure (SB 83) were also submitted.

We are appreciative of Representative Gio Capriglione’s bill, HB 3274, establishing a Chief Innovation and Technology Officer in the Office of the Governor. It states the officer “would work to establish the state as a new frontier for innovation and technology;” however, the bill mostly establishes the position for the purpose of overseeing technological improvements in state agencies, not ensure Texas maintains a legal environment hospitable to technology and innovation.

While these bills are encouraging, we’ve witnessed the unequivocal lack of institutional knowledge available to our state government. We’ve been asked such questions as, “Why does the tech industry care about the first amendment?” Protecting the open Internet, privacy and electronic communication in general has everything to do with the first amendment and have been longtime industry concerns. Policies and legislation that regulate the tech industry today will have everything to do with privacy, freedom of speech, and innovation tomorrow.

For instance, several anti-cyberbullying bills were proposed this session. While we find the act of cyberbullying to be abhorrent, the bills threaten freedom of speech online and encourage surveillance, which also threatens privacy. There was also a ride-sharing bill proposed this session (SB 176) that prohibits local governments from banning TNCs, but overregulates and restricts the evolution of the industry at the same time.

We’ve also scored bills that attempt to redefine online service providers and procedures for data collection and retention. These definitions are already clearly established in the Texas Criminal Code of Procedures and in the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act. If there were a legislative committee dedicated to technology and innovation, this likely would not have been an issue.

Our experience this session has reaffirmed what we thought: There is a dire need for a Texas Technology Committee to evaluate technology legislation using institutional knowledge and standardized definitions.

According to CompTIA’s annual Cyberstates report, Texas has been the nation’s 2nd largest employer in the tech industry for several years. The industry employs nearly 600,000 Texans (over 600,000 if tech jobs in non-tech industries are included). According to the 2015 Texas IT Services Industry Report, the state’s IT and software sector was the second highest receiver of foreign direct investment, and VC firms invested $1.9 billion in Texas IT services firms.

The tech industry contributes so much to the state economy, yet we have no committee and no experts in state government to provide institutional knowledge and a framework for technology legislation. We cannot expect senators and representatives to know everything about technology, just as we cannot expect them to know everything about energy or the insurance industry. Just as other industries have committees in the state legislature, so should technology and innovation. Our industry evolves faster than all others, and there is much to be done. AI and IoT (the Internet of Things) are rapidly growing sectors of the technology industry whose products and services will generate an avalanche of new tech-related issues for governments to tackle. If they do not, it will be at the expense of the people. Technology will not slow down. With a committee and institutional knowledge in place, legislators won’t have to reinvent the wheel with each bill, making tech legislation timely and more efficient, which would, in turn, make Texas the technology economic powerhouse it deserves to be.