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A Plan For Utah’s Tech Sector

by Senator Orrin G. Hatch.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

Utah is the best state in the Union. I’m sure every Senator says that about their home state, but in my case this statement has the virtue of being undeniably true.

I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course. There are a lot of great things about other states. But I do believe emphatically that Utah is the best state in the country in which to work and raise a family. That’s why I moved here many years ago, and it’s what I tell people in other states when they say they’re thinking about moving someplace new.

What makes Utah so great, in my view, is that we have a low cost of living coupled with strong communities and a dynamic job market. The unparalleled natural beauty is a nice perk, too.

The success of our job market owes to a number of factors. We graduate large numbers of enterprising young people each year from our numerous outstanding universities. We have a business-friendly state government that keeps taxes low and regulations light. And we have an industrious, can-do spirit that encourages entrepreneurship and rewards innovation.

Indeed, Utah’s successes in recent decades in the fields of innovation and technology have been nothing short of remarkable. Utah is now home to more than 5,000 tech companies. Venture capital invested in Utah last year exceeded $1 billion. Our state is home to household names like Qualtrics, Domo, and Ancestry.com. Other tech giants such as Adobe and eBay have major presences here.

If we want Utah’s tech community to continue to enjoy the successes we’ve seen in recent years, it’s essential that we do all we can to foster a business and innovation-friendly environment.

I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have frequent opportunities to advance policies that benefit Utah’s tech industry. For the past eight years, I’ve served as the Chairman of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force. This role has brought me into contact with a number of tech leaders — both in and out of Utah — who have driven home to me the importance of protecting new innovations, safeguarding consumer privacy, and ensuring that companies have the people and capital they need to thrive.

Senator Orrin Hatch

Earlier this year, I announced an Innovation Agenda for the new Congress that I intend to pursue through my role with the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force. I’d like to highlight here a few key priorities from the agenda that have particular relevance to Utah.

First is education and workforce training. To succeed in our increasingly competitive global economy, tech companies here in Utah need top-flight talent with training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — the so-called STEM disciplines.

Unfortunately, although our universities here in the state are top-notch and produce many hard-working, industrious graduates each year, we simply don’t graduate enough students with STEM degrees to meet demand. A recent nationwide study, in fact, found that there are twelve job openings requiring a background in STEM for every one unemployed STEM worker.

We need to do a better job equipping our young people with the tools businesses need to grow and thrive. We also need to provide opportunities for workers already in the workplace to receive training in STEM fields so they can keep their skillsets relevant to employers’ needs.

Closely tied to improving STEM education and workforce training is ensuring our system of high-skilled immigration meets the needs of Utah’s tech employers. Almost without exception, every tech leader I talk with tells me they prefer to hire American talent. But they also acknowledge that’s not always possible.

Many tech positions require specialized training — hence the need for more STEM graduates — and sometimes it can be difficult to find an American job applicant with the requisite skills. In such cases, Utah tech companies may look to foreign workers trained at American universities, or, failing that, workers trained outside the United States, to meet demand.

Our current system of high-skilled immigration, however, doesn’t allow companies to bring in the number of workers they need, and even more problematically, it doesn’t provide a reasonable way for companies to integrate these workers into American society. We should be eager to bring the best PhDs and university graduates to our country — particularly ones educated at American universities — and enable them to stay and become productive members of our economy, but unfortunately our current laws make that process extremely cumbersome.

I’m preparing to reintroduce legislation called the Immigration Innovation Act, or “I-Squared,” to make our system of high-skilled immigration much more rational. My bill would also support programs — funded by application fees, not taxpayers dollars — to improve STEM education and workforce training. I believe that with a little hard work and help from the tech community, we can see my proposal enacted into law.

I’ll briefly mention two other priorities that I believe are particularly relevant to Utah’s tech community.

First is consumer privacy. Increasingly strong encryption technology has enabled consumers to better protect their communications and personal data. Some in the law enforcement community, however, have raised concerns that encryption may also enable criminals and other bad actors to shield their conduct from government watchdogs and make investigations into their actions more difficult.

Although there is undoubted validity to these concerns, proposals that would require companies to weaken their encryption technology so that law enforcement can more easily gain access are not the answer. Rather, the solution is for tech companies and law enforcement to work together to find ways to share information in appropriate circumstances and for officials to beef up their other investigatory tools.

We also need to be cautious about the standards we set for enabling law enforcement to access consumers’ electronic data. I believe it is appropriate to require law enforcement to obtain a warrant from a neutral magistrate before accessing electronic data, just like we require for books, papers, and other physical materials. This warrant requirement should apply to all cases, no matter how old the data is and no matter where it is located, unless exigent circumstances necessitate immediate access.

I’ve introduced legislation called the International Communications Privacy Act, or “ICPA,” that would do just that. My bill would require a warrant for all private electronic data, regardless of whether that data is stored in the United States or overseas. Many Utah tech companies work with sensitive personal data; many others store sensitive data for their customers or employees. My International Communications Privacy Act will provide greater protections, and greater peace of mind, for all of these companies.

The last priority I’d like to highlight is patent reform. Tech companies in Utah rely on patents to protect their discoveries and innovations. Unfortunately, entities called “patent trolls” — typically, shell corporations that don’t actually make anything but exist merely as litigation vehicles — abuse the system by bringing frivolous patent claims against actual innovators and extorting settlements.

One particularly egregious facet of this abuse involves the way patent trolls manipulate claims to bring cases in plaintiff-friendly forums, where they know they can shake down even more money from tech companies. We need to put an end to such rampant abuse. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has before it right now a case that will give it the opportunity to do so. If the Supreme Court lets the opportunity pass, I will be introducing a bill to correct the problem legislatively.

These are just a few of my priorities this Congress that have particular relevance to Utah’s tech community. I’ve worked hard to build bridges with the Trump administration and have good relationships with President Trump and his staff. These relationships have already borne fruit here in Utah with the President’s executive order laying the groundwork to reduce the size of federal land grabs in southern portions of our state.

I can serve as a bridge between the tech community and the Trump administration. I have deep ties in the tech world and a strong ally in the White House. I intend to work with both sides of the equation to promote policies that will enable our great state — the greatest in the Union — to remain at the forefront of innovation and technological growth.

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