Statehouse preview: What’s on deck for tech

House Chamber, Vermont Statehouse
House Chamber, Vermont Statehouse. Photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

Editor’s note: VTDigger’s reporters are previewing prospective legislation on their beats in a daily series leading up to opening day on Jan. 9.

The 2019 legislative session comes as tech companies and interest groups hope to brand Vermont as a hotspot for innovation.

But some say the state the needs to improve broadband infrastructure, bolster access to affordable housing, and modernize its regulations to ease the way for technology companies.

Here are a some of the Vermont business community’s priorities for tech policy in the upcoming legislative session.

Broadband

“We’re promoting anything that would expand broadband in the state,” said Jeff Couture, executive director of the Vermont Technology Alliance. The alliance, created in 2004, has about 200 members including individual entrepreneurs and large firms.

Vermont has high-speed broadband in some places, such as Springfield. In others, including the Woodstock area, residents complain that slow connection speeds make it difficult to do business. Tech companies would like to see the state have a uniformly functional high-speed system.

“It’s a complicated issue; let’s look for some creative ways to do this,” said Couture. “Broadband is a public and private thing. There’s not an easy solution.”

The Technology Alliance will also be keeping an eye on Act 250 discussions because of the possible impact on cell tower siting.

Paul Haskell, a lobbyist for the Vermont Futures Project, an organization that studies and makes recommendations about how to improve the state’s economy, said that he will also be pushing lawmakers to take action on broadband.

Haskell, like many in the business community, believes that expanding broadband is a key to economic development in rural areas. Improving broadband could help encourage outsiders to move in, and those who live in rural areas to stay.

“We are looking at needing to staunch this hemorrhage of talent and community from the rural parts of the state and need to make those same parts of the state attractive to young families,” he said.

Branding

Leaders in most industries, tech and otherwise, seem unanimous in wanting to update Vermont’s image. To the old standby of farms, maple syrup and history, business leaders would like to add technology companies, manufacturing, and a robust job market.

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“Anything that talks about recruiting, branding Vermont, anything that promotes co-working spaces and marketing” will get support from the Vermont Technology Alliance, said Couture. “Recruiting, drawing attention to Vermont… anything that helps with financing and investment.”

Mark Heyman, general counsel for Logic Supply, a computer manufacturer in South Burlington, said promoting Vermont as a place to do business is critical to staff recruitment.

“Our tech sector is a secret, even from Vermonters,” Heyman said. “We support efforts on all levels of the state in terms of promoting businesses, specifically the technology sector in Vermont.”

Data and Net Neutrality

In May, Vermont became the first state in the nation to pass a bill that requires data brokers to identify themselves to the state.

The new law, which takes effect this month, is aimed at protecting consumers from credit freeze fees and fraudulent data acquisition. It also establishes a registry and security standards for the data broker industry.

Couture said the Technology Alliance will be watching for any proposed changes to the new law.

“Our concern was that it was defined so broadly that Vermont businesses that deal with marketing or data collection could be involved,” he said. “We’re trying to follow on legislation that may come out of the whole data piece. I don’t want to create onerous systems as part of normal providing services to people in the state.”

Heyman said data privacy is an issue best addressed at a federal level.

“Data doesn’t respect geographical boundaries,” he said. “It would be better to avoid a patchwork of regulation across all 50 states.

“We’re not for or against anything” he said of the Vermont legislation. “It’s tricky to come up with the right protection for individuals and businesses and not kill jobs.”

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office is urging that lawmakers expand data privacy protections for Vermonters. In a recent report, the office recommended legislators create a new statewide officer position charged with ensuring the government establishes best practices for handling Vermonters’ personal information.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan also suggested the Legislature follow California’s lead by passing additional regulations to safeguard personal information of children who use educational technology in school.
In addition, Donovan also recommended, that for now, the state hold on instituting additional net neutrality regulations. Last year, legislators passed a law and Gov. Phil Scott signed an executive order requiring internet providers who do business with the state to abide by net neutrality principles.

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The measures came after the Federal Communications Commission moved to roll back net neutrality rules: Obama-era regulations designed to maintain equality in internet service.

A group of cable and telecom organizations sued Vermont over the measures in October.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers asked the attorney general whether Vermont should consider adopting its own version of the overturned net neutrality rules.

In its report, the attorney general’s office noted that no other state has adopted its own version of the rules, and advised Vermont refrain from new regulations, for now.

The office recommended that “the State wait and see what happens in other states this year, before taking action on this issue.”

Right to Repair

A state task force this fall released recommendations on Vermont’s proposed right to repair legislation. Supporters of the proposal want to require the electronics industry to make available authorized parts so that independent stores and individuals can repair consumer electronic products, including phones, tablets and computers.

Many electronics manufacturers invalidate warranties if repairs or modifications are made anywhere other than authorized shops.

Opponents say it would compromise device security and undercut contractual relationships with authorized repair shops.

“We’re concerned about the impact on businesses around protecting intellectual property, security, safety, and impacts that may be unintended on Vermont businesses,” Couture said.

“There is some benefit to enabling businesses to be certified and not opening everything up. There could be some consequences to Vermont businesses that we want to make sure are taken into account.”

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