Rep. DelBene, Former Tech Exec, Talks Immigration, Electronic Privacy, Sales Tax

7/10/13Follow @bromano

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SD: As someone who has also been an entrepreneur, I know investments that we make in basic research end up stimulating a lot of new ideas. One of the startups that I did came out of the University of Washington computer science department, that was technology transfer. A biotech company that I worked at, Zymogenetics, started with some intellectual property that came out of the University of Washington. That tie between research that’s happening at our higher educational institutions, basic research, and economy and startup technology, is very, very important.

And we have a lot of students from all around the world at our institutions who are coming up with great ideas, working, and many of our new companies and a lot of innovation comes from those students. And if those students are American students or foreign students who are here, if we have those great ideas and collaboration, and those can start new businesses right here in the United States, that’s a good thing, and that’s one place where H-1B plays.

X: Does it look like high-skilled immigration will be a contentious issue as the immigration debate moves to the House?

SD: There was a bill that came up in committee last week called the SKILLS Act in the House. One of the challenges with the way that piece of legislation was written is it was looking at high-skilled immigration, yet also talking about diversity visas, and trading them off. We had a little bit of an apples and oranges conversation, and I think that was part of the problem. … We’re saying, Hey, in order to put policy together, to help with workforce demands in one area, we’re going to take away visas from another area, that aren’t necessarily related. We don’t have to do policy that way. [Editor’s note: The SKILLS Act, H.R. 2131---which would expand visas for foreign entrepreneurs and graduates of U.S. universities in STEM fields, and increase the cap on H-1B visas, among other things---was approved by the Judiciary Committee in late June; DelBene voted against the bill in committee.]

X: Do you think that your vote on immigration will be an issue in the 2014 campaign?

SD: I’d love to see a comprehensive bill come to the floor of the House so that we can get a vote on immigration reform on the floor of the House. I think that’s a question right now.

I hear from the business community, from farmers, everyone, that they want to see us get immigration policy in place. My concern right now is that once again in the House, we’re looking at it in pieces, and we have a Senate bill where they’ve really taken a comprehensive approach, and worked in bipartisan manner to get there, and so I think it’s really important that the House also takes up policy that’s comprehensive, bipartisan, so we get something through.

X: You co-sponsored legislation to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). How has the debate on that issue shifted in the last month since these enormous disclosures about NSA surveillance?

SD: I think it’s had a big impact because I think the public awareness is a lot higher now. You heard a lot of discussion about privacy on things like SOPA and PIPA, but they were much more in the tech and online community as opposed to the broad public. And now, I think with what’s been happening, we are having a more broad public conversation. There’s more awareness that maybe what people assumed was happening in privacy isn’t exactly what our policy says today.

I always point out that this piece of paper, if it’s sitting in your desk drawer, law enforcement would need a warrant to access this information, but if it’s an e-mail in the cloud, and if it’s 180 days old, you don’t need a warrant to access that information. You don’t need a warrant to access geolocation information. [The ECPA bill would address electronic communications and geolocation data, holding them "to the same warrant standard" required to access a physical piece of paper.]

X: Is it something you think could happen in this session of Congress?

SD: Potentially. In fact, because there’s a little more awareness, maybe it’ll move a little more quickly than it might have otherwise.

X: Why are you supporting the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would require online retailers to collect local sales taxes owed by their customers, regardless of where the companies are based?

SD: It recognizes that our economy has changed, that people buy online. It is definitely a very healthy sector of business, and yet we treat businesses differently in terms of requiring one type of business to collect sales tax and others not to. And also given technology, online retailers can actually collect sales tax. It’s not a huge burden anymore in terms of their ability to do so. So, this piece of legislation says if you’re an online retailer, you’re selling into a state, even a state you’re not located in, you collect that local sales tax and remit it back to the state, just like the local retailer does. It says, if there’s going to be a price difference, it’s going to be based on other things, whether it’s that you can charge a lower cost or one has shipping and one doesn’t, convenience might win over. … You’re not at a disadvantage for being a local brick and mortar retailer, and we also don’t have brick and mortar retailers who are, in a sense, being the service arm for online retailers, and losing that business because of the way policy differentiates who has to collect tax and who doesn’t.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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