Massachusetts Has “One Foot in the 21st Century, One Foot in the 18th,” Says Attorney General Coakley

In an informal discussion with technology leaders from industry and academia this morning at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and staff members from her office covered a range of issues affecting technology businesses and consumers, from cybercrime to the need to overhaul the state’s laws regarding noncompete agreements. Overregulation and outdated regulations were a major theme, with Coakley acknowledging in jest that “we love statutes and regulations in Massachusetts” and saying that in a time of severe budgetary constraints, changing and updating the law is one thing the state government can do to help businesses and entrepreneurs.

The meeting, the first of its kind between representatives of the technology community and the state’s top law enforcement officer, was intended to start a discussion about what sorts of changes to put on the agenda. “We can’t make decisions in the abstract,” Coakley told the gathering of about 30 people from Massachusetts companies and universities. “In a variety of areas where we’ve approached these issues—what technology means for government, for public safety, for privacy—part of what I want to do is get some feedback from you. What are we doing and not doing, and how can we be more helpful?”

Coakley poked a bit of fun at herself, confessing that as late as the mid-1990s, when she was chief of the Child Abuse Prosecution Unit of the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, she did not know how to turn on her computer to retrieve her e-mail. But after she became DA herself, she said, she got a crash course in computers and the Internet during the prosecution of Michael McDermott, who killed seven colleagues at Edgewater Technology in December 2000 and was convicted of murder after it was revealed that he had used Google to search for information on how to fake mental illness. As Massachusetts attorney general, she led settlement negotiations with Framingham, MA-based TJX to resolve claims around its massive data breach in 2007, and to make sure adequate safeguards are in place to protect consumer data in the future.

“I really like being attorney general, somewhat to my surprise,” Coakley said, “because it’s a great opportunity to learn about a whole range of issues, like where we should be going and how we can help businesses do well in Massachusetts, and how to protect consumers and protect the environment.”

The first issue raised by technology community members was whether Massachusetts should be doing more to make sure that some federal stimulus money reaches small businesses, rather than going exclusively to large corporations and public works projects. “From where I sit it’s been very disappointing to see the [slow] pace of the stimulus money and to see how restricted it is,” Coakley responded. “My focus on the stimulus money is to make sure it goes where it should” and to see that distribution of the funds isn’t mired in paperwork and graft. “It’s an example of big government trying to do big things and not necessarily being effective,” she said, but added, “I don’t know how much discretion we have” to channel the funds to small businesses or players other than those identified in stimulus legislation.

Early into the discussion, attendees raised the controversial issue of noncompete agreements in employment contracts in Massachusetts. Noncompetes (as we’ve written) are seen by many local companies as an essential way to protect trade secrets, but they’re seen by many entrepreneurs and investors as an impediment to employee mobility and innovation. Coakley said Massachusetts has “a fairly strict statute that has not been upgraded or changed probably since the 1970s, and some of what it does in terms of restrictions on employment was not contemplated for today’s climate.”

Changing the law could be a slow process, she said. “Unlike California, Massachusetts has one foot in the twenty-first century and one foot in the eighteenth,” Coakley said. Still, she said, change was possible. “If the perception is—and the perception can become the actuality—that Massachusetts is overly burdensome to individual innovators, and therefore companies don’t come here or stay here, that is a problem for us.”

The discussion also ranged to the role of state government and universities in educating the public about technology; the best ways for academic researchers to make sure that their findings are reflected in public policy; the need for cybersecurity measures and emergency exercises at the state level; healthcare reform and electronic medical records; and the need for ongoing regulatory reform to benefit small businesses.

John Ciccarelli, the associate vice chancellor for government relations, public affairs, and economic development at UMass Boston, congratulated Coakley for putting real resources behind promises about reform to lower regulatory hurdles. Under Coakley’s predecessor, nobody even answered the phones at the Attorney General’s Office’s regulatory reform division, Ciccarelli said. “Now you have two people answering the phone, he said. Coakley said her focus was less on getting old, outdated regulations off the books than on making sure that any new ones that go into effect are clear.

In closing, Coakley said she hoped the meeting would lead to “further fruitful collaboration” between business and university leaders and her office. “My phone is open, my door is open,” she said.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Massachusetts Has “One Foot in the 21st Century, One Foot in the 18th,” Says Attorney General Coakley”

  1. Peter Griffin says:

    The spirit of Massachusetts is the spirit of America, the spirit of what’s old and what’s new!