Tim Wu and NY Attorney General Schneiderman Talk Tech & Government

Can government and disruptive companies make nice-nice with each other?

Last night at Civic Hall in New York, the local innovation community got to meet with the state’s chief legal eagle, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and part of his team, which now includes Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor credited with coining the term “net neutrality.”

Wu (pictured above) just started working with Schneiderman this week, appointed to serve as senior enforcement counsel and special advisor, particularly on technology. (He is on sabbatical from his teaching duties at Columbia Law School.)

I spoke briefly with Wu about some of his plans at the New York Attorney General’s office and what he expects to accomplish.

“I grew up in the tech economy,” he said. “They are kind of my tribe.” Wu also said one objective on Schneiderman’s agenda is to transform the relationship between tech entrepreneurs and government. “Sometimes it’s been a little—across country, not only here—challenging,” Wu said.

An important, progressive mandate for government, he said, is to be on the side of small business.

It is no secret, though, that in recent years both the city and the state of New York have been battlegrounds for contentious fights with companies that danced on a fine line, or outright flouted certain laws. Apps for ridesharing, taxi hailing, and ordering car service, for example, rankled noses particularly at the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, though some startups found ways to work within the rules.  A variety of sharing-economy companies drew concern from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The state government in Albany squabbled with some of these companies as well—the fight over the legality of Airbnb rentals being one of the highest-profile instances.

Some of the heat has cooled on those matters, so the gathering last night—hosted by the folks who run the New York Tech Meetup and tech community center Civic Hall—was far more congenial than a détente to end hostilities.

However, Schneiderman did have more than a few choice words about political gridlock at the federal level, along with his desire for a collaborative connection between state government and activists from the tech community.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman discusses ways government and the tech community can work together.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman discusses the need for government and the tech community to work together.

He pointed a finger at a movement in Washington, DC, to dismantle the federal government’s power, a trend he believes will continue regardless of who gets elected president in 2016. That means state governments will have to fill the gaps on regulatory fronts where they can, Schneiderman said

“Where federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies might have acted 20 or 30 years ago, you’re going to see that some are unwilling or unable to perform functions they did in the past,” he said.

This may be more of an issue as disruptive ideas that are ambiguously legal continue to emerge in the private and public sectors. “New business models that do not fit clearly into our existing legal framework are coming out of the tech community in an explosive way,” he said.

In the absence of federal oversight of such matters, Schneiderman foresees state regulators working with the private sector to determine which laws are necessary to protect people and the economy, versus outmoded policies leftover from earlier eras. A state’s being nimble in adjusting its regulations to new technology while also serving the public could be crucial to its overall prosperity, he said. “It requires us to cut through all of the boiler plate in our laws and look at was is really important,” Schneiderman said.

The state’s goal is develop an evolving framework to allow for what he called “responsible disruption.” That means looking at the consequences of change as … Next Page »

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