Silicon Valley Mayor to Feds: ‘Get Out of the Way’ of Innovation

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The federal government could do more to promote innovation at the state and local levels by doing less, according to San Jose’s mayor.

Sam Liccardo is no cheerleader for the federal government.

As mayor of San Jose, Calif., Liccardo represents a diverse community of more than 1 million people in the heart of Silicon Valley but inadequate internet access has cut off many of his constituents from taking part in the region’s tech boom.

The federal government has a role to play in addressing the digital divide and allowing the tech industry to flourish, he said, but so far its policies have only gotten in the way.

As the government looks to advance “industries of the future” nationwide, Liccardo spoke with Nextgov at SXSW about how agencies should approach innovation, closing the digital divide and enabling local communities to benefit from emerging tech.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, check out the video above.

Nextgov: There’s been a big push in government to advance emerging tech, notably artificial intelligence. Has that trickled down into the tech community?

Liccardo: “No. In Silicon Valley ... we tend not to pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in D.C. around tech. We find the most interesting options are really being created organically in the garages and in the labs all around us. So we really haven’t felt it, no.”

Nextgov: How do you think the government should go about spurring innovation?

Liccardo: “I think it would help to start simply by getting out of the way. We need to have a federal government that recognizes the value of innovation rather than wanting to control it. Every mayor recognizes in this country that there are perils in unchecked or unlimited tech growth. We know that there are concerns about privacy that have to be squarely dealt with. I think industry’s interested in having those conversations. But what we know is innovation isn’t going to come from the Beltway, it’s going to come from the rest of the country.”

Nextgov: You have been pretty vocal about the need to close the digital divide. What are some of the challenges you face in San Jose?

Liccardo: “We’ve been pretty deliberate about trying to understand where the divide is and who’s left out. We have about 100,000 residents in a city of 1.1 million in the middle of Silicon Valley who do not have basic internet service. We know if a 12-year-old has to do her homework in a Burger King to be able to get Wi-Fi service, that’s a huge obstacle to her educational attainment, to her ability to succeed in life. So we’ve been working hard with the recent launch of a digital inclusion fund [to] see how we can bridge that divide.”

Nextgov: Federal policymakers have talked a lot about the need to close the digital divide. How has that played out in your city?

Liccardo: “Bluntly, [closing the digital divide] hasn’t been a priority for the federal government, at least under this administration. Recent [Federal Communications Commission] rulings are really cutting the knees out of local governments, local communities and their ability to negotiate deals that ensures that technology is broadly distributed. Right now, the FCC’s taken the position that we should somehow or another treat the telecom companies as if they’re public utilities. That would be fine if they also had the responsibilities of public utilities to serve everyone. They’re not doing that today, and unless they’re prodded by the government they’re not going to.”

Nextgov: What’s your ideal federal policy for closing the digital divide?

Liccardo: “Good policy could take one of two forms. If you want to treat telecom companies as public utilities … mandate they serve everyone in all parts of a community. Secondly, if you decide they’re not going to be public utilities then simply allow cities ... to negotiate at the table so the city can ensure their residents are well-served. Either way, we will get to better digital equity, but the worst of both worlds is what we have right now.”