FARMINGTON — Technology leaders in Northern Utah gathered to discuss technology policy Tuesday — ranging from personal privacy and data breaches to sources of federal funding for technology companies.
This is one of the first public conversation of its kind that has happened in Northern Utah.
Silicon Slopes and Dorsey & Whitney LLP, a law firm, hosted the panel discussion at Pluralsight’s office in Farmington. Pluralsight is headquartered in Utah and produces thousands of courses that help organizations build the technology skills of their employees.
The panel featured U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Nicole Toomey Davis, president and CEO of Enclavix, an artificial intelligence software company in Bountiful, and a founder of VentureWrench, a coaching community that supports emerging technology companies.
Personal privacy was a theme throughout the conversation.
Speaking of Facebook, Stewart said he thinks companies like Facebook need to adequately inform users of the information the company gathers on them and how it uses it.
Several years ago, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, people were concerned about the government surveilling citizens. Stewart says that concern is now shifting, and people are asking the same questions of big technology companies.
“Turns out that some people are resentful that their federal government is looking at their private data,” Stewart said, “but they don’t care at all if they’re volunteering that private data to other companies, and companies are using that data to monetize. (Users) are essentially the product that the business is selling, and I don’t think people are comfortable with that any longer.”
Stewart said that Congress would like to create a more affirmative way for users to give permission to organizations to use their data, in part by requiring that organizations gain users’ permission beforehand rather than requiring them to opt out.
“If you have some ideas on this or some theories on (privacy legislation) ... come talk to us about it,” Stewart said. “I don’t think you appreciate how much influence you could have to come back and meet with members of Congress and say ‘this is what this legislation should look like,’ especially right now when we’re trying to figure it out.”
Davis thinks that the federal government got behind the eight ball when they allowed Facebook to buy some of its competitors. She said anyone who creates a Facebook ad can see how specific and detailed their data on users is — “it is terrifying,” she said.
“I have great concern about how data is being collected ... so I’m totally supportive of legislation,” Davis said.
However, when it comes to penalties like those in Europe, she urged caution.
“There’s only one solution for a small American business, and that is to not permit Europeans to be part of our community, or use any of our technology or be on our email list,” Davis said, “because the penalties are company destroying and essentially life altering for an entrepreneur. ... The penalties need to scale with the resources available to the company.”
A blogger who fails to remove a European email from their email list quickly enough could be sent to jail under European rules, Davis said.
The panelists also offered advice on attaining federal funding, including through the SBIR program (Small Business Innovation Research).
Davis said that the most important thing for potential applicants to understand is that the funding is for deep research that is “high risk and high reward.” Because of the risk, this type of funding is difficult to get from investors.
The federal funding is not enough to take a product to market, she said. Organizations will need to have a strategy for long-term funding.
Resources available to local businesses to navigate these programs include the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative’s SBIR-STTR Assistance Center, which will match organizations with solicitations in their areas of expertise for $75 a year, Davis said.
Davis, who was once a reviewer of submitted proposals for this funding, also offers an advanced online course that supports entrepreneurs through this process.
Davis said dozens of companies in the state have received this funding, including her company. Due to these supports, she said, Utah has a higher rate of awardees for its size compared to other states.
Stewart said that his office is happy to write letters of support when organizations have identified funding they want to pursue.
The idea for this panel came out of a discussion between Troy Keller, a lobbyist and attorney with Dorsey and Whitney who lives in Farmington, and Ben Rollins, head of the Silicon Slopes chapter in Farmington, Keller said.
Federal policy impacts companies in Utah, Keller said, and the there hadn’t been a debate in a setting like this before. Keller said they hope to hold more.
“As Utah’s tech industry gets bigger, which it is now, it can have a stronger voice,” said Keller. “We’re not the biggest state, but we’ve got a pretty good voice already in D.C. I think it’s important technology companies start ... making use of that and making sure their issues are front and center with their representatives.”