Lawmakers scramble to keep up with the cutting edge

 Amazon HQ2 will be Amazon's second headquarters in North America.
 Amazon HQ2 will be Amazon's second headquarters in North America.
dennizn/Shutterstock
Amazon HQ2 will be Amazon's second headquarters in North America.

Lawmakers scramble to keep up with the cutting edge

As New York charges forward on tech, a wave of legislation rises in its wake.
December 12, 2018

Between regulating technology giants, facilitating new kinds of transportation and keeping the executive branch in check, New York legislators have a lot on their plate when the new session begins in January. “Technology moves very fast, and it moves a lot faster than democracy moves,” said state Sen. Robert Ortt, a Western New York Republican. “That’s one of the tensions … for us, to try to keep up on these issues, to the point where you’re making legislation that has a real-time impact.” Here are just a few of the issues lawmakers will try to keep up with next year.

✓ Amazon’s HQ2

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced New York’s deal to bring part of Amazon’s new headquarters to Long Island City, Queens, lawmakers in Albany and City Hall alike felt ripped off. When legislators convene in January, there’s sure to be some blowback to the deal – in particular, the nearly $3 billion in city and state subsidies – and some are planning action that could prevent similar deals in the future.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris is already planning to introduce two pieces of legislation. The first would address reports that Amazon employees were buying real estate in Long Island City prior to the HQ2 announcement, aiming to curb that kind of insider dealing. The second responds to New York’s secret negotiations with Amazon by banning governments from entering into nondisclosure agreements with private companies.

Those two bills may just be a starting point for critics of the Amazon deal like Gianaris. “I don’t think that it’s the end of my proposals on the subject,” the Queens senator said. “Oftentimes what happens is when you have a situation like this, where the curtain is pulled back on poor policy, it gives us a great opportunity to fix things going forward.”

✓ Charter’s status

In July, the state Public Service Commission revoked its approval of the merger between Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, alleging that Charter had failed to follow through on its promise to provide broadband internet access to underserved areas. Now, months later, the PSC is still in negotiations with Charter on how the company will exit New York. Tensions are heating up as a January deadline approaches, but one lawmaker representing some of those underserved areas is prepared to introduce legislation to ensure that commitment is fulfilled.

“The goal is high-speed internet access,” state Sen. Robert Ortt said. “I don’t care if it’s Charter, I don’t care if it's Verizon, I don’t care whoever it is. We need to have a plan and a solution.”

While Ortt supports the PSC’s decision to hold Charter accountable, it’s equally important, he said, for the state Legislature to have greater oversight of whatever provider is tasked with building out broadband service to rural areas.

“With the state Senate flipping to majority control for the Democrats, one of the concerns is that many of their members are from New York City and urban areas, and that they’re going to focus on those areas,” Ortt said. “Many of the leaders, Sen. (Andrea Stewart-)Cousins as well as Speaker (Carl) Heastie, they said, ‘We’re going to work for all of New York state.’ This is a great opportunity for them to prove that.”

✓ ​​​​​​​Airbnb

The vacation rental website is embroiled in a series of conflicts with New York City over the city’s ability to monitor rental units. But while the New York City Council passed legislation to require the disclosure of the names and addresses of Airbnb hosts, advocates for more oversight of the tech company in the state Legislature are falling behind. Last session, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal introduced a similar bill to force short-term renters to disclose more information, and while the bill stalled, it may have the opportunity to gain new ground in January.

“Airbnb is basically stealing units of housing that have now become places for tourists to rent rather than permanent New Yorkers,” Rosenthal said. “With Airbnb’s expansion and continued disregard of the law, our efforts and my efforts have just increased because there’s a lot to do to make sure that we keep these units for regular New Yorkers.”

✓​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​E-bikes

As the New York City Council revs up its efforts to legalize most electric bicycles and electric scooters, the state Legislature is again playing catch-up. While e-bikes are legal to own in New York state, they’re illegal to operate because e-bikes are still classified as motor vehicles. State Sen. Thomas O’Mara introduced a bill last year to change that, officially classifying e-bikes as bicycles, meaning that riders wouldn’t have to register them with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. While O’Mara’s bill passed in the Senate, it died in the Assembly.

Still, O’Mara is hopeful that the bill will pass when he reintroduces it in January. “The legislation has received strong bipartisan support in the Senate in the past and I’m hopeful that we can try to continue to move it forward,” he wrote in an email. “It’s a commonsense action to simply clarify the legal status of e-bikes for the sake of riders and law enforcement alike and, at the same time, enhance business for local bicycle shops and bicycle manufacturers in New York State.”

✓​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​Revenge porn

bill to make revenge porn – the dissemination of sexually explicit images without the subject’s consent – a crime came close to finally passing, until dying at the eleventh hour. While the bill, which is sponsored by state Sen. Phil Boyle, has passed in the Senate for the past six years, new provisions added last year led to disagreements in the Senate and Assembly about exactly how far the legislation should go. A provision that would allow victims to sue platforms like Google over the dissemination of these kinds of images led to support for the bill to split. Boyle is “cautiously optimistic” about finding a compromise on the bill next year, and he’s pushing for one that doesn’t hold internet platforms liable for its users’ actions.

“Almost every other state does it,” Boyle said of this type of legislation. “New York should not be the last state in the country to protect our citizens from revenge porn.”

Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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