The Museum of the Moving Image auditorium in Astoria was full on June 17 with twenty- and thirty-something techies fiddling with their latest devices and listening to Democrats Anthony Weiner, Sal Albanese, John Liu, and Independent Alfonso Carrión Jr. brandish their industry acumen at the New York City Mayoral Candidate Tech Policy Forum.
Anjali Athavaley, a commercial real-estate reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and The Verge’s Nilay Patel moderated the 90-minute discussion that spanned issues from the telecom monopoly to the candidates discussing their favorite app.
The event, sponsored by the Coalition for Queens, an organization with aspirations of luring more tech companies to the borough, offered candidates an opportunity to elaborate upon an identity that New York City has both recently crafted and embraced.
Under the current mayoral administration, Cornell University won a bid in 2011 to establish an applied science and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island, hundreds of tech start-ups sprouted up in the Flatiron District (or Silicon Alley), and subways began advertising these companies as part of the We Are Made in NY campaign.
Bloomberg made reference to New York’s efforts to embrace tech at the Stanford University commencement address he gave on June 15.
“I believe that more and more Stanford graduates will find themselves moving to [New York's] Silicon Alley — not only because we're the hottest new tech scene in the country but also because there's more to do on a Friday night than go to the Pizza Hut in Sunnyvale. And you may even be able to find a date with a girl whose name is not Siri,” said Bloomberg.
The candidates themselves showed various levels of familiarity with tech vernacular, all content at times to keep their arguments in the familiar terms of education reform, strategic zoning, and affordable housing. However, occasionally “coaxial cable,” the taxi-hailing app Uber, and the home-sharing company Airbnb were referenced.
The first question of the night revealed that Albanese’s favorite app was MLB, while both Carrión Jr. and Liu were big fans of Pandora (although Liu grimaced and admitted he was lately frustrated by the radio app).
“I’m too cheap to pay for this service,” Liu said. “And now the ads are more and more frequent and now there are video ads.”
Weiner declined to mention his, though he referred to his Blackberry with scorn, referring to it as “two Campbell soup cans strung together.”
One of the larger discussions of the night involved possible mayoral interventions in the telecom monopoly that many New Yorkers blame for cable blackouts and subpar broadband.
“One year residents of Bronx couldn’t watch the World Series and their team was in it. These are companies that we allow to have monopoly franchise,” said Liu. “If you’re not getting what you pay for, city government should step in.”
Carrión Jr. called the Franchise Concessions and Review Commission, the government body often responsible for handling telecomm challenges, “a little Vatican-like.” “The best advisers we can have [with these problems] are thousands of techies,” he said.
Albanese warned that special interest groups might stymie the government’s progress, while Weiner suggested creating a rule.
“If you’re going to get access to city, we have to get free broadband in the city, in exchange for having fairly controlled access,” said Weiner.
Patel also asked the candidates to discuss loyalties to the law and existing companies, given tech companies’ ability to disrupt an existing system through potentially breaking the law, and offered Uber and Airbnb’s legal battles as examples.
Weiner interrupted at the end. “I like the term disruptive, I’d like to think I did with that in the mayoral campaign,” he said, before dismissing Uber’s chances of disturbing the city’s taxi system and pledging his commitment to customers.
“My ethos is we want you to be successful laws that are written to protect consumers,” Weiner said.
Albanese only offered rhetoric, suggesting that the city should “cut red tape and regulation that doesn’t promote competition.”
“Some of this is very complicated,” said Albanese. “It’s very new but we have to figure it out as a city. We have to promote industry and that’s what I would charge my commissioners with.”
Carrión Jr. explained that his family had used a service similar to Airbnb when they had visited his daughter in Barcelona. “It could bring more visitors to NYC. We have a low vacancy rate in our hotel rooms,” he said. “In order to get there, we have to revisit rules. What is a smart land use rules policy? It’s a case by case basis. Evolution has to happen rather quickly."
Liu commended successful tech companies but did not excuse illegal activity. “If you’re making a profit is coming from innovation, that’s great,” he said. "But if it’s from skirting other regulations, that other businesses have to follow, that’s not great.”
The audience had mixed reactions about the depth of the candidates’ performances.
Jennifer Vargas, who runs a Queens-based tech start-up, appreciated the detail with which both Weiner and Carrión Jr. discussed issues: “They were very specific; they didn’t just discuss internet broadband but real issues like office space. I have a lot more faith that they know what would actually help.”
Vargas did not share the same esteem for Liu’s performance. “John Liu came 40 minutes late and then left early,” she said. “Maybe we’re just starting our companies now, but is this how he wants to treat a future tax base?”
Randall, a lawyer who did not wish to disclose his last name, was frustrated about what he interpreted as the debate’s lack of substance.
“It was all ‘Are you for technology? Are you for free wifi?’” said Randall. “They want to make New York a hotbed for the best of the best. Tell me specifically, in a global city, what will you do with the kids already here?”