Patent Trolls Threaten Floridian Seniors’ Access to the Internet

Patent Trolls Threaten Floridian Seniors’ Access to the Internet

May 8, 2024

By Saul Anuzis

Like Americans across the country, Florida’s senior citizens rely on their smartphones and laptops to access the critical broadband infrastructure our government is building.  They can stay connected with loved ones, access critical telemedicine services, and gain all the other benefits the internet has to offer. In fact, mobile devices are integral to daily life for older adults: one in three currently uses a smartphone to help manage their health and fitness.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of mobile devices among senior adults. This trend, combined with the federal government’s historic efforts to ensure all Americans have reliable internet access through national expansion of broadband infrastructure, plus the reality of a large aging population, means more seniors are online than ever before – a welcome and encouraging trend. It is crucial not to let the government stand in the way of this development, but a small federal agency seems to be doing just that.

Internet access of course requires having the basic infrastructure – the broadband equivalent of telephone lines. But it is equally critical to ensure our seniors have full access to the modern devices used to get online, that can take best advantage of ever-expanding digital services. Unfortunately, one lesser-known federal agency in Washington, D.C., the International Trade Commission (ITC), is oblivious to the broader picture and seems bent on hobbling this access. The ITC’s actions threaten to make it harder and more expensive for seniors and all Americans to access the devices they need to get online.

What exactly is going on at the ITC? Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) – more commonly known as “patent trolls” – are using the ITC to pursue frivolous litigation designed solely to squeeze the companies making complex modern devices like smartphones and tablets, and force large financial settlements. Trolls often have deep-pocket funders like hedge funds or foreign entities behind them, so they have plenty of running room.

This is the trolls’ business model - acquire old or minor patents and claim they are being infringed in very complex electronic devices, like smartphones, that involve literally hundreds of thousands of patents. The patent trolls only need to find one component or patent that is allegedly being infringed to make their claim.  Under ITC rules, the only remedy available for a claim that the most minor patent in the smallest component has been infringed is shockingly drastic: a complete ban on the entire product in the U.S.

This is a real and growing problem.  For example, not long ago, an Irish troll, Arigna, launched an ITC complaint based on alleged infringement of a minor $2 chip used in smartphones, tablets and laptops seeking an ITC ban on more than 90% of the smartphones sold in the U.S.

Allowing trolls to take advantage of this sweeping enforcement tool is truly bad news. Patent trolls use the threat of an ITC exclusion order to try to force a large settlement from the product manufacturers. These companies are faced with bad options: settle with the trolls for millions of dollars or potentially face years of litigation costs, legal uncertainty and a possible import ban on their product. Often the manufacturers will choose certainty and settle, so the bad actors line their own pockets at our expense. Either way the outcome is negative: if there is a ban, consumers lose access to the goods they want and need. If there is a settlement to make the troll go away, those extra costs trickle down in higher prices.

It is hard to see the public interest being served by helping a patent troll who manufactures and creates nothing except manipulative lawsuits. But the ITC seems blind to the problems the trolls are causing. And these problems are increasing threats to senior citizens who need access to modern, reasonably priced mobile devices.

The 60 Plus American Association of Senior Citizens has been ringing the alarm bell on this issue for years. But despite these clarion calls, the ITC refuses to genuinely consider whether an exclusion order would be detrimental to the public interest in these cases.

Our organization was proud to sign on to a recent coalition letter calling on Congressional leaders to act to modernize the ITC. We applaud House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee members David Schweikert (R-AZ 1) and Don Beyer (D-VA 8) for introducing the Advancing America’s Interest Act (AAIA), a bill that would maintain all the crucial functions of the ITC while making it harder for patent trolls to abuse ITC processes. I urge Florida’s Representatives who serve on that important Committee, Vern Buchanan (R-FL 13) and Greg Steube (R-FL 17) to co-sponsor the bill.

Passing AAIA would ensure the ITC returns to its original mission of protecting real American businesses from foreign trade practices. It would prevent patent trolls from misusing the system with get rich quick schemes.

As America’s population ages, more and more seniors will rely on their smartphones and other mobile devices for everyday life and to consume important services like telemedicine. Congress can take an important step towards protecting seniors’ access to connected technologies.

Saul Anuzis is president of the 60 Plus Association.

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