Obama Calls on Tech Industry at SXSW
AUSTIN — President Obama called on the tech industry Friday to help solve some of Washington’s thorniest problems — from upgrading outdated federal networks to connecting rural classrooms to resolving the national privacy vs. security debate sparked by the current legal battle between Apple and the FBI.
Speaking to a theater filled with about 2,000 techies, engineers and dot.com leaders gathered for the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival, Obama urged the audience to think about putting their vast skills to work improving civic life.
“The reason I’m here is to recruit all of you,” he said. “We can start coming up with new platforms, new ideas across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems we’re facing today.”
Obama was in Austin for the opening day of SXSW, a 10-day interactive/film/music gathering that draws more than 80,000 participants, including some of the country’s most successful and talented tech industry leaders. Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to attend the 30-year-old gathering. Michelle Obama is scheduled to speak here on Wednesday.
Asked about his administration’s battle with Apple over whether the tech giant should be forced to write new code to unlock the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone, Obama said he wouldn’t comment specifically on the case. The Justice Department has been locked in a heated legal battle with Apple in a California federal court to unlock the phone. Apple has opposed a court-order to unlock the phone, claiming doing so it would put millions of other phones at risk.
On the broader issue of privacy rights, Obama, who trained as a constitutional lawyer, said he tended to lean more on protecting civil liberties but said U.S. citizens need to be prepared to make concessions on their privacy for the sake of security, the way they endure airport screenings or DUI checkpoints. “This notion that somehow data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe, is incorrect,” he said.
He cautioned against taking an “absolutist” view on the issue and called on tech leaders to help come up with a solution that balances the needs of law enforcement with privacy concerns. “We’re going to need the tech community to help us solve this problem,” Obama said.
In a 50-minute conversation with Evan Smith, editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, Obama touted tech-related initiatives started during his tenure, such as the U.S. Digital Service, a White House group tasked with upgrading government technology that recruits from Facebook and other tech giants.
He pointed to the failure of the Affordable Care Act website as an example of government’s outdated systems and said that controversial collapse led to the creation of the U.S. Digital Service.
“This was a little embarrassing for me,” Obama said. “My entire campaign was based on having cool technology.”
Attendees, most of whom had won a ticket to the event via an online lottery, began lining up outside the Long Center for the Performing Arts in central Austin more than two hours before the event. The president’s visit was announced just nine days ago, catching many conference-goers by surprise. On the way to the event, Obama and his motorcade stopped for tacos at Torchy’s Tacos, a popular Austin-based chain.
Lamora Lindsay-Prince, from New York, was in Austin to attend tech sessions and network, not sit in on a presidential chat. But she won a ticket and cleared her calendar Friday to attend. “You never get a moment like this again,” she said. “It shows he has a cool side. He’s relate-able.”
SXSW organizers had been in talks with the White House for years but the two could never settle on a date until Friday, said Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive. Obama’s tech savviness – he has active Twitter and Facebook accounts – made him a good fit for the conference, he said. “Obama is probably the most tech-proficient president we’ve ever had,” Forrest said.
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