In the first-ever visit by a president to the technology and arts festival South by Southwest, Barack Obama spoke about cybersecurity, countering religious extremism, and engaging citizens through new digital avenues. He also urged members of the tech industry to help solve America’s most pressing challenges.
“The reason I’m here is to recruit all of you,” he said in a discussion with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith. “It’s to say to you, as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today.”
Held before an audience of about 2,000 SXSW attendees at the Palmer Events Center in Austin, Texas, the public conversation was the culmination of a weeklong campaign by the White House to promote its initiatives in technology. Alongside the premiere of several tech-centric initiatives, senior officials emphasized citizen access to newly released government tools, collaborations with private tech companies and the use of emerging technology to tackle complicated policy problems that are not being addressed by Congress.
But as Obama discussed the benefits a strengthened relationship between the government and the tech industry, Smith questioned whether they could overcome their differences, exemplified in the legal battle between the FBI and Apple over access to the data on the San Bernardino shooter’s phone.
Though Obama declined to comment on that specific case, he said those who think there’s no middle ground in the debate — specifically the privacy activists defending encryption — are being unreasonable.
President Obama speaking at SXSW. (Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW)
“The question we now have to ask is: If it’s now technologically possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong that there’s no key or door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we disrupt a terrorist plot?” he said. “There has to be some concessions to the need to get into that information somehow.”
In many of his answers, Obama took the opportunity to appeal directly to some of the entrepreneurs and technologists in the audience, emphasizing the importance of their expertise in addressing what he said the government’s responsibility to solve “the hardest problems.”
“We want to create a pipeline where there’s a continuous flow of talent to help shape the government,” Obama said, adding that he had just met with filmmakers and technologists about countering violent extremism online.
This is not the first time members of the Obama administration’s digital team have appealed to the technologists of SXSW to aid the government. Last year, U.S. digital service administrator Mikey Dickerson, the former Google engineer who helped revamped the disastrous Healthcare.gov website, emphasized the need for experienced technologists in the White House.
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“Some of you, not all of you, are working right now on another app for people to share pictures of food or a social network for dogs,” he wrote in a Medium post afterwards. “I am here to tell you that your country has a better use for your talents.”
Jason Goldman, the White House chief digital officer who, in 2009, helped launch Twitter at this very same festival, says that Obama’s call for tech aid should appeal to those Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are looking for a higher purpose.
“It’s about how we can rely on all sectors and all parts of American life to take on big challenges and think creatively about how to solve problems that maybe seem too hard,” he told Yahoo News. “People can show up and make things better for themselves, their neighbors, their communities. That’s what it means to be a citizen in this world.”
Some of the programs the White House announced this week included an open-data project to share information among federal, state and local governments; a partnership with the e-commerce startup, Jet, to make diapers more affordable for the charities that distribute them to poor families; and a new mandate that would require the federal government to share some of its source code with the public.
“While what we’re talking about here today is technology, this isn’t just a story about technology for technology’s sake,” said Kristie Canegallo, White House deputy chief of staff, in a press call Thursday afternoon. “This is about how we can improve the role of government and ensure that it’s delivering the best services for the American people.”