SXSW: Obama Calls for Tech Industry to Join With Government to Solve Problems

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW
President Obama at SXSW

"The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you," the President said at the Long Center for Performing Arts on the first day of the Austin-based festival.

Hundreds of notable bands, movie stars and tech innovators are making their way to Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest festival, but the opening day keynote bought an even bigger star to the stage: President Barack Obama.

Obama, the first President to attend SXSW, spoke at the Long Center for Performing Arts on Friday afternoon about the ways the government is using and encouraging tech innovation.

Obama was greeted by a standing ovation and there were plenty of "We Love Yous" heard coming from the crowd when he took the stage for his conversation with Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune.

"First of all, I like excuses to come to Austin, Texas," the President joked. "We are in a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast and this gathering, SXSW, brings together people who are at the cutting edge of those changes.

"Those changes offer enormous opportunities but are also disruptive and unsettling," he added. "Part of my challenge since becoming president is trying to find ways that our government can be a part of the positive change that is taking place."

He explained that the government has done a number of things to use technology better, like making it possible to apply for social security online. But there is more he hopes can be done.

"The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It is 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 we are facing today," he said.

To illustrate what he was talking about, the president admitted the failure of the Affordable Care website to work when it was first launched, saying it was "a little embarrassing for me because I was the cool, early adapter president." But then experts from the private sector were called in to assist and the problems with the website were solved.

Asked how the government could change the perception on the part of many that it doesn’t work, Obama said, “When government does great things, we take it for granted and it's not a story. And every day government is delivering for everyone in this room, whether they know it or not.” He continued, “Part of our task is to tell a better story about what government does.” He also said that government agencies like the IRS or state Department of Motor Vehicles need to adopt online tech solutions that would make it easier for citizens to interact with government.

Questioned about the digital divide, under which a high percentage of minorities don't have access to the Internet, Obama said, “We have to make sure, given the power of the space, everyone is plugged in.”

“These are solvable problems but it is not a matter of us passively waiting for somebody else to solve them,” the president said. “That’s part of the mindset I am trying to break. I tried to break it back in 2007, 2008 when I ran for this office.”

Referencing the government’s issues with Apple, Smith asked Obama where he lands in the issues of privacy when it comes to the tech industry’s work with the government.

“I am of the view that there are very real reasons that we need to make sure that the government cannot just get in willy-nilly to people's iPhones, people's smartphones,” he said.

However, he then went on to ask the question that if encryption makes personal devices impenetrable, then "how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we disrupt the terrorist plot, what mechanisms do we even have available to do simple things like text enforcement?" Otherwise, he warned, "everyone would be walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."

"My conclusion," Obama said, "is you cannot take an absolutist view on this."

“I am way on the civil liberties side of this thing,” he explained. “I anguish a lot about the decisions we make when it comes to keeping this country safe… but the dangers are real, maintaining law and order and a civilized society is important... so I would caution against taking an absolutist view on this.”

During his remarks, Obama acknowledged that Edward Snowden had raised the issue of government surveillance, but he said, "the Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying."

Before ending his appearance, Obama returned to the subject of civic engagement again. “We cannot solve the problems in government... unless we, the people, are paying attention. In an age when people are getting information through digital platforms, through the internet, it is critical that all of you who are shaping this environment are spending time thinking about how we can get people engaged," he said.

Along with the President came plenty of security to the Long Center for Performing Arts. Hundreds of attendees, who had won tickets in a lottery, stood in line outside the theater more than two hours before the the start of the Obama event.

Every attendee had to walk through metal detectors and was wanded by Secret Service. Bags were checked by TSA agents. The events center was surrounded by police with dogs, police on horseback, private security and Secret Service.

Outside of the building, signature gatherers for various causes hoped to get some attention from people passing by. Among them: Planned Parenthood, a "Save Big Bend National Park" campaign and a protester with signs asking Obama to ban genital cutting.

Before he arrived at the Long Center for Performing Arts, the President stopped at Torchy's Tacos on South First Street where he ordered "a Democrat" taco, and then threw in "a Republican" and "an Independent.” He was joined by Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

The President won't be the only Obama heading to the Austin-based music, film and tech festival. Michelle Obama will also give a presentation on March 16 about the "Let Girls Learn" initiative, which aims to improve education for girls around the world.

SXSW runs March 11-20 in Austin, Texas.