AUSTIN, Texas -- Not unlike the thousands of entrepreneurs who pitch their startups as a way to change the world, President Barack Obama used the annual tech and media conference South by Southwest to promote his own vision of the future. Obama called for a collaboration between government and the tech industry — even as the FBI's case against Apple has pitted his administration against Silicon Valley.
“Part of my challenge since I’ve been president is trying to find ways in which our government can be a part of the positive changes taking place,” Obama said.
“We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast,” he said. “Those changes offer us enormous opportunity but are also very disruptive and unsettling.”
Moderator Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of nonprofit media company the Texas Tribune, asked Obama about the FBI's current battle with Apple, in which the tech company is refusing to comply with a government order to unlock the smartphone of one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters.
Obama acknowledged the serious privacy concerns that the case has raised. “I am of the view that there are very real reasons we want to make sure that the government can't just willy-nilly get into everyone’s iPhones,” he said.
“I suspect the answer will come down to how do we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible … it’s accessible by the smallest number of people possible for the smallest of issues,” he said. “I am confident this is something we can solve.”
Looking forward to discussing more ways we can modernize government so it's as smart and dynamic as America itself. See you soon, Austin.
— President Obama (@POTUS) March 11, 2016
The government can bring together “new platforms, new ideas, new disciplines” to solve today’s problems, the president told the crowd here.
During his administration, Obama said, the government has succeeded by embracing tech-savvy solutions. He cited the new online application process for college financial aid, which he said cut the time it takes to apply by two-thirds, and his “open e-book” initiative with the Digital Public Library of America, First Book and the New York Public Library.
He urged tech leaders to encourage civic engagement and to be conscious of the influence of digital platforms. “It’s not enough if we’re going to defeat ISIL to just take out their leadership or control territories. In the virtual world … they’re recruiting [young people] and twisting their minds to do terrible things. We’ve got to be able to penetrate them,” Obama said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.
Obama’s appearance at the 30th anniversary of the SXSW conference marked the first time a sitting president has ever attended. The digital revolution helped Obama win the White House as the “social media candidate” who used tools like Facebook and SMS texting to get out the vote.