President Obama Speaks On Apple, FBI Issue and Using Tech for Civic Duty at SXSW

President Obama kicked off SXSW with a keynote on technology

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President Barack Obama, 2016 SXSW Interactive Keynote (Image: SXSW, Credit: Neilson Barnard Getty Images)

President Obama kicked off the interactive portion of SXSW in Austin, Texas, last week, in an interview with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune.

[Related: Obama Was the Best President Technology Could Have Ever Wanted]

Vacillating between gregarious and humorous, to a little testy at times when pushed on issues by Smith, the president spoke of using technology for civic engagement and the conflict between Apple and the government over the mandated backdoor entry of the iPhone of a suspected terrorist.

The president lauded technology as an effective means of furthering civic engagement. “It is critical, all of you who are shaping this environment, are spending time thinking about how we are getting citizens engaged,” he said to the audience. The audience was comprised of many in the tech industry because the interactive portion of SXSW centers on tech.

With technology, the president said, is the potential to “take this democracy back in ways we have not seen in a long time.”

President Obama cited a number of government initiatives for advancing technology and Internet access, particularly in poor urban and rural communities. He cited the ConnectEd, an effort to ensure that 99% of American students will have access to next-generation broadband by 2018. Opportunity Networks is designed to get Internet access into public housing, and rural, lower-income communities.

The president also urged the tech community to think up ways to use tech to make the election process and voting more efficient, more equitable and more secure.

However, the president seemed irked with Smith when asked how such goals for digital civic engagement can take place when there were still so many without reliable Internet access or unable to afford technology.

“We could sit here and you could list out an array of problems and inequities that have to be addressed,” said President Obama. “What I’m saying is […] government actually works better in so many ways and areas than we give credit for because we tend to focus on the areas where it’s not working well.”

The president also used the keynote time to defend the government’s demand that Apple unlock, or “backdoor” the iPhone of a suspected terrorist.

“If there is probable cause to think someone has abducted a child, or if you are engaging in a terrorist plot, or if you are guilty of some serious crime; law enforcement can come to your doorstep and say, ‘We have a warrant to search your home..’,” said President Obama.

“And we agree to it because we recognize that just like all of our other rights, freedom of speech…there are going to be some constraints that we impose to make sure we are safe, secure, and remain a civilized society.”