A bunch of US Congress members are wonking out with the nerds at SXSW

Politicians from the House, in da house.
Politicians from the House, in da house.
Image: AP Photo/Jack Plunkett
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AUSTIN, Texas—No matter whether you consider the enmity between the tech world and the US government juvenile or justified, it’s clear the most tech-savvy members of Congress were building bridges at this year’s South By Southwest Interactive conference.

The biggest points of discussion, no matter the panel, were net neutrality, patents, immigration, and the balance between cybersecurity and online privacy. And while none of the talking points members made on stage were really new news, the audience seemed to appreciate the attention. I wondered: In a land where Edward Snowden is an ersatz saint, is The Man really welcome?

The congressional presence in Austin has grown exponentially in the past three years: More than 20 members of Congress spoke on panels this year, many of them drawn to SXSW by Dell and the Austin Technology Council’s tech policy track. Another four sessions with members of Congress were organized by lobbying firm TwinLogic Strategies, and one each from the Internet Association and the Motion Picture Association of America. “South by has grown so much, and people in DC are really starting to pay attention to what’s going on down there,” says Rachel Wolbers of TwinLogic, whose clients include Amazon, Pandora, and the Consumer Electronics Association.

The representatives and senators in Austin skewed slightly younger and more Republican than Congress as a whole, and some of them were encountering each other for the first time. Democratic representative Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona met Republican senator Jerry Moran of Kansas just moments before they spoke on a panel about the politics of innovation. (It was the senator’s fourth time speaking at SXSW.) Recently resigned congressman Aaron Schock had been slated to speak at SXSW, but canceled last week amid the investigations into his finances—and freshman representative Will Hurd pinch-hit for him on a panel about millennials.

2015 Congress at SXSW

The political presence at SXSW wasn’t just a dog and pony show: representative Blake Farenthold of Texas showed up at a few other policy panels with his daughter, and Wendy Davis was in the audience for a panel with representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina and representative Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico about the competitive communications landscape. The atmosphere was much more casual than in Washington: Lujan wore a Stand Up to Cancer T-shirt in honor of his late father, and representative Darrell Issa of California, another South by veteran, sported what an onlooker described as a “startup beard.”

In addition to the SXSW attendees being on the same side of the tech generation gap in Congress, it was clear that many of them were finding ways to reach across the aisle. A major goal was to convince the tech world that not all politicians are technophobic fuddy-duddies: Many of the politicians talked about the power the tech community has when it organizes, pointing to protests of SOPA and PIPA legislation in 2012. “The tech world doesn’t know how to work with the government,” Sinema says. She met with a startup and asked how she could help them—their reply was to try out their app and see how she liked it. She had been going for bigger picture action items.

2015 Congress at SXSW

That was the line of thinking that led the Austin Technology Council to work with Dell to set up an official tech policy track at SXSW for the first time. (Last year, Moran and senator Mark Warner of Virginia spoke with an editor of The Economist in what was essentially a garage under Interstate 35.) Cris Turner, head of North American Government Affairs for Dell, said that members are able to get rid of the stalemate mindset once they’re in Austin. “The politics of DC and the trouble of interacting disappears once you’re in Austin. You embrace the entrepreneur mindset,” Turner says. He thinks the members who attended in 2014 recruited their friends in Congress to come this year; Grover Bynum of ATC added, “We’re happy to have just one.”

Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah is big on technology and says the internet is “the one part of the economy that is working.” As the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, he’s in a position to make changes (and by coming to SXSW, he’s following in the steps of Issa, his predecessor). His committee held a hearing Tuesday about whether the FCC overstepped its bounds by reclassifying the internet as a Title II utility. “I would probably support legislation in spirit” of what the net neutrality movement wanted to achieve, he says, but it needed to go through that process in Congress. Instead, it was “done in darkness, and the future of the internet is in five people’s hands.” A number of Republicans at SXSW echoed that sentiment about net neutrality, but most members expressed hope the ruling will stand.

Representative Will Hurd of Texas, who joined Congress mere weeks ago, also spoke on a panel about how government affects startups. He joked, but seriously, that he was in the upper bottom third at SXSW but in “the top 1% in DC when it comes to understanding tech.” A former undercover CIA officer, the Republican has found a passion on the Hill: IT procurement. When the government buys technology based on what’s cheapest now, it’s often ending up with legacy systems that cost more in the long run.

Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington, a former Microsoft executive, recently co-founded the Internet of Things Caucus with Issa. “Laws are very out of date when it comes to tech,” she says, specifically the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which was the topic of discussion for her panel with Issa and Farenthold. “A piece of paper in my desk needs a warrant, but a digital file in the cloud doesn’t have the same protections.”

2015 Congress at SXSW

Their panel on the future of privacy was spirited and jovial, and drew a crowd of about 100, the largest of the congressional sessions I saw. DelBene, Issa and Farenthold all sit on the House Judiciary Committee and share a deep understanding of why internet freedom is so important. Farenthold said people who are for mass data collection think it will prevent another 9/11 from happening, but—he paraphrased a Ben Franklin quote—“people who trade liberty for security deserve neither.” Issa pointed out that the safest places in the world are totalitarian regimes with universal surveillance. “North Korea? Very safe.”

Civil liberty was also a theme. Libertarians’ favorite presidential pick, Sen. Rand Paul, was also in town. The Texas-raised Kentucky Republican was in Austin for an official SXSW session, the launch of Liberty Action Texas, and the opening of the RANDPAC office in the Capital Factory business incubator.

“Tech people are interested in progress and bipartisanship, so we feel right at home here at South by Southwest,” Macworld reported Paul as saying. He hasn’t yet announced his candidacy for 2016, but there’s always next year’s South by.