Obama sounds off on the need for Silicon Valley tech companies to be regulated and improve the way they handle data breaches

Barack Obama and Okta founder CEO Todd McKinnon

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Barack Obama and Okta founder CEO Todd McKinnon
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Okta. Used by permission

  • Barack Obama talked about Silicon Valley and the need for regulation at a recent tech conference in Las Vegas.
  • The former president said that both tech companies and lawmakers in Washington need to be more “proactive” in figuring out “a framework” for future regulation.
  • He also criticized the way recent data breaches have been handled, stressing that conversations between tech companies and lawmakers need to happen more often so everyone involved is educated about each others’ concerns.

LAS VEGAS – Barack Obama is a steadfast believer that common-sense regulations are a force for good in the world.

But speaking on stage at a tech conference in Las Vegas hosted by Okta on Wednesday, the former president acknowledged that when it comes to regulating Silicon Valley, Washington doesn’t move fast enough, and often doesn’t cooperate as well as it needs to.

Obama never mentioned the Cambridge Analytica scandal by name, where Facebook data was scraped from millions of users and then used to influence voters during the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote.

But he told Okta CEO Todd McKinnon that “data collection and how data is used” is an example of an area that needs regulation. This includes what happens to people’s data and “how it gets commercialized.”

Obama wants to see Silicon Valley and lawmakers work together to come up with regulations for “a framework, agreed upon, transparent, that people understand.”

He said that both sides should be willing, if not exactly eager, to get such regulations on the books, as he thinks the current, “spasmodic way” response needs improvement. “There’s been a data breach, people are outraged, they feel they don’t know that their data was used in a particular way, so then people [in the Valley and Washington] scramble to catch up to the headlines.”

Obama said that he’s been working to encourage the people he associates with in the industry to “be proactive” and go to lawmakers in advance to tell them, “Here are the questions we have to grapple with, here’s the business model we think makes sense, here are the tools we have to work with. We recognize we are under some obligation that ordinary people and consumers understand what it is they are giving up and getting in return.”

And while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spent hours testifying in front of Congress, promising to work on such regulations, (and a shorter time testifying in front of the European Parliament, apologizing but basically sidestepping deeper questions), the actual work on regulations has yet to seriously begin.

“That kind of conversation hasn’t taken place,” Obama said to the conference crowd.

He also emphasized that regulations on tech aren’t just about social media data. There’s a crop of other young technologies like artificial intelligence, and perhaps even cryptocurrencies, that Washington and Silicon Valley should work on together.

“Right now, in the tech community, they tend to think all that stuff over there [in Washington] is complicated, unclear, inefficient, and then folks get surprised [with breaches and incidents] after the fact. That doesn’t benefit anyone,” he said.