Senator Rand Paul Courts Tech’s Support For His Likely 2016 Run At SXSW

Trying to make the case that he is the tech community’s candidate in 2016, Senator Rand Paul took the stage at SXSW this weekend to discuss privacy and youth political engagement.

Drawing applause from the room, the Republican from Kentucky said that he is the only candidate for 2016 who wants to bring an end to the National Security Agency (NSA) programs collecting bulk telephone metadata in an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. He argued that President Obama has lost popularity he once had among young voters under the age of 30 because he has failed to protect the civil liberties he said he would when he first ran for president.

“He showed much less regard for privacy than the Republicans did before him,” Paul said.

Paul argued that many of the NSA programs began under President George W. Bush but were expanded under the Obama administration. Although Paul is correct to say the Obama administration has done little to curtail the NSA’s program, it’s hyperbolic to say the Obama administration has done less to protect privacy than the Bush administration, which oversaw the creation of today’s surveillance state in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Not missing his opportunity to criticize his potential opponent Hillary Clinton, Paul made many jokes about the recent controversy over her decision to use a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

He gave a preview of a potential strategy to paint Clinton as part of an old guard of politicians unfamiliar with new technology, making jokes that she did not know that one phone could be connected to multiple email accounts. He lampooned her recent statements that the server was secure because it had been guarded 24/7, saying that hackers would not be coming through her window.

“What does she think there’s like floppy disks down there?” he said.

But Paul dodged questions from Smith about whether or not he uses a private email account, repeating that rules are different for Congress.

Looking ahead to his “hypothetical” campaign and possible presidency, Paul talked about how technology could be used to reach out to a new generation of American voters who have become disengaged with politics. Paul was one of the first politicians to use Snapchat.

He thinks his privacy message will resonate particularly well with young voters, who according to polls are most opposed to government surveillance of electronic communications and most supportive of Edward Snowden for leaking troves of government documents that revealed NSA practices. In the past he’s made the point that just like young voters wouldn’t want their parents to read their texts, they wouldn’t want the government to either.

“They don’t want to trade one form of authority for another,” he said.

As a 21-year-old voter, I can say Paul is probably right. But although my friends and I might care about privacy, I think it’s hard to say Paul’s position on this issue would be enough to make us vote for him. His conservative line on social issues such as same-sex marriage would make him a hard sell as the candidate of millennials.

In the same way Snapchat might not be enough for Paul to attract millennial voters, he’s going to have to do more than appear at SXSW to gain the support of tech in the upcoming election.

Paul drew criticism late last year when he voted against the USA FREEDOM Act in a Senate procedural vote. The bill would have curtailed the surveillance capabilities of the NSA, and after a long back and forth, had the support of many large tech companies. But Paul voted against the bill, telling me after the vote that he could not vote for a bill that would have reauthorized parts of the PATRIOT Act.

The measure failed to reach the 60 votes it needed by two votes. Due to an order on the bulk telephone metadata programs that will end them by June 2015, Congress must act soon to reform the programs or else they will entirely shut down. But advocates worry any measure that is created in the now Republican-controlled Congress will have fewer teeth than the measure that failed to clear the cloture vote in the fall.

Paul also addressed his views on maintaining an open Internet. Although he supports an open Internet, he does not support the recent decision from the FCC that would reclassify the Internet as a utility. He argued the government shouldn’t interfere with the marketplace.

“Imagine if we had postal neutrality, and we wouldn’t charge more for quicker delivery,” he said.

His argument directly contrasts pretty much everything we’ve heard from the tech lobby in the past year when it comes to net neutrality, which maintains we need rules and regulations to ensure the Internet remains open and can foster the type of innovation that allowed companies like Reddit to grow quickly.

With many visits to California in the past year and this recent appearance, Paul is making it clear he wants the money and votes of Silicon Valley. But positions like those he holds on issues like net neutrality prevent him from being tech’s perfect candidate.