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Microsoft's Brad Smith on encryption: Let the politicians decide

Tech giant president encourages/gently chides RightsCon audience

Microsoft chief legal officer Brad Smith gives a keynote at RightsCon

Microsoft's president and chief legal officer Brad Smith wants to let the politicians decide, when it comes to the tricky balance between privacy, security and technology.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of RightsCon in San Francisco, Smith trod a careful line in front of the audience of digital rights activists, praising them for bringing issues to the forefront while also gently chiding them for being a little too absolutist in their views.

"The level of discourse is less civil than it should be," he argued. "We can have a passionate fight for rights while having a conversation that shows respect."

That conversation has of course been centered on the Apple-FBI fight of the past month – something that Smith said has, on one level, been good news. "We have had this trust issue of technology at the forefront of public discussion."

The answer, he said repeatedly, was to "have a conversation," and "a real conversation" at that. He didn't give any clues about how and where that conversation would actually take place and noted, perhaps with a little irony, that a conversation is "different from a speech where you get to speak and then just leave" – moments before he finished what he had to say and left.

But taking a different tack to Apple – which has publicly taken a very firm line on encryption – Smith reflected Bill Gates' comments about there being a necessary balance between securing conversations and making sure that law enforcement can do its job.

The answer lies in focusing on "timeless values," which include freedom of speech and privacy. But, he also pointedly highlighted to attendees that "no one elected us," and added "decisions are best made by people that are elected by people."

Everyone loves Jobs

So as not to stretch too far from Apple's widely praised decision to stand up to the FBI, he quoted Steve Jobs as saying his goal was to sit at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.

"Every engineer needs to understand the liberal arts," said Smith, "and liberal arts students like myself need to understand a little bit of engineering. Only by bringing these disciplines together can we be truly successful in devising approaches that win the day."

He also noted that Microsoft has sued the US government three times on related issues, making a pointed reference to the US government's effort to force Microsoft to hand over data held on their servers in Ireland.

"The US government clearly feels fully entitled to ignore European laws and rights if it can get its hands on data even when it is stored in Europe," he noted with genuine frustration.

"That does not show respect for people's rights."

He also noted, while coming from a huge US corporation, in a room filled with mostly US citizens, that "only four-and-a-half per cent of the world's population lives in the United States. But technology is global."

"We people decide if the US affects people's rights "not just here, but everywhere – we need to inject that into the conversation," he noted.

And then in a sign-off that seemed very popular with attendees but struck this reporter as unusually ambiguous for a lawyer, Smith argued that "even in a world that is focused on economic might and military power, there is no authority greater than moral authority. As much as anything else, so many of you here are a voice for people, a voice for moral authority."

Perhaps it was the sugar pill that Microsoft's president felt RightsCon attendee needed in order to swallow the bitter realities that are coming down the lane. ®

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