Bill Clinton crashes CES to talk politics and the Internet

The former US president spoke briefly about technology and a lot about hot-button issues like gun control

Bill Clinton addresses CES 2013

Bill Clinton addresses CES 2013

Former US President Bill Clinton made a surprise appearance at the International CES on Wednesday, where he talked a little about technology and a lot about hot-button political issues like the environment and gun control.

Clinton was greeted by rousing applause when he appeared toward the end of Samsung's CES keynote, and at the end of his speech a portion of the audience gave him a standing ovation.

He began with some light-hearted talk, remembering that when he entered the Oval Office, cellphones weighed 5 pounds and there were only 50 sites on the Internet. "There have been more than that created since I started talking," he said, in an understatement.

He talked about the importance of the Internet and mobile phones in raising living standards in poor countries like Haiti and he spoke of the importance of bringing broadband to all Americans. South Korea is number one in the world for download speeds, while the US is 15th, Clinton said.

"Our speeds are one-fourth of theirs," he said of South Korea.

He also urged the gadget-happy CES crowd not to take their comforts for granted. "You'd be shocked if the video failed and the screen went dark," he said, while others in the world don't even take drinking water for granted.

He soon turned to other, non-tech topics that took up a good part of his 30-minute address. In the wake of the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Clinton called for tougher action on gun control. The U.S. is about to have a "raging debate" over "our unjustifiable neglect of gun safety," he said.

"Why would anybody need a 30-round clip for a gun? Why does anyone need one of these things that carries 100 bullets?" he asked.

The world faces three main challenges, he said: chasms of inequality, instability created by the financial markets and terrorism threats, and climate change. The US just had its hottest year on record by 1 degree, Clinton said. "Perhaps the deniers will finally be quieted," he said.

Technology can help solve the world's problems, but technology alone is not enough, he said. "If you look what the Arab Spring did to use social networks to topple an oligarchy, you realise it's not a total solution," he said.

The "messy real world" requires more than digital connections to ensure a fair political process, he said.

Some of Clinton's comments were sure to divide the audience and lead to questions about whether CES is the right place for a largely political speech. That's ironic, since Clinton also said the biggest issue the U.S. faces today is division.

The country has come a long way in addressing racism and homophobia, he said. "The only remaining bigotry we have is we just don't want to be around people who disagree with us," Clinton said.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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