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AUSTIN, Texas — Rep. Blake Farenthold might have the most geek cred in Congress.
The Texas Republican spoke on not one but two panels on tech policy issues here at the South By Southwest Interactive festival this year. This is his third time at SXSW — in addition to last year, he has the street cred of having attended back when it was just a music festival.
But his nerd bonafides go further back than that. Farenthold first went online as an undergraduate at the University of Texas in the early 1980s. With an internet logon procured through the astronomy department, he connected two Apple II computers with 300 baud modems to create a 12-line bulletin board — an early form of a chatroom.
All the action led to a visit from the FBI — it turned out a phone number for the bulletin board had started being used by phone hackers.
“I called my grandfather, who was a lawyer at the time, and said, ‘The FBI is here and they want information about my users.’ He said, ‘Well give it to them!’” Farenthold recalled. (He got the misunderstanding cleared up and has no criminal record, he noted.)
On a panel about big data and transportation — discussing infrastructure, autonomous vehicles, ride- and bike-sharing programs and smart parking — he stressed his belief that change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.
After the session, he related a story of Austin startup Outbox, a service people could sign up for to have their mail scanned and emailed to them. The startup’s founders worked with the local postmaster to get forms to legally act as agents for service subscribers.
But once the main office of the U.S. Postal Service heard about the setup, it was over for Outbox. “You think about what that could potentially save the post office,” Farenthold said. “Set up 100 facilities across the country to scan the mail, and you don’t have to transfer the atoms as far.”
He noted the House has a similar digital mail program. Farenthold, who is chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census, said he is considering scheduling a hearing on whether the Postal Service is open to innovation.
Farenthold was on a March 7 panel about patent trolls with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. Though he didn’t get to attend many other panels during SXSW — his schedule was full of meetings with associations and tech companies — Farenthold said the chance to have in-depth conversations let him “re-engage with my inner geek.”
When asked to sum up SXSW in three words, Farenthold’s description of the conference and its attendees was that it’s “geeks like me.”