WASHINGTON—Bill Gates came to the nation's capital to prod elected officials into doing more to support technological innovation, but he also took the opportunity to chide the government on its demands for access to private customer data during an appearance April 18 at a Reuters Newsmakers event at the St. Regis hotel here.
Gates chose energy production as the main focus of his call for innovation, saying that the United States should spearhead ways to produce energy that don't contribute to global warming. He also discussed the inroads that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is making in the fight against diseases such as malaria and polio.
But Gates was also moved to comment on two prominent data legal battles Microsoft is fighting. One is Microsoft's long-running opposition to providing access to email messages located on a server in Europe.
The other is Microsoft's suit against the U.S. Department of Justice challenging the gag orders that come with the government's secret demands for information. Gates said that in the vast majority of cases, there's no reason for secrecy.
Gates said that while there are probably cases where the government "should be able to go in covertly" and gather information, such cases should be extraordinary. The way it is now, he said, the gag order is automatically part of the data request, adding that Microsoft wants to be able to tell its customers when the government requests information about them.
Gates also said that he believes that technology companies and the government should work together to create a legislative framework on when and how to provide information, and under what circumstances it should be secret. Microsoft filed suit in Seattle last week alleging that the government's actions violate the U.S. Constitution.
However, Gates got back to his primary reason for participating in the Reuters Newsmakers event, which is the need for greater investment in innovation. Every year is now proving to be warmer than the preceding year, he said, and a primary reason for this warming is the need for energy in the developing world.
There are very real needs for energy worldwide, and that to be useful, the energy has to be affordable and reliable, according to Gates. The problem with most energy sources currently available is that they either contribute to global warming or they aren't reliable.
"If you take solar and keep tinkering with it," he explained, "you will not tinker it into working at night." Gates said that other types of energy have the same problem of reliability, noting that you can't generate wind power when the wind isn't blowing.
There are some huge problems related to innovation in energy that really require a government to solve, he added.