Controversy broke out at Amsterdam Privacy Week, a leading privacy conference, over the weekend concerning the event's choice of sponsors, which included Facebook, Google, and Palantir, a CIA-funded Silicon Valley tech giant whose big data analytics software is used by the Pentagon to investigate terrorists.
It started when software developer and privacy activist Aral Balkan took to Twitter to argue that taking sponsorship money from these corporations was hypocritical on the part of the conference organizers. Others agreed.
(Technology writer Sidney Vollmer also wrote a thoughtful critique of the sponsorships here.)
Facebook and Google build profiles of users and their social networks in order to show them targeted advertising, which some privacy advocates, including Balkan, consider a corporate form of surveillance.
Palantir's big data analytics software is used by the CIA and US military to monitor terrorists, although it could, in theory, be used to monitor anyone. The lack of checks on the use of its software alarms privacy activists at the ACLU.
"We would not be having this discussion if Marlboro was sponsoring a conference on lung cancer," Balkan wrote in an encrypted email. "They just wouldn't be allowed to. Because it is clearly a ridiculous conflict of interest."
"The only reason we are even having this conversation is because we still don't understand that Facebook and Google are to privacy what smoking is to lung cancer," he said.
Palantir provoked the ire of some conference-goers, one critic calling its sponsorship "beyond parody."
In 2011, emails from the HBGary data breach implicated Palantir in a plot to smear Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald. Jay Stanley of the ACLU warned that Palantir's software could be a "true totalitarian nightmare."
"Of course taking sponsorship money influences the content and discussion at an event," Balkan wrote. "Money is influence. It leads to what Lawrence Lessig calls 'institutional corruption'."
"[Palantir] would never have been in play for us as a sponsor."
The ethical dilemma of what sponsorship money to accept is a common one for such events. Last year the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference included both Google and Facebook among its sponsors. The Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection Conference lists Palantir among its 2016 sponsors. The International Association of Privacy Professionals—"the world's largest information privacy organization"—organizes multiple privacy-focused events every year, and its corporate "members" include Google, Microsoft, AT&T, and even Monsanto.
Balkan pointed out that RightsCon, a leading human rights convention organized by Access Now—and on whose International Advisory Board Lessig sits—also takes money from Facebook, Microsoft and Google. (Lessig declined to comment.)
Brett Solomon, Access Now's executive director, argued that these sponsors make a valuable contribution to RightsCon, and not just financially.
"When you're dealing with issues around privacy and freedom of expression, you have to have the relevant stakeholders around the table, otherwise it's purely academic," he said in a phone call.
"Every year we've had representatives from the companies, from general counsel down to senior engineers, and we put them in a room with people who are directly impacted by their decisions—freedom of speech campaigners from Egypt, LGBT activists from Uganda, environmental activists from the Pacific… When you make a decision in Palo Alto, this is how it impacts us in our local environments."
"Having that direct channel of communication is really priceless," he added. "We've seen a much greater appreciation from the tech companies and telecoms in terms of understanding the human rights implications of their businesses."
Solomon also said that Access Now has strict rules about who may sponsor RightsCon. "Not all sponsors are alike," he said. "[Palantir] would never have been in play for us as a sponsor."
Balkan remains unconvinced. "Corporations like Facebook and Google are in the business of people farming," he wrote. "The value they create is directly linked to the amount of information they have about you… So the one thing they cannot do is to compete on privacy. They can only compete on the illusion of privacy. And that's the narrative that they are spending heavily to create."
Motherboard emailed the Amsterdam Privacy Week's organizing committee on Sunday asking for comment but did not receive a reply.