On the sponsoring of the Amsterdam Privacy Conference 2015

On the sponsoring of the Amsterdam Privacy Conference 2015

In 2009, the University of Amsterdam opened the academic year with a series of lectures on privacy. The main theme of my contribution there was the rise of companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, and the fact that hundreds of millions of people were freely handing over their most intimate information to these companies, as well as personal information on other people, and that this information then seemed to follow the second law of thermodynamics, forever striving for maximum entropy. This was before Wikileaks and Snowden.

Later that year, my law colleague Nico van Eijk reached out to philosopher Beate Roessler and me. We got together, were joined by law researcher Bart van der Sloot, and founded the interdisciplinary Amsterdam Platform for Privacy Research (APPR), uniting privacy researchers from all faculties.

APPR flourished. With the help of many people, we organized the first Amsterdam Privacy Conference in 2012, an international academic conference where scholars could present their academic papers and discuss their research with each other and with practitioners.

The 2012 conference budget was approximately EUR 150.000, including venue, catering, travel and accommodation for keynote speakers, security, conference dinner and conference proceedings, but excluding the hours of the organization committee.

We decided to use sponsors to keep the entrance fee as low as possible, created a three-tier sponsor offering, and secured sponsor deals with a number of companies including Google, Vodafone, Ziggo, Palantir and KPMG, with a total contribution of approximately EUR 100.000. The 2012 conference did not generate a lot of publicity outside the academic world, but was considered very successful in academic circles. Many participants approached us with requests to organize the conference again.

We decided to organize a second conference in 2015, making APC the world’s first bi-annual academic privacy conference organized every three years. We also decided to keep many things the same, including the sponsorship offering. Due to an expected increase in the number of participants from 250 to 500, the conference budget was raised to approximately EUR 250.000.

As early as 2014, we approached many potential sponsors through our network: corporates, NGOs, government agencies and universities. Unfortunately, most of them were unable or unwilling to contribute. Many indicated that they did not see the relevance of an academic conference, others indicated that they had severely reduced or even completely eliminated their sponsorship budgets.

In the course of 2015, we were able to secure a number of sponsor deals that would be sufficient to proceed with the conference and maintain a reasonably low entrance fee, including Facebook, Google, Ziggo, Microsoft, Palantir, Vodafone and KPMG, amounting to a total contribution of approximately EUR 150.000. We were of course well aware that some of these organizations had a controversial reputation on privacy, but we did not consider that a blocking factor. Like in 2012, it was crystal clear that sponsors would be precluded from having any influence on the academic program; diamond sponsors got their own separate sessions, clearly identified as such.

In the same period, we were honored to have an incredible line-up of keynote speakers willing to speak at the conference, and high-quality research papers started flowing in. None of the speakers objected against the sponsors, which were clearly stated on the conference website. Some even thought it was clever that those responsible for the problem were now paying for an academic conference to discuss possible solutions. Like the last time, the selection of track papers and panel discussions was subject to a strict review procedure led by independent track leaders, renowned academics with no involvement in the practical aspects of the conference.

The conference started on Friday, October 26. We kicked off in the Old Lutheran Church in Amsterdam with speeches by Dymph van den Boom, rector magnificus of the University of Amsterdam; Ronald Plasterk, the Dutch Minister of the Interior and nominee for the Big Brother Awards 2015; Julie Brill of the Federal Trade Commission; and Max Schrems, the famous Austrian law student who won his case against Facebook before the European Court of Justice. Chris Hoofnagle of Berkeley and Stephen Deadman of Facebook joined the panel discussion. It was the start of a remarkable conference.

On the first day of the conference, activist and software designer Aral Balkan tweeted about the sponsors of the conference in the parlance of our times, and, expressing disbelief and anger, compared the situation to a conference on lung cancer sponsored by Marlboro. Soon other twitterati voiced their concern, including tech writer Sidney Vollmer, self-proclaimed anarcho-jihadi Petra Kramer, journalist cypherpunk J.M Porup, and media personality Ancilla Tilia. Vollmer reached out to me, asking why we picked Facebook and its peers as sponsors, to which I replied, why not, adding that the sponsors had no influence on the academic conference program, and that somehow it felt right that the polluters were paying.

Vollmer then wrote a thought-provoking piece on the subject, quoted my tweets, accused the conference organizers of whitewashing The Silicon Empire, and asked for a reaction. Porup wrote a thoughtful piece on Motherboard, Balkan sent out more tweets, not only expressing his continuing outrage, but also citing Lawrence Lessig’s work on institutional corruption, which I found interesting, and Kramer also wrote a valuable contribution to the discussion. Many others joined the debate which was soon picked up by the national and international press.

In the meantime, academics present at the conference raised their voices on the sponsorship controversy. Many of them expressed their appreciation for the conference, including researchers David Graus and Lisanne van den Berg, and sociologist and internet researcher Rene König, who stated that APC2015 was successful, with critical and enlightening contributions and debates. König also expressed his disappointment that influential people had disqualified the whole conference and its participants on the basis of guilt by association, and urged everybody to treat the subject with a little more coolness and focus on the real issues that needed to be discussed urgently.

So where do I stand?

I agree with the vast majority of participants that the conference was very successful from a research point of view. The conference has ignited many debates, insights, actions and friendships that will bring us a step closer to solving or at least managing the huge privacy challenge that is facing us.

I would also like to note that sponsoring of academic research and conferences is not new but widespread and subject to various ethical codes, the most notable elements of which are transparency and independence.

Of course some of our sponsors are highly controversial when it comes to privacy. Sponsoring this vibrant conference may have had a temporary positive effect on their reputation but I think that, in the end, companies will be judged by their actions.

I think that researchers and activists should engage in open debates with acknowledged privacy violators, but I agree that you can have an open debate without a sponsor relationship.

The discussion on sponsorship has colored the perception of the conference outside the academic community. This is regrettable, because it was a very good conference, but it is not the end of the world.

Although I am usually on the pragmatic and not on the fundamental side of things, reading some of Lessig’s work on institutional corruption has made me more sensitive to the arguments against corporate sponsorship. It also made me wonder which sponsors would be permissible when push comes to shove. Technology companies? Telecom providers? Banks? Insurance companies? Audit firms? The government? Foundations with unknown sponsors?

I disagree with Vollmer’s argument that we provided our sponsors with an opportunity to listen in on a secret debate. The conference was open to all. Next time, we will certainly consider livestreams for the keynote sessions.

I disagree with Kramer’s argument that the press did not pay attention to the critical voices heard at the conference. On the second day of the conference, Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published an extensive interview with Schrems and Van Eijk.

I appreciate that Vollmer, Kramer, Porup and König took the time to elevate the debate above the 140 character arena.

The majority of the critics did not attend the conference but I don’t think that is a problem. Everybody should be free to criticize anything.

For the next conference, projected in 2018, we certainly will consider alternative sources of income. One of them might be crowdfunding, although we would never know if the money so obtained would be clean. Help and suggestions are more than welcome.

I have enjoyed the debate on the sponsorship issue and, frequently riding a bicycle in Amsterdam traffic, I don’t have a problem with curse words or insults. Having said this, I am happy to debate some more, but I am also eager to move on to the very topic of the conference.

The credits for organizing the conference, by the way, are due to Beate, Nico and especially Bart, whose efforts in inviting the keynote speakers, securing our controversial sponsors, and taking care of the conference logistics surpass mine by an order of magnitude. I consider myself very lucky to be part of this team.

Edo Roos Lindgreen

Amsterdam, October 30, 2015

Please note that my reaction is strictly personal, and does not reflect the opinion of the University of Amsterdam, KPMG, the other members of the organization committee, or anyone else for that matter.