A Lesser Transparency? Why Snowden’s Conference “Unvitation” Matters

Snowden wasn’t invited to the Stockholm Internet Forum. So what?


(NOTE: ON SEPTEMBER 24, 2014, IT WAS REVEALED THAT EDWARD SNOWDEN & ALAN RUSBRIDGER HAD BEEN AWARDED THE RIGHT LIVELIHOOD “ALTERNATIVE NOBEL PRIZE.” THE FORMAL ANNOUNCEMENT IS NORMALLY HELD IN THE PRESS ROOM OF THE SWEDISH FOREIGN MINISTRY, BUT NEWS REPORTS HAVE INDICATED THAT, UPON HEARING THAT SNOWDEN WAS THE RECIPIENT, F.M. CARL BILDT STOPPED THE ANNOUNCEMENT BEING HELD THERE. THE FOLLOWING IS A PIECE I WROTE JUST AFTER REPORTS THAT SNOWDEN HAD ALSO BEEN DENIED AN INVITATION TO THE STOCKHOLM INTERNET FORUM. THE ISSUES ARE THE SAME.)

With the map of internet privacy redrawn, continuing a constructive discussion on privacy as a key part of internet freedom is more important than ever before. The overarching theme of Stockholm Internet Forum 2014 will therefore be “Internet — privacy, transparency, surveillance and control”. Consequences for openness, integrity, rule of law, development, economic growth, security and intelligence will be discussed. (Stockholm Internet Forum)

A debate is swirling around the 2014 installation of the Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF14): an annual gathering—co-organized by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs—of internet experts, corporations, NGO representatives, policy-makers and activists. According to the organizers, the conference is geared towards deepening “discussions on how freedom and openness on the internet can promote economic and social development worldwide.” The conference has around 500 participants, and, importantly, attendance is by invitation only.

A few days ago, the German magazine Cicero published a story in which it was suggested that the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had vetoed the participation of some of some pretty big names at SIF14:

The SIF only accepts hand-picked speakers and guests. This year about 500 participants are expected. (…) .SE — the only non-governmental organization among the hosts — made a list of possible candidates. The most important name on it: Edward Snowden. Further names included journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two journalists that informed the world about the NSA’s activities, Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger as well as hacker Jacob Appelbaum, who found the mobile phone number of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Snowden’s database. The list of candidates was sent to the Swedish Foreign Ministry for approval.

According to the Cicero piece (written by Petra Sorge), Edward Snowden’s name was marked in red letters by the Foreign Ministry—indicating a “Do Not Invite” status. Reportedly, only one name from the .SE list was actually approved by the Swedish Foreign Ministry: Laura Poitras, who subsequently declined the invitation, stating: “Of course I would boycott any conference with a blacklist.” When asked by Cicero for comment, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said that, “it had wanted to select participants that they believed would benefit from coming to the convention and who hadn’t been there before.”

In a number of Twitter exchanges after the publication of the article, Foreign Ministry representatives denied any “blacklisting” of Snowden or Greenwald, stating that the focus of SIF14 was supposed to be on development. In addition, co-hosts .SE stated that they were satisfied with the final conference invitation list, and that the non-invitation of Snowden (and others on their list) was not a source of friction.

Of course, Snowden and the journalists who have reported his leaked material are not owed an invitation to every single conference or gathering dealing with surveillance or transparency. Organizers are perfectly within their rights to invite who they wish.

So, what’s the problem? I’ll address three.

  1. As noted, the theme for SIF14 is Internet — privacy, transparency, surveillance and control. Even if we accept that SIF14 is a conference devoted to development issues—roughly 50% of the participants come from so-called “developing nations” (I say “so-called” because some find the term pejorative)—it seems odd that organizers deemed those involved in one of the biggest news stories in years—a story rooted in privacy, transparency, surveillance and control—to be unsuitable. The bottom line is that Snowden’s revelations expose a global US surveillance apparatus, thus making the issue supremely relevant for those at the blunt end of US power.
  2. Part of the Snowden material revealed a close relationship between the NSA and Sweden’s FRA, fueling suspicion that Snowden’s “unvitation” to SIF14 (as well as Greenwald/Rusbridger) was an attempt to avoid an embarrassing discussion of the NSA and the NSA-FRA relationship in front of Swedish Foreign Ministry organizers (including Foreign Minister Carl Bildt) and invited guests from the US State Department. (It is worth noting that, after hosts Sweden, the US is the country with the largest number of participants invited to SIF14).
  3. The Stockholm Internet Forum plays off of Sweden’s global reputation (earned or otherwise) for transparency, democracy, a commitment to development and technological advancement: angles from which the current Swedish administration has made considerable hay. However, just as charity begins at home, so must transparency and a willingness to debate government actions in public fora. Hosting a discussion between Snowden (or those familiar with the material he released) and various government and/or corporate representatives about privacy and abuses of global surveillance would be to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and (potentially uncomfortable) democratic debate. By not doing so, however, such a commitment is called into question.

So, yes, while Snowden or Greenwald would have likely “stolen the show” in terms of press, their presence easily could have been packaged within a development context. And, symbolically, it would have afforded the organizers a considerable volume of long-term capital. If the real message of conferences such as SIF14 is that openness and transparency are fundamental components of democratic societies, then the best way to promote that message is through democratic practice.

I don’t think a confrontation was avoided. I think an opportunity was missed.

(Note: I have been invited to SIF14)