The University of Amsterdam — helping people in their quest for knowledge since Barlaeus and Vossius held their inaugural speeches in 1632 — organized a forum on cancer this week. The forum was sponsored by Marlboro, Gauloises, Lucky Strike and Pall Mall.
At first, I thought it was a joke. But I checked their website, and there it was, Facebook was “A Diamond Sponsor”, as was Ziggo:
I was not the only one to notice this. Activist Ancilla Tilia:
Aral Balkan, activist, designer:
What the fuck, indeed.
One of the most pervasive problems of this day and age, one of the most eroding forces undermining freedom and democracy, being discussed at and hosted by the third oldest university in the Netherlands, is sponsored by the ones arguably causing the majority of the problems. The ones I call The Silicon Empire.
The organization apparently has found no other means to fund such a much needed conference than to cave in to the dollars of Big Tobacco, whitewashing their cancerous practices with heaps of cash, and, apparently, chocolate:
I reached out to Edo Roos Lindgreen, one of the directors on the board of #APC2015 and partner at KPMG. Here’s our exchange, paraphrased in English below:
Edo’s stance: why not? As long as academic independency is guaranteed; sponsors have no influence on the program.
When I responded with: “you pay for it you own it”, his response was I’d underestimate the speakers if I’d say that. He invited me to come along and visit the conference. He also made the point of letting the organizations responsible for the problem pay for for the solution. Which sounds fair, but there’s a non-sequitur in that statement that I’ll get back to in a moment.
I was, in fact, going to visit the conference. But I couldn’t shake this queasy feeling, after seeing the sponsors. I didn’t want to participate in a theater, even though it would have been very educational – and fun, probably. Too much cognitive dissonance. Too little explanation about how this came to be. (Alas, William Binney, may our paths cross some other time.)
On the same day, Edo had gone into what the marketing guy in me calls “spin mode”. Now that the story of the weird diamond sponsorship is coming out (AT5, Telegraaf) Edo tweets the stories, embracing them as part of the narrative developing. An aikido practicer befitting.
Again: fair enough.
But there are at least three problems with what happened here. I’ll address them briefly, hoping Edo will mull them over tonight or tomorrow and get the board together on this.
I don’t believe there is intentional foul play at hand.
There is, however, harm done.
So Edo, for you and your colleagues, the following three reasons why your sponsor policy has been wrongheaded. Kindly read it. Feel free to comment or reach out to me. (Or elaborate through your own channels, that would be even better :-)
1. You’re whitewashing their pollution
It is an oft cited example of the asymmetrical nature of the problem of civil rights in the digital age: Mark Zuckerberg asks us for as much data as he can, yet, for thirty million dollars, buys all the houses around his own in Palo Alto to get more privacy.
By having Facebook as your diamond sponsor you offer Facebook a diamond chance at rehabilitation and respectability.
It is either a sign of my lack of creativity or a sign of your organization’s faulty practice in this matter that I can not think of a worse sponsor for your much, much needed event on privacy.
You pay for it, you own it, they say. And rightly so.
Now, you may say there has been no influence on the content of the talks. No, I assume not. That would have been even more ridiculous. But we don’t know that for sure, and trust is the thing at play in these matters.
You should know however that this is, in fact, not the problem. The problem is the principle. The principle should be the problem.
2. The listeners are listening in.
The Amsterdam Privacy Convention 2015 has a fascinating line of speakers, thinkers, writers and tinkerers present. They clearly have had less problems with the sponsoring than I have.
And to be fair: if I had been paid, properly, and was offered a nice room at, oh I don’t know, the Drake Hotel, and maybe a massage, I would have probably attended, too. Some schizophrenia is inherent to living, especially living in the 21st century.
I don’t hold it against the speakers too much. It does give room for pause. (How does it feel to participate in something that helped ridiculing your very area of work the moment the story broke?)
I hope I’m not sounding paranoid, but apart from whitewashing, you give “the listeners”, in my words The Silicon Empire, ample chance to listen in to what’s happening. At the very least this is how PR works, by identifying risks and discussions to alter strategies. If it won’t alter the machinations themselves, then at least this is likely to happen.
Is that worth the return of investment of the conference itself? How many minds have been sparked by the conference, as the sponsors got to hand out chocolate?
(Is there a more patronizing gesture than handing out candy to people trying to diminish your influence?)
How big, in contrast, was the ROI for the sponsors, who, while handing out chocolate, could whitewash as well as listen in to what was said, and meet who was attending?
3. You’re selling out your much needed authority
Which brings me to my most important point of criticism. You and I most likely agree on the necessity of organizing events like this. Big data is impoverishing the middle class, it leads to an asymmetrical concentration of wealth, data and information (is there still a difference?) outside of Dutch and even European jurisdiction, and largely happens outside of public scrutiny. That is something akin to a woodrot on our societal ideals and principles, fought over in many a battle since at least the Enlightenment.
This topic is too important to lose credibility. We, the people, are looking for ways to strengthen our position. We need a flag, a rallying cry and a battle hymn.
The University of Amsterdam is too big an institution, this subject too important to suffer under public ridicule and diminish the odds of said symbols coming to the fore.
Which is inevitably what happens when you let your conference on cancer be sponsored by Big Tobacco.
One can imagine Mark Zuckerberg hiding out in Palantirs secret lair under the volcano, laughing his ass off at the public shaming your organization is now enduring. Which is not fair to all the effort you have put into organizing a noble conference. But it’s happening all the same.
Mission accomplished, they will say, for the true purpose of propaganda is not to seed untruths, as Eben Moglen argued so persuasively in “Snowden and the Future”, it is to give the (false) impression that resistance is futile.
Where do we plant our flag, Edo? All those concerned with civil rights and privacy. All those searching for a better, fairer way. The philosophers, the writers, the columnists, the activists. The leftists, the cyber-utopianists, the conservatives, the libertarians. The intellectuals. We share a common goal.
For too long, this has been an objective and discussion mostly sought at the fringes of respectability.
It would have been an institution like the UvA, under (amongst others) your guidance for this particular conference that could have helped pave the way and make genuine progress. By defining symbols and metaphors. By adopting our shared mission into common thinking, into the public sphere, by the intelligentsia of our country and the experts on the matter.
As it is, you have helped raise awareness not about privacy, but about the ridiculous irony of the fight.
Because of that, I’m quite disappointed in the Amsterdam Privacy Conference 2015.
Curiously awaiting your response,
ps. addition at 20pm, oct. 26th. I am wondering: should the conference not be held if there would have been no funds for it to go on? My answer would be a resounding (though heartbreaking) yes.
Your mission then would have been to raise the alarm on how this crucial debate is no longer possible in the Netherlands without tainted funding.
I find it hard to believe that would be the case, but on the other hand wholeheartedly believe your team — and the well-connected UvA — would be able to put that scary problem high enough on the political agenda to make the necessary changes happen.
ps.2 October 28th some sources that picked up this story:
A Dutch Version now at RTLZ:
A level headed response: