Palantir is a platinum sponsor for the 2018 edition Amsterdam Privacy Conference (APC). Because of Palantir’s very poor (privacy) reputation several scholars cancelled their participation. And a petition was started (called ‘Funding Matters’) that calls for

  1. The discontinuation of Palantir’s sponsorship of the Amsterdam Privacy Conference,
  2. Organizers and participants alike to engage in an action-oriented discussion on corporate funding of academic events,
  3. The development of rigorous criteria and guidelines for corporate sponsorship, for example, based on Human Rights Impact Assessments.

I agree, funding matters. (Not only when organising conferences, but also when doing research, by the way.) But I am afraid that I cannot sign the petition as it currently stands. Even though I care about this issue a lot. In fact, it’s because I care about this issue a lot.

There are many points the petition raises that I agree with, e.g.

The presence of Palantir as a sponsor of this conference legitimizes the company’s practices and gives it the opportunity to position itself as part of the agenda.

Others are more problematic, and beg the question what the rules should be to determine whether a company should be accepted as a sponsor for an academic conference. E.g.

While the company is largely secretive about its operations, it reportedly collaborated with Cambridge Analytica, hedge funds, banks and financial service firms.

I don’t think collaboration with hedge funds, banks and financial service firms is problematic in itself.

Among Palantir’s public clients are police agencies and defense departments from all over the world. In the last year, Palantir has helped the Trump administration to find and deport asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants and refugees, raising serious concerns about wide-scale human rights violations

Also the argument that police agencies, defence departments and the Trump administration are among Palantirs’ clients is problematic: it would rule out a great many other companies. Moreover, even though I am a conscientious objector, I do not necessarily believe that all cooperation with police agencies or defence departments is necessarily bad. (Perhaps the intended message is that Palantirs’ clients are police agencies and defence departments in countries under non-democratic rule; but even then the issue quickly becomes murky as many companies do business with China…) Finally the argument that Palantir works for the Trump administration needs clarification and precision: as deranged as we may believe the Trump administration to be, it was democratically elected.

This automatically brings me to the thing in this petition that I absolutely do agree with: we should establish rigorous criteria and guidelines for corporate sponsorship.

The question then is what these should be based on. The petition suggests to base these on a Human Rights Impact Assessments. These do not necessarily cover all cases, however. Consider for example what Hans de Zwart, BoF, wrote:

You shouldn’t have Shell sponsoring a conference about sustainability, nor should you have Google or Facebook sponsoring a conference about privacy.

Perhaps we should start analysing the underlying problem a bit more, for example by discussing some interesting cases to try to identify possible criteria and guidelines. For example, people working at Palantir wrote a book on the architecture of privacy; should we not take this book seriously only because the authors work at Palantir? On the other hand: claiming to do privacy by design while building intrusive surveillance systems is but a fig leaf. Then again singling out Palantir seems unfair. Do we feel similarly uncomfortable with companies like Google and Facebook sponsoring privacy conferences? What about Amazon? Apple? Banks? Insurance companies? Why (or why not)? And what kind of companies should or shouldn’t be allowed to sponsor sustainability conferences? The people behind Funding Matters also started a great thread on Twitter with relevant questions to ask!

Regarding the underlying problem, we should realise that corporate sponsoring of conferences not only is the result of lack of independent funding of such events, but that there are actually many benefits of sponsoring. It allows one to spend more money on the location, to invite (more, or more interesting) keynote speakers, to provide stipends for delegates from poorer countries or students that do not have funding to attend conferences. Also, it helps to create connection between academia and the corporate world. (If only because sponsorship usually entails that you get to send some of your employees to the conference.) It thus helps to bridge the divide between academia and society. In fact, not withstanding the importance of academic independence there is certainly a case to be made that certain conferences actually should focus on the business perspective (independent of whether that attracts more sponsors). If all privacy conferences would only attract privacy advocates we would have created an echo chamber that prevents us from engaging with what the rest of the world is thinking and doing in terms of privacy, and thus prevents us from learning things from them and teaching them things (in return). (And as I write this I have the feeling that most of the privacy conferences already are exactly such echo chambers…)

There is an inherent tension between academic independence and societal relevance.

Sponsoring of conferences has clear downsides as well. Even if the sponsoring is completely ‘no strings attached’, and the organisers of the conference can demonstrate complete independence, subtle forms of self-censorship can occur. For example because you got to know, respect, like or understand the sponsor during the process, or simply because you want to organise the conference again next year and also then depend on sponsorship. This makes it risky to offend your biggest sponsors.

Finally, there is the problem (also pointed out by the funding matters petition) that by accepting a company as a sponsor, you legitimise their practices. You give the company an opportunity to ‘whitewash’ their image. But when is a company ‘clearly’ only interested in whitewashing their image, and when is a company really trying to make (a perhaps misguided) effort to contribute to the field (whether this is privacy or sustainability). There are people working at Google that deeply care about privacy and where shocked to learn about the extent of surveillance by the NSA. But perhaps they are only concerned about government surveillance, and not about corporate surveillance. Perhaps privacy is, to them, mostly a matter of protecting citizens against the government. Does that exclude Google as a sponsor?

The easiest answer is to reject sponsorship altogether. Surely there are less problematic ways to incentivise societal relevance. But this does not address the issue completely.

Perhaps the keyword is engagement. Do we, as a community, believe the companies that are sponsoring our conferences, that want to fund our research, or want to collaborate with us really, sincerely, want to engage with the topic of our research (in our case privacy). Do we believe they want to contribute, want to listen? Do we believe we can learn something from them? Do we believe that, even though we may strongly disagree, by engaging with each other we create some form of progress, whether this is an advance in the state of the art, a contribution to society, or anything else. And if this is indeed the real underlying question, can we find objective criteria to measure engagement and use this to base sponsorship decisions on?

To conclude: I’d love to be part of the discussion (at APC or somehow/somewhere else), because I am also deeply worried about the deterioration of academic independence due to the strong dependence on corporate sponsorship (not only for organising conferences, but for funding research as well). We should not solely focus on (strict) independence and run back to our ivory towers. Instead we should find ways to be meaningfully engaged with the full world around us, while keeping our independence.