SXSW: Privacy – A Hot Topic at Interactive

Choose Privacy Week, Privacy

Last week, OIF Director Barbara Jones attended her  first SXSW in Austin.  Here’s the third installment of her blog posts from the event.  See the other two here and here.

Privacy advocates, we have our work cut out for us!  There were plenty of programs on privacy, and not always very big audiences.  Some of the big players, like Google and Facebook, were “no shows” for a panel on big data management and privacy.   And the Q &A at the end of each program demonstrated a lack of understanding of privacy issues essential for startups.  (But at least there is a forum for asking!  SXSW saves the last half of every program for “interactive,” so that the audience becomes an essential part of each program and their questions are integral to discovery of the topic at hand.)

“Can Privacy Bootcamp Firm Up Your Bottom Line?”

SXSW Interactive attendees are overwhelmingly 20 and 30-somethings, and this excellent panel spoke to that audience.  Librarians would find the ACLU speaker’s contributions very familiar–the philosophical and constitutional importance of upholding the right to privacy.  The spark to this panel was Raman Khanna.  Khanna invests in early-stage startups and considers privacy considerations a key factor in his decision making.  He has privacy attorneys at hand to ensure that data collection practices follow the law.  But there is more.  Khanna told the audience that they will not succeed if they alienate their customers.  If he feels “queasy” about a particular startup privacy practice, he bets that their customers will, too, and he will be less willing to invest.

Public libraries do small business programming for their communities.  I envision a privacy bootcamp as part of that program.  I envision a guest speaker like Raman Khanna telling prospective small businesses that they will not succeed unless they pay attention to consumer privacy issues.  I often tell librarians that privacy programming is a great way to find political common ground in their communities, and this is a prime example of demonstrating that upholding civil liberties is also good for business.


“Sex, Lies, and Cookies:  Web Privacy Exposed!”

This program was the liveliest because the panelists had very real differences, which were presented in a civil dialogue with real examples and no name-calling.  What a nice change from most media these days!  Most SXSW panels will eventually be available on the web, and this one is already posted:

Chris Sogohian is an Open Society Fellow at Indiana University and was just amazing.  We really MUST get him as a speaker for ALA!  He is articulate about the economy that has been built around the sharing of personal data–by commercial and special interests.  He was very clear (some would say cynical, but not I!) about Congress’ strategy for stalling legislation to truly protect Internet users.  Take the ad icons, for example.  How many of us pay attention to them?  Yes, you can click and “opt out” of having your name used.  However, panelist Lorrie Cranor and her students at Carnegie-Mellon surveyed Internet users about these icons and–guess what?  Most people a) don’t see them or b) are afraid to click on them.  Thus, as Chris stated, we should make no mistake–the icon is unusable and shrouds its true intent to trick consumers.  If this interests you, please click on this SXSW conversation and you will not be disappointed!

To be fair, there was an articulate and expert opposition to Chris.  Panelist Lydia Parnes, formerly at the Federal Trade Commission, said that government regulation simply can’t keep up with all the needs for consumer protection.  Also, nobody agrees on definitions.  For example, what does “do not track” really mean?  To some, it means “do not collect” in the first place.  To others, it means “you can collect, but you can’t use it or sell it to third parties.”  How can we write legislation when nobody knows what we mean?


To many of us trying to educate the public about privacy, the problem is making this stuff sexy.  The closest I ever got was telling Chicago high school students that Gap probably knows what size jeans they wear.  The students were outraged!   Surveys show that the public does want to protect their personal privacy but they simply feel powerless to do so.  And the discourse and small print make their eyes glaze over.  Please, someone out there–make this your doctoral dissertation or your publication for promotion to full professor!  Write it so a sixth grader understands.  Sponsor a contest at your library.  We need it!

As a reminder, OIF’s third annual Choose Privacy Week will be taking place May 1-7.  Start planning now for your library’s participation and programming.  Choose Privacy Week materials are available NOW in the ALA Store.

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