The opening of the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference on Tuesday, June 2 featured Twitter not quite front-and-center, but on a big screen to stage left. Keynote moderator Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times remarked on the novelty of such a screen, explaining it is the first time Twitter has been integrated into this 19-year conference.
This shift seems an apt metaphor for the central tensions between security, privacy and freedom that will be explored over the next three days of the conference, and I really must commend the conference organizers for making these conversations so integral to the conference. Almost a decade into the 21st century, there is much that is undecided on how we as individuals, companies or societies share vs. protect data, the so-called oil of the Information Age.
My biggest takeaway from this morning was Peter Swire‘s observation on for the tension between the Privacy and Web 2.0 movements. As he explained it, for a long time it was the Privacy movement that was viewed as the human rights defenders, “fighting the good fight.” But then he challenged this audience – including many in the Privacy movement – to understand that “for young people, information is empowerment.” Drawing on his experiences with the Obama campaign, he explained that, for 20-somethings, data becomes powerful when it is opened up for citizen use, that social networking is viewed as participatory power … an idea that can seem almost anti-thetical to the original Privacy vision.
During the keynote panel I was struck by this talk of a generational gap. One audience member, Saul Hansell of the NYT, even asked panelist Caroline Fredrickson of the ACLU whether younger people who are drawn to sharing would rather have their information centralized in the National ID program that she opposes. It was a question that reflects poorly on the one who posed it … as a young person, I am frustrated by the idea that we’re any more monolithic in our opinions than any other group, or that any one person should speak for us. Understandably, Fredrickson didn’t have a good answer for Hansell. If he wants to know young people’s opinions, he should query a large (random) sample of them.
But that’s why the decision of the conference organizers to have the Twitter feed on stage is so commendable. Of course we all came to the conference in part to hear and learn from the experts – the pioneers of the Privacy movement who are being featured on stage. But we’re also here to take part in a conversation with one another, and the Twitter feed allows for audience comments to be brought into the larger discussion. And it also means that the Web 2.0 folks that Swire was referencing are able to insert their opinions and questions – in 140 characters – throughout the event. Many of the panelists during Tuesday’s opening sessions made good use of the Twitter feed, and Craig Newmark (@craignewmark), founder of Craigslist, received chuckles when he relayed CFP’s twitter request that Hansell, who was interviewing him over lunch, speak more directly into the microphone.
But highlighting the Twitter feed does not guarantee a conversation. On the opening panel there was much discussion of the generation divide, but little representation of it. I’m curious to see, over the next couple of days, how much younger folks are given space to speak, and how much dialogue takes place – not only in the formal panels and breakouts, but in the hallways, during meals and breaks, and in the evening “Birds of a Feather” meet-ups. What’s clear is that the CFP ’09 Online Visibility Team – who recruited bloggers and others to join the conversation – are committed to sincere dialogue. And that’s something I’m proud to take part in.