Why I didn’t sign the Fundingmatters.tech petition

Thoughts on ethics at the intersection of academic research on law & tech and industry involvement

In 2018, academic storms start on Twitter. One of them has been the public concern surrounding the sponsors accepted by this year’s Amsterdam Privacy Conference. The Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University was hosting one of the panels at the conference until they withdrew. The reason? Data analytics company Palantir was one of the Platinum Sponsors at APC. Palantir has faced a lot of public backlash after different allegations, such as having collaborated with Cambridge Analytica on the Facebook data acquired by the latter, doing commercial data profiling or helping the US government on surveilling its citizens. In a nutshell, Palantir has a bad reputation. This is why a petition was created, fundingmatters.tech, now signed by over 60 academics from around the world, publicly asking for the removal of Palantir from the sponsor list.

As co-authors who have successfully submitted a paper (‘Moving fast and breaking things: Social media, data brokers and unfair commercial practices’) for the ‘Regulation of the information society’ panel, Stephan Mulders and I decided not to sign this petition, and in what follows I will defend this choice and take this opportunity to address some related ethical questions which any academic currently working on law and technology should reflect on.

The petition

The popular petition targets Palantir, but this is not the only corporate APC sponsor: Microsoft, Liberty Global, Vodafone, and Ziggo are also on the list. Palantir is by far only one of the companies on this list which might have or has engaged in questionable/immoral/illegal practices. Just a couple of legal examples which I happen to be aware of:

I am sure that from an ethics & business rights or CSR perspective, there can be many more points to add. I do share the concerns of Lina Dencik, Cardiff University, Seda Gurses, KU Leuven, Fieke Jansen, Cardiff University, Becky Kazansky, University of Amsterdam, Stefania Milan, University of, Amsterdam, Niels ten Oever, University of Amsterdam, Linnet Taylor, Tilburg Law School, Hans de Zwart and Bits of Freedom, who initiated this petition: Palantir practices MUST be made more transparent and in case there are legal concerns, these must be brought to justice in a fair manner. However, by singling out Palantir in this petition, its supporters seem to suggest that it’s ok to take an ethical stance against some company wrong-doings, but not against others, and this is where I disagree with this petition: why are we, as a diverse academic community, sending the message that ‘surveillance capitalism’ violations are more important than misleading tens of millions of consumers and asking for unfair payments from them every month? If such a petition is to be created, then why not spend some time doing research on all sponsors, also from different perspectives than just human rights? Or is it ok to get money from a company that, for instance, engages in tax fraud but doesn’t track you online?

Later edit – Equally, why stop at conferences? If publicly funding a conference is a problem, then why not apply this across the whole academic field? Why should we collaborate with colleagues from universities that get private endowments from controversial business persons like hedge fund managers involved in the subprime mortgage market? Why is writing an article with someone who gets their salary from such a donation (without most people even connecting the dots) any better than similar money sponsoring an event? Why would any academic even dare set foot in such an institution of higher education for any event, postdoc, research? These are just rhetorical questions, however, because applying such a standard with so much fervor would lead to absurd results. Determining what is ethical is a case of “I know it when I see it” (Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart trying to define pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964), and is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach. I personally find that there is too much activism behind such a petition, instead of objective, academic arguments that justify only focusing on one sponsor and not the others, as an example of how funding filters can work in the future.

The conference

A large conference like the APC does not come cheap, especially in Amsterdam, especially with a large number of keynote speakers who you need to bring from overseas, which can cost tens of thousands of euros. Indiscriminately asking for industry support to complement public money from the KNAW or the NWO is a wide-spread practice for many different disciplines. The rule of thumb, as known by any Dutch academic who’s gone through the 2018 Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, can be found in Principle 4 of the Code: the principle of independence, which translates into not allowing academic research in any way, shape or form be affected by external interests like commercial funding. The legitimate questions posed by the authors of the petition (especially in their role as former co-organizers) should be: Is there any way in which Palantir funding is being used to influence the proceedings of the conference? If so, how? Does any panel chair owe allegiance to sponsors and must not make any disparaging claims as per their sponsorship agreement? Are there any guidelines sent to authors in this respect? If that’s the case, this is a problem of academic integrity. I highly doubt, on the basis of my faith in the integrity of Dutch academia as a whole, that prestigious names attached to the organization of this conference would damage their reputation and personal integrity and agree to keep their opinions under a lid. And as a participant, I can confirm that neither our paper nor our critical views on data brokerage (which is, ironically, the topic of our paper) have in any way been impacted by this event sponsorship, nor were we ever contacted by the organizers to this end. If anyone is freely allowed to speak their mind and be as critical as possible about Palantir, then what is the true problem? The ethics of allowing Palantir to sponsor a conference where most likely ALL participants will attack their practices and criticise them? I’m personally not convinced this is a matter of academic integrity that justifies the scope of the outrage surrounding these recent developments.

Moreover, more subtle concerns should be at stake here: the management of funding, the transparency of funding (which was very promising from the get-go, but I do agree could be taken care of more effectively during the publication of sponsors), and the transparency of costs. Conferences come in many shapes – I remember that in Maastricht, we once wanted to invite a very prominent international author on the sharing economy for one of our conferences, and we completely scrapped their name off the list when we found out that participation in an academic event (giving a 20-min presentation for scholars and students) would come with an impressive tag of $50,000 (plus first-class flights & co.). This is money Dutch universities can’t afford to pay, and in my opinion, should not. I am still hopeful that the APC organizers will shed more light onto their use of funding, and they should do this also for future editions of the event. I also think that if funds were needed to pay keynote speakers (not their travel, but their actual engagement), this must, by all means, be reconsidered in the future. Same goes for expenses that might not be necessary (I believe a boat ride is organized for the participation). Given that the conference fees range between €150-650, and that it’s a pretty big event, a lot could be done with this stream of revenue already.

These considerations are up in the air, as no specific details about funding management have been made available yet. However, this entire kerfuffle is most likely a matter of transparency and communication (unless someone leaks a damning contract with Palantir or other sponsors), and not a problem of academic and personal integrity. Yet most of the Tweets trending with the conference hashtag (#apc2018) use language such as ‘shameful’ or ‘laughable’, without realizing how defamatory this can be for the organizers of the conference as it may entail some form of ethical misconduct (not to mention how toxic it is for the academic environment as a whole). When did academia replace critical and thorough assessment with developing opinions just by reading a Tweet – wasn’t ‘informed‘ something big in privacy? The authors of the petition are making some very important remarks, and they do have a point – we MUST have an academic debate around funding, but that should not come at the expense of someone’s academic reputation and this important message should not get lost in social media condescendence.

But no, I don’t think Palantir should be removed from the conference list. To the contrary. I think it should stay there, and it should send representatives to come and speak about how their products and internal processes work. And the same should happen for ALL commercial sponsors: pay AND come sit at the table (or don’t pay and still sit at the table), so we can fix society together. We are all writing about how we want more transparency and we want more knowledge regarding the activities of tech companies – this is not something that we achieve by polarization, and getting information from publicly-available records (as it seems privacy experts also do not have much trust in public institutions and public funding) but by cooperation, which is a model that is already paying off in the case of AirBnB and hopefully, Facebook (sure, both examples entail a lot of pressure from regulators – who are also missing from the APC table – but there can simply be no effective enforcement of data-related legal issues without the cooperation of tech companies). As academics, we are so focused on looking within our own bubble (driven by publication rankings), that we rarely start meaningful dialogues which can benefit all stakeholders of societal issues. From that perspective, I agree with the petition that we need rigorous criteria for sponsorship, but I’d take that a step further: we need a rigorous, ethical framework for law and technology research in collaborating with multiple types of stakeholders. Yes, Facebook and Google should even fund/co-fund research, as long as academics can fully maintain their independence as a principle of academic integrity mentioned above in the Code of Conduct. Medical research, business research and a lot of other similar fields, where industry collaboration is a must, might offer some good practices (and bad practices can also serve as examples of ‘how not to’). But if we push stakeholders away, we only contribute to a knowledge gap: industries can benefit from our insights just as much as we can benefit from theirs.

For starters, I am confident the APC will offer an environment for all these matters to be discussed with no strings attached.