A Public for Privacy

It felt like a rock concert. Security was tight. Fans were so desperate to attend that the ones who had failed to get tickets before they sold out were streaming into one of the biggest rooms at the University of Arizona to watch a live feed of the event with each other, even though it was being simulcast over the Internet.

My daughter and I were two of the lucky ones. I had rushed across campus after teaching two weeks before to get us good seats, only to learn that there weren’t many left, although tickets had gone on sale less than three hours before. And this was for a concert hall promoters often struggle to fill. The reason? A Conversation on Privacy featuring Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald and moderator Nuala O’Connor in person and, joining in from his exile in Russia, the notorious Edward Snowden.

Typically, when speakers come to a college campus, the audience will be fleshed out with undergraduate students who are either required to attend by their professors or given extra credit for doing so. I had intended the ones in my new media class to be among them. Given the extreme demand for the event, however, I could only have them watch the archived stream afterwards. The same was true for colleagues who also teach material for which the topic was directly pertinent. But any frustration I felt was counterbalanced by the realization that there were still many young people in attendance, including plenty who had figured out a way to get tickets without any prodding from their elders.

It was also encouraging to see how many people from outside of the university were in attendance. Instead of the insular feel that academic events typically convey, this was clearly a case where the community presence was strong. No doubt, that was part of the reason why the security was so noticeable, given the controversial reputations of all three speakers and the volatile political landscape in Arizona, where anyone associated with left-wing causes runs the risk of being targeted by the state’s reactionary elements.

Yet, although I would not have been surprised to witness some sort of protest, the audience turned out to be overwhelmingly positive. Every time one of the speakers finished addressing a question, they were met with loud applause. The space was taut with energy, as if it were a partisan political rally. That is why, while the size of the crowd made it impossible for members of the audience to ask questions live, the difference between being there in person and watching somewhere else seemed significant. People wanted to be physically present with the speakers — though Edward Snowden was only there via a larger-than-life screen — and, just as importantly, each other.

Any high-demand event will result in a sense of solidarity that can’t really be achieved remotely. People attend concerts and rallies for precisely that reason. In the case of this Conversation on Privacy, however, this cohesion seemed particularly significant. For so many people to cheer these speakers on in public testifies to the political potential in their cause. Almost three years since stories started to be published about Snowden’s “treasonous” revelations, the outrage they stirred up shows no sign of dissipating, even in the United States, where people are typically considered to be more apathetic about privacy concerns than their counterparts in Europe.

Also important are the generational implications of the event. Chomsky is 87 years old, Greenwald 49, and Snowden 32. The fact that they could agree on so much and, indeed, enjoy each other’s company reinforces the impression that meaningful continuity can be established across demographics that are typically at odds with each other. Like the upstart presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, Chomsky holds an appeal to people who grew up in vastly different circumstances than he did, who barely remember the Cold War or, as in the case of my daughter, the upheavals that followed September 11th, 2001.

After the event, I asked her what she had thought of it, since it was really her first experience of feeling political in the presence of others. She mentioned three points in the conversation that had stood out: Chomsky’s explanation of how terrorism is unlikely to go away until we stop inflicting terror on the populations where it originates; Greenwald’s description of an experiment he conducts in which, when people tell him that they aren’t that worried about government intrusion into their personal data, he tells them to write down all their passwords for him, so that he can research their electronic lives (a request that no one has actually complied with); and, above all, Snowden’s repudiation of the notion that only those who have something to hide require privacy protections, which is equivalent to arguing that free speech is only necessary for those who have something to say.

Personally, what I found most encouraging about the event, not to mention the larger movement for digital rights that it exemplifies, was the potential they demonstrate for building political coalitions that cross traditional ideological lines. Even people who have very little in common otherwise can agree that their privacy must be protected from both government and corporate overreach. This is one of the few areas, perhaps even the only one, where what’s left of the now-old New Left can truly find common cause with conservative libertarians. And the pro-privacy movement also promotes an international sensibility that counterbalances the worst aspects of the nation state, which, despite the trend towards globalization, remains the primary impediment to true world peace.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit