A Sunday afternoon panel designed to address head-on privacy concerns stemming from so-called "big data" collection sparked passions even though both Facebook and Google, whose privacy practices draw most consternation from critics, declined to participate, leaving no one to take the side of industry.
Moderator Molly Wood, the executive director of CBS Interactive, said Facebook didn't feel it had any staff at SXSW who could speak on the issue. Google's privacy counsel Will DeVries was scheduled to participate but bowed out, citing ongoing litigation with the privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, whose representative Lillie Coney was also on the panel.
Coney called Google's apparent understanding of the action as legal action against the company as "a very strange way to take the regulatory process and the mechanisms that are available to civil society, or even individuals".
Google did not respond to requests for comment.
Even without Google and Facebook in attendance, the panel was hard-fought as Coney and Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, battled Berin Szoka, president of the libertarian-leaning nonprofit TechFreedom, over whether the collection and increasingly sophisticated analysis of large amounts of user data for use in corporate marketing constitutes a real harm to consumers and whether government regulators should step in.
Szoka cited an "assumption in the privacy debate that it's unusual that the doing of things precedes the figuring out what we should do about it, but that's how the Internet works". His approach is "sometimes derided as a patchwork approach", he said, "But to me that's a good approach. Government should get involved when there's actual harm."
Privacy advocates Coney and Stanley pointed to other industries, like the auto industry, to make the case that government should regulate practices that pose a clear risk. Coney said that if and when demonstrable harms to consumers come from big data, they, too, will be outsized, affecting thousands of people.
Stanley pointed to Gmail as an example. Calling it "the first step toward the application of artificial intelligence monitoring us," he said, "It's not that smart yet, so it's not that scary. But as it gets smarter it will get scarier, when you get to artificial intelligence levels that approach humans and they're still reading your mail."
The audience appeared to side with privacy advocates. One questioner who identified himself as building social networking applications for the Apple platform said he feared harming his own customers. "If we can't as an industry even defend passwords, how can we protect privacy?" he asked.
Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.