The Amsterdam Privacy Conference (APC) is Europe’s largest interdisciplinary conference on privacy, where academics share and discuss their research results. The number of attendants is approximately 500, and the conference budget is approximately 250K euro, which includes organization costs, conference venue in the center of Amsterdam, facilities, support staff, travel costs for keynote speakers, basic catering and publication of conference proceedings.
In order to keep the conference fees for Ph.D. students and academics as low as possible, the conference is sponsored by commercial parties. In 2012 and 2015, the conference was sponsored by Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Palantir, Vodafone, Ziggo, KPMG and others. Some of these companies are perceived as controversial or even unethical with respect to the way their business model is based on collecting and commercializing personal data. In 2015, the sponsorship issue raised criticism and media publicity, which in turn triggered a broader discussion on the sponsorship of academic conferences in general and the next APC in 2018 in particular. The central questions are:
1.Does a conference like APC2018 need sponsors?
2.Which conditions and guiding principles should apply to sponsorship?
3.Which companies are eligible as sponsors?
4.What is the best way to win sponsoring deals?
The organizing committee is currently preparing for APC2018. The past months, the organization committee has informally polled a large number of stakeholders, including students, members of the Amsterdam Platform for Privacy Research (APPR), academics, former conference participants and practitioners. The large majority of respondents indicates to have no principal objection against sponsorship by the companies listed above, as long as it is clear the sponsors don’t have influence on the conference program.
We organized this workshop to discuss the sponsorship of the APC2018 with a broader group and to collect and exchange insights of knowledgeable people outside the conference organizing committee.
During the workshop, many aspects of the sponsoring issue were debated and many ideas were exchanged. It was noted that views on sponsorship are highly personal and often conflicting. For example, the following opposing points of view were presented:
- The conference should have sponsors to keep participant fees as low as possible, versus the conference should be sponsor-free, even if this would mean doubling the fees
- Sponsors should be given full logo presence for the sake of transparency, versus sponsors should just buy tickets at a higher price without logo sponsoring
- We should have objective criteria to assess whether a sponsor is suitable, versus objective criteria are impossible to design and enforce; we should rely on gut feeling instead
- Companies are sponsoring the conference for whitewashing and gaining influence, versus sponsors have no direct benefits, sponsoring is based on personal relations
- We should offer sponsorships to both sides – companies and privacy activist groups versus privacy activist groups would never appear on a banner together with Facebook and Palantir
- We should organize roasting sessions where the sponsors are critically challenged versus this would be the ultimate form of whitewashing
Although it is hard to draw clear conclusions from the discussions we have held, consensus exists on the following:
1 The conference needs an additional revenue stream to keep the conference fees low and ensure the quality of the conference, including international keynote speakers and conference facilities
2 A small number of large sponsors is preferable to a large number of small sponsors; acquiring and managing sponsors is time-consuming and small sponsors usually have high demands
3 A higher degree of diversity among the sponsors would be preferable; we should seek to include sponsors from civil society
4 Sponsorship is bound to strict conditions of independence and transparency; these conditions should be defined and communicated beforehand
5 The conference should be open to all parties interested in joining the debate, extreme exceptions excluded
6 We should acknowledge that sponsors’ motivations will vary, but certainly include influence and reputation
7 The conference organizing committee should seek ways to minimize the dependency on sponsors by raising funds e.g. fee differentiation, crowdfunding and donations
8 We should be completely transparent about the organization of the conference, the design of the program, and the process of selecting conference papers and speakers
9 The sponsor brochure should be reviewed to make clear that sponsors have no influence on the conference program
10 The organization committee should accept that sponsoring will trigger public debate, where privacy activists will have the loudest voice; this, however, should not overly influence its decisions and actions