The next European meeting of internet activists will be held in Sweden at the end of May. The “Stockholm Internet Forum” focusses on global development as well as surveillance. However, the world’s most important digital rights activist is not welcome: Edward Snowden
Sarah Harrison showed her anger at the USA. She explained how the US secret service surveyed the world, how it collected and analyzed data. The journalist that accompanied Snowden during his journey from Hong Kong to Moscow was a speaker at Berlin’s internet conference re:publica in the beginning of May. The hall was crowded, it was Europe’s largest gathering on these topics. But Harrison did not want to dismiss her audience without a warning: “You have two months to sort your government out, folks!” Snowden’s asylum in Russia ends in August. Up to that point a new shelter for the world’s most important whistleblower has to be found.
The Federal government has repeatedly resisted accepting Snowden. The opposition in the NSA parliamentary committee demand just that: The ex NSA employee should testify in Germany, and give him an opportunity here. The governing coalition prefers leaving Snowden in Moscow – and instead questioning him via video.
Harrison, aware of this political controversy, demanded EU neighboring states to jump in: “Other countries have to support and put pressure on Germany.”
But they seem to show little interest in the fate of Edward Snowden. For example Sweden: According to information by Cicero Online, the Swedish Foreign Ministry has disinvited Snowden and some of his closest confidants to an internet conference in its own country.
When third “Stockholm Internet Forum” opens on May 26, the activists will not descend on an old postal industrial area as they did for Berlin’s re:publica in 2014. Sweden’s largest digital convention will take place in the town hall, under the red brick tower with three golden crowns. It’s there in the ballroom where the Nobel Banquets are held each year.
The event will not be hosted by a group of bloggers, but rather by the Swedish government. The minister of development will hold the opening address, adding meaning to the conference’s motto “Internet Freedom for Global Development”.
Sweden, which is regularly awarded top rankings for freedom, human rights and social welfare, wants to prove its democratic virtue again during this event. In an online podcast, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has already sketched out the scope of topics: The Forum will not only discuss the opportunities in the digital world, but also the question as to how state control and censorship can be countered. The first point on the agenda the following morning is “the debate regarding surveillance and the right to privacy in the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden”.
There’s a flipside: Neither the former NSA employee Edward Snowden nor any of his confidantes will be at the conference in Stockholm. The Swedish government has taken care of that.
In addition to the ministries of foreign affairs and development, a third partner has helped organize and finance the forum: the internet organization .SE. They administer Sweden’s top level domains and were responsible for selecting suitable experts worldwide for the Stockholm Internet Forum. The SIF only accepts hand-picked speakers and guests. This year about 500 participants are expected.
So how did this come about?
.SE – the only non-governmental organization among the hosts – made a list of possible candidates. The most important name on it: Edward Snowden. Further names included journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two journalists that informed the world about the NSA’s activities, Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger as well as hacker Jacob Appelbaum, who found the mobile phone number of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Snowden’s database. The list of candidates was sent to the Swedish Foreign Ministry for approval.
According to information from Cicero Online, that’s where Snowden’s name was marked in red. In official use, this apparently means: “do not invite”. The ministry had no comment on this when asked. Instead, it stated that the focus of the conference was to “represent a wide array of backgrounds, cultures and opinions”. The main ambition was to invite equal numbers of women and men and that at least half of the participants came from developing countries. “We would also like to point out that those who haven’t been invited are able to follow the entire conference online and give opinions and raise questions during the discussions”, the ministry added.
Indeed, Edward Snowden would not have been able to escape his Russian asylum in order to go to Stockholm. However, his invitation would have been a symbol. With a little imagination the hosts could have included him anyway. The German NSA parliamentary committee is currently discussing a video interrogation. Snowden has already answered questions posed by the European Council via a live broadcast; that was also the way he chose to spoke to participants of a tech festival in Texas.
Sweden could also have allowed Snowden’s confidantes to speak for him. That’s what other hosts of large computer and internet conferences have recently done. The Net Mundial in São Paulo, Brazil, chose a live broadcast with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, hacker Jacop Appelbaum was there personally. The Chaos Communication Congress had Glenn Greenwald speaking via video. Appelbaum and Harrison spoke there too, as well as at Berlin’s re:publica.
The Swedish Foreign Ministry only authorized one name among the Snowden confidantes: Laura Poitras. The documentary filmmaker has recently refrained from loud political demands. She eventually turned down the invitation. “Of course I would boycott any conference with a blacklist”, she said to Cicero Online.
The objection against Appelbaum was supposedly recorded as follows: “Has been discussed, and has to be discussed further.”
Appelbaum himself is outraged. “It is unacceptable that I am the target of retribution for attempting to discuss the issues of mass surveillance and the chilling effect it has on society.”
The Swedish Foreign Ministry replied to Cicero’s inquiries saying it had wanted to select participants that they believed would benefit from coming to the convention and who hadn’t been there before. “Only a fraction of the participants have been invited to all three SIFs [Stockholm Internet Forums, the editor]. Mr. Appelbaum was invited to both previous SIFs.”
Apparently the Swedish government’s selection of participants also upset the non-governmental host. The organization .SE, which had helped with the first two conferences, has reduced its involvement this year. The development ministry confirmed this. A .SE spokeswoman attested that “this year we are offering our support as a sponsor but we are not involved in the SIF program”.
Stockholm’s Internet Freedom convention will send out a contradictory message to the world: On the one hand, it wants to talk about surveillance and data protection issues. On the other hand, it locks out those people who could best speak about these topics. “Is this what they mean by internet freedom?” Jacob Appelbaum wonders. “Or by freedom in general?
Perhaps Sweden does not want to spoil its chances with the powerful American ally. After all, the EU state shares its destiny with the USA. Just as the fox lurks in front of the rabbit cave, both countries await the extradition of their whistleblower: Assange here, Snowden there. This could explain why Sweden refrains from inviting Snowden.
Update May 19, 2014: The Swedish Ambassador Olof Ehrenkrona has acknowledged via Twitter that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not followed its partner's proposal to invite Edward Snowden to the conference. However, he denies that a boycott of the whistleblower has taken place: „We just did not invite him. Others not invited are not boycotted." Ehrenkrona did not deny that there has been an argument with .SE. „It is the Swedish MFA who invites, not the sponsors. That's our general policy."
Update May 27, 2014: Internal documents show that already in 2012, the Swedish Foreign Ministry denied Wikileaks access to the Freedom Forum. Read the full story here.
In an earlier version of this text, it was claimed the Nobel prizes were awarded in the Stockholm town hall. But this is the place where the Nobel Banquet is held.