June 30, 2013 · Lessig
On Bill Moyers, and in the Daily Beast, I spoke about the need for code to protect liberty and privacy in cyberspace. (Or a little more precisely, I repeated an argument for code to protect privacy that I have been making since 1999 — in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.)
In the course of both, I referred to one example I had recently learned of created by Palantir. The specific technology essentially builds an audit trail to the core, so any use of data by, say, a gov’t official, is perfectly tractable. So in the Moyers interview I said:
When there are plenty [sic - actually there are not “plenty"] of entities out there, companies like, there’s a company called Palantir who’s built a technology to make it absolutely, make you absolutely confident that a particular bit of data has been used precisely as the government says it’s supposed to be used.
And in the Daily Beast piece I wrote:
And there are companies, such as Palantir, developing technologies that could give us, and more importantly, reviewing courts, a very high level of confidence that data collected or surveilled was not collected or used in an improper way.
This reference has now been criticized. (Here’s one careful and balanced example.) The essence of the criticism is that Palantir is a bad company, or that it has done bad things, or that it has been funded by bad people.
I am completely in favor of questions being raised of anyone like me (meaning people trying to push a particular public policy) about whether mentioning a company or their product is done in exchange for money. That question needs to be raised more often, especially of academics. And one of the things we’re working on at the EJ Safra Center Lab is a more transparent and certifiable way that people can certify their “independence,” as in “non-dependence” upon the interests to which they are making reference.
So in this case, here is my answer: Consistent with my long-standing policy, (see Disclosure) I have not, or (now that I’ve publicly admired a product of theirs) would not ever, accept money from Palantir either as a consultant or to fund my research. This is the core case of the Non-Corruption Principle that I describe in my disclosure statement. And if this was necessary, then let this be a reaffirmation of that principle.
I’m less convinced that the principle of “corruption of blood” should be a part of policy discussions. In both cases above, I was pointing to a type of technology. The truth or falsity of what I was saying doesn’t depend upon whether Palantir is a good or bad company. About that question, I am not, and don’t purport to be an expert. I’ve known two people in the company with any seniority — one for a dozen years, and one more recently. About the former I’m certain, but of both I’d say I have a high regard for their integrity. But again, that wasn’t my claim in either context.
And more generally, it’s my view that a culture of free debate depends upon the ability to point to ideas or technology without that being read as an endorsement of the creator. Endorsements are of the form: “Wikipedia is a great company/community” (which it is and is both). References are of the form: “Terrestrial Trunked Radio is a great example of end-to-end encryption” (which Wikipedia says it is and who am I to disagree with Wikipedia?).
Thanks for the decent engagement. That, ultimately, is the most important here.
(Original post on Tumblr)