Snowden Q&A overshadowed at SXSW by ... Girls

Edward Snowden appeared today at the SXSW conference, live from Russia … kind of. His livestream connection was running through seven proxies, which meant that the video and audio was less than optimal, but they did manage to get the speech broadcast and livestreamed. NPR framed this as a conflict of authorities, reporting that the event had the South by Southwest Interactive conference “buzzing”:

Snowden will be speaking from Russia, which is still offering him asylum as he faces felony charges of espionage here in the U.S. The man behind leaks that revealed U.S. surveillance tactics and scope is expected to talk about the impact of that surveillance on the technology community. He’s also expected to call for technologists to build better tools with user privacy in mind.

Not everyone thinks Snowden has the authority to speak on this topic. U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., wrote an open letter to conference organizers on Friday calling Snowden a traitor and demanding that they rescind their invitation to the former contractor. Pompeo wrote that Snowden’s “only apparent qualification … is his willingness to steal from his own government and then flee to that beacon of First Amendment freedoms, the Russia of Vladimir Putin.” SXSW hasn’t responded.

Despite the objections of some U.S. leaders, the long lines Saturday for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s videoconference on similar topics indicate Snowden’s appearance will draw monster crowds. Conference organizers will have a handful of spillover rooms set up for viewing the talk from outside the main venue, and the nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune will be livestreaming the Q & A session for anyone with an Internet connection.

Monster crowds? Er … not exactly. Business Insider took pictures of two competing events, and discovered that the line for the Snowden presentation was minimal, while one for Girls producer Lena Dunham literally wrapped around the block:

This morning, the SXSW coordinators sent out an email warning attendees of long lines for the Snowden event, which will take place in a hall at the Austin Convention Center that seats approximately 5,000 people. There are several spillover rooms where the talk will be streamed too. (Snowden will be video conferencing in.)

But the coordinators didn’t anticipate the crowds for Dunham’s talk, which takes place in just one hall. Both events begin at 11 a.m. local time, but there’s almost no line for the Snowden talk.

The room for Snowden’s presentation was “mostly full,” BI reports, but there wasn’t much competition for seats, either.

The talk itself was a bit of a bore. Snowden’s arguments have been aired constantly for months now, so there wasn’t much more to discuss. The two other panelists, ACLU’s Ben Wizner (also Snowden’s legal advisor) and Christopher Sogholian, live didn’t bother to challenge Snowden on his actions, nor on his choice to flee to Russia — not exactly known for its reputation for supporting free expression. Pompeo argued to SXSW that Snowden would have been freer in the US, which Wizner acknowledged for everyone else but his client. “If there’s one person for whom that’s not true,” Wizner said in his introduction, “it’s Edward Snowden.” Instead of debating Snowden’s choices with that opening, though, they talked tech for the first part of the interview … including the fact that they’re using Google Hangouts for Snowden’s connection even though they’re unhappy with Google’s cooperation with NSA.

“Who’s the audience for this call to arms?” Wizner asked. From the discussion and the reaction, which was muted at best, it seems that the audience was very, very narrow indeed. Even when Wizner finally got around to asking for applause for Snowden’s actions — at the halfway point — it generated a warm but hardly overwhelming reaction. At that point, they finally got around to dealing with the legal and liberty implications of surveillance instead of technical minutiae of hardening communications. That’s not to say that it’s without any interest at all, but it suggests that the Snowden revelations have played themselves out.

It’s still in progress, so click over to see the rest of the presentation, which ends at 1 pm ET. On the other hand, it looks like Dunham has a very large audience for, er, whatever it is that she does.

Update: The last five minutes of the talk was actually the best, and where it should have started. Snowden argued that he took an oath to defend the Constitution and watched the official interpretation of the 4th Amendment “changed in secret” and had no choice but to go public. The crowd reaction at the end dwarfed any during the rest of the program.