03/14/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

SXSW Gets Political

The SXSW Interactive gathering in Austin is many things -- outrageous, weird, wild, adventurous -- but I'd never describe it as political.

In 2014, that changed.

Sitting at breakfast on the first day, two attendees from South Africa wanted me to pay attention. I hadn't had a cup of coffee yet, and GirlTalk had put on an awesome show the night before. I was a bit bleary-eyed, but they wanted me to pay attention. "The US is the world beacon for freedom and independence, and now you're leading the world in surveillance -- that scares us," they said, virtually pleading for the SXSW Tech crowd to get engaged in the issue.

And then, at the opening session, Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt was raising the alarm about the risks to the web around the world: "What's happened in the last year is the governments have figured out you don't turn off the Internet: you infiltrate it," said Schmidt.


His concern is simple. Dictators are taking a new approach in their responses to use of the Internet. "The new model for a dictator is to infiltrate and try to manipulate it. You're seeing this in China, and in many other countries," he said.

And from his perspective, government intervention into data is an issue both inside and outside the US. "We're pretty sure right now that the information that's inside of Google is safe from any government's prying eyes, including the US government's -- We were attacked by the Chinese in 2010, we were attacked by the NSA in 2013. These are facts."

What happens when countries decide to "edit the Internet" within their borders? Schmidt suggested this "balkanisation" is a serious concern for Google -- and for the web broadly. "Imagine if the Arab world decides to delete all references to Israel?" posited Schmidt. "It looks like people are going to use child safety as the starting point. Russia just passed a law nominally about child safety which pretty much allows arbitrary takedown of videos."

Schmidt's talk was clearly an Internet call to arms, if delivered in a somewhat professorial low-key demeanor. But just two days later, Edward Snowden was being beamed-in live, from Russia, with a far more strident and strikingly similar message.

Broadcasting via a Google Hang Out, and green-screened in front of the U.S. Constitution -- Snowden was clear about the dangers he sees ahead, and who's responsible. His pointed accusation, that the NSA is "setting fire to the future of the Internet. You are the firefighters," said Snowden. "The people in Austin are the ones who can protect our rights through technical standards."

If there was any doubt about Snowden's interest in remaining in Russia, or wandering the globe as a man without a country, then the use of the Constitution resolved that.

And while Schmidt didn't endorse Snowden, and the SXSW audience voted with its feet during the Julian Assange talk, there was no doubt that the SXSW audience was energized and activated by the risks on the horizon.

Talking to my new South African friends, it was clear that they're counting on SXSW and American tech leadership to keep the web free from government control and the creep of Balkanization.

Here's a look at the crowd reaction to the Snowden talk -- and you'll see for yourself that SXSW techies are taking the threats to internet freedom seriously.