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In most-anticipated SXSW talk in years, Snowden fires up Austin

The former NSA contractor appeared at SXSW Interactive by teleconference. Despite being scheduled at the same time as "Girls" creator Lena Dunham, Snowden drew thousands eager to hear directly from him.

Edward Snowden appeared by teleconference at SXSW on Monday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET
Edward Snowden appeared by teleconference at SXSW on Monday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- And on Monday, Edward Snowden showed up.

It was perhaps the most-anticipated South by Southwest Interactive talk since Mark Zuckerberg gave a keynote speech in 2008: Snowden appearing live, by teleconference, from Russia.

And though today's talk lacked the fireworks that erupted during Zuckerberg's onstage interview with Sarah Lacy, there's little doubt that the 5,000 people in the room -- plus thousands more in two nearby overflow rooms and those watching a livestream online -- were hanging on Snowden's every word. Indeed, despite reports that Dunham's talk was more popular (as measured by lines to get in the room), Snowden drew a very full house of people eager to hear his wisdom on the NSA scandal he unleashed last year.

Unlike most SXSW talks, Snowden's appearance was only announced last week. And in a bit of unfortunate timing familiar to any SXSW veteran, the talk -- with the American Civil Liberties Union's Ben Wizner and Chris Soghoian -- was scheduled directly against a keynote event from "Girls" creator Lena Dunham. That forced many people, myself included, to make an uncomfortable choice. But though I am a big Dunham fan, in the end, I couldn't justify not being part of one of Snowden's most public talks since he went into exile.

Before anyone showed up onstage, I noticed that a number of people were shooting photographs at the front of the stage, despite no one standing there. Then I saw that there was a standard SXSW name card -- the kind every speaker gets -- for Snowden. Was this the most photographed name card in SXSW history? Hard to say, but almost certainly for someone who wasn't even in the building.

Was this the most photographed name card in SXSW history? At least for someone who was not actually in the building, it probably was. Daniel Terdiman/CNET
Was this the most photographed name card in SXSW history? At least for someone who was not actually in the building, it probably was. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Oddly, though, given how much of a seismic shift in public perception -- and awareness -- of government surveillance and issues surrounding encryption and what can be done to restore public faith in our privacy and security -- the energy in the room was subdued.

That continued, even when Wizner and Soghoian arrived. "There wasn't a lot of applause when we came onstage," Wizner joked. "I guess you're here to see someone else."

When Snowden appeared onscreen a moment later, via Google Hangout, the applause was hearty, though not rapturous. And without further ado, the two speakers from the ACLU began asking questions.

Speaking directly to an audience made up largely of people in the technology industry, Snowden said he had chosen to make this appearance largely because SXSW Interactive attendees are the "people who can fix and even enforce our rights." That went over well.

As Snowden was talking, I began wondering if Dunham had said anything to her audience about being put up against the man who, more than anyone else in recent history, had changed the public conversation about privacy and security. Then I read a Business Insider story saying that more people were waiting in line to see Dunham than for Snowden. That story missed the fact that the doors were open well in advance to the hall with the Snowden talk, and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow and Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman were speaking inside on many of the same surveillance, technology, and privacy issues, essentially warming up the crowd for the main event. So far as I can tell, Dunham didn't address her competition.

Still, there's little doubt that some of the urgency and immediacy I was expecting in the room were missing. When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke (also by teleconference) on Saturday, the dynamic was a bit more electric, it seemed to me. I wondered if it might have something to do with the fact that for Assange's entire talk, his face was onscreen, while Snowden almost seemed at times to be a third wheel to Wizner and Soghoian.

Indeed, I was deeply struck by how often the conversation was more between the two from the ACLU and less from Snowden. Whether that was because of the vagaries of using Google Hangouts -- a very bad idea, if you ask me, given its poor quality -- or because they did have important things to say, it was unclear. And though others seemed unbothered by it, I found myself regretting that the format of this talk was not taking as much advantage as possible of the fact that SXSW had Snowden available for one single hour, and no more.

At one point, for example, Wizner and Soghoian were talking about something and Snowden spoke up, saying, "If I could piggy-back on that," and I thought it was absurd that he, of all people, should have to piggy-back on anything during a session like this.

Then again, thanks to a deep understanding of the issues at hand, Wizner and Soghoian were helping make the conversation extremely vital and relevant. I'm quite sure the two of them could have filled a large SXSW hall by themselves. Yet I couldn't stop wondering how many people were wishing for more Snowden.

If they were, they were doing a good job keeping that feeling to themselves. Though there were several moments of spontaneous applause after Snowden said one thing or another, there were similar moments after Soghoian said something. Mostly, it felt like the audience was being respectful and quiet, more intent on listening than applauding.

Afterwards, talking to several people about the session, I didn't hear any complaints about the format. People were clearly pleased to have been able to witness a bit of history, and having Wizner and Soghoian involved definitely helped move the discussion along. One attendee, Tanner Hearne, a director of technology from Fort Worth, Texas, said he thought the talk was "gold." He added, "It's great to have such current issues being really talked about in a constructive way."

Interestingly, given my fairly innocuous questions about people's perceptions of the talk, several people I spoke with were nervous about having their name or their company associated with their comments about it. Two told me specifically that even with just their first name and their professions, they felt sure people would be able to identify them -- and clearly they worried that would not be good for them for one reason or another. This was not something I had encountered very often in the past at SXSW.

During the talk, one of Snowden's main messages seemed to be that it is pointless to count on the government or technology companies to protect our privacy and security in the era of NSA surveillance programs. That point definitely resonated.

"It was a good choice by SXSW to have this kind of discussion," said James Maskell, an attendee who watched the Snowden talk. "I agree it's up to the people to come up with the new tools" to protect ourselves.