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Activists pressure Colbert to skip RSA Conference

Stephen Colbert is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at RSA’s upcoming annual conference.

JOHN SHEARER/INVISION/AP/File 2013

Stephen Colbert is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at RSA’s upcoming annual conference.

The same Massachusetts digital rights group that led a successful Internet uprising against antipiracy legislation in 2012 is taking aim at RSA, the Bedford cybersecurity giant accused of conspiring with the National Security Agency on its data-snooping program.

The organization, Fight for the Future, has started an online petition to pressure comedian Stephen Colbert to cancel his planned keynote address at RSA’s upcoming annual conference, one of the biggest in the cybersecurity industry, and join a growing boycott by influential technologists who are upset with the company’s possible role in aiding widespread NSA spying activities.

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The backlash against RSA, a subsidiary of Hopkinton’s EMC Corp., has continued to mount since a Dec. 20 Reuters article reported the company received $10 million from the NSA. According to the article, RSA was paid to make a preferred NSA formula the default option in a key security product, which would allow the spy agency an easier way to get around computer security safeguards.

RSA has denied that it intentionally provided the NSA with a backdoor around its security software. But RSA’s response has not mollified several prominent security professionals who canceled scheduled speaking engagements at the conference. So far, at least eight speakers have dropped out.

Fight for the Future wants Colbert, star of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” and perhaps the best-known speaker at the high-profile industry event, to join the boycott.

“What we are hoping is that he’ll understand that a line has been drawn here, and he should cancel his appearance,” said Holmes Wilson, cofounder of Fight for the Future. “He can do much more good by lending his voice to the boycott.”

Colbert representatives could not be reached for comment.

‘He can do much more good by lending his voice to the boycott.’

HOLMES WILSON, Fight for the Future 
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Fight for the Future gained prominence in 2012 when it helped lead a widespread Internet protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, a bill that would have given the government broad oversight of the Internet. The debate pitted Internet companies such as Google Inc. against entertainment companies that supported the bill as a way to fight the piracy of music and movies.

Over the past two years, Fight for the Future has achieved an influential position among Internet activists and plans next week to begin promoting its online petition targeting Colbert.

While the RSA Conference is owned and managed by RSA, it is organized by an independent program committee, said Hugh Thompson, program chair for the RSA Conference and an executive at Blue Coat Systems Inc., a California security company.

“It’s always been an open forum for people to come and talk about security,” Thompson said.

He expects the RSA controversy to be widely discussed at the event. “No matter what’s on the printed agenda, this is definitely going to be a topic that’s talked about at the conference, and it should be,” he said.

Some 560 speakers are scheduled to take part in the conference that begins Feb. 24 in San Francisco. RSA’s executive chairman, Arthur Coviello, is scheduled to give the opening address.

Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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