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Paddy Cosgrave gives Web Summit a week to forget

Danger of controversy spiralling out of control if more big names pull out of conference

Web Summit boss Paddy Cosgrave has always struggled to reconcile the two elements of his public persona.

This was the week in which the contradiction between his crusading, even barracking style of commentary on the one hand, and his role as glad-hander-in-chief to the global tech ascendancy seemed to explode in his face.

Next month’s Web Summit in Lisbon, Cosgrave’s event company’s flagship outing, has been thrown into chaos after a number of high-profile attendees pulled out.

The match that lit the touchpaper in this case was a series of tweets sent by the “extremely online” conference co-founder and chief executive about Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.


Cosgrave said: “War crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies, and should be called out for what they are.” He added that he was “shocked at the rhetoric and actions of so many western leaders and governments, with the exception in particular of Ireland’s Government, who for once are doing the right thing”. In a subsequent post, he added the actions of Hamas were “outrageous and disgusting”.

Very quickly, the businessman found himself in the eye of a social media storm. First it was Dor Shapira, the Israeli ambassador to Portugal, who said Israel would boycott the event.

Then – perhaps more importantly, given Web Summit’s remit – Intel and Siemens followed suit, the latter indicating that “following recent developments”, it had decided not to attend the conference this year.

Intel, meanwhile, confirmed the company “has withdrawn from this year’s Web Summit”, as did actor Gillian Anderson. Several venture capitalists, including Sequoia Capital’s Ravi Gupta and Y Combinator’s Garry Tan, have also walked away from this year’s conference. On Friday, Google departed the stage, as did Meta and Stripe.

An apology from Cosgrave followed but seems to have done nothing to quell the disquiet. As The Irish Times reported, his statement included a defence of Web Summit’s decision to stage an event in Qatar next February.

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This followed criticism by Josh Kopelman, an American venture capitalist, who, perhaps unfairly, linked Cosgrave’s comments to his business dealings with the Gulf state.

Reasonable people can and will disagree about the content of Cosgrave’s tweets. But even ignoring the fact that Israel has deep ties to the tech world, it was – in the febrile atmosphere that has descended upon the corporate world like a fog since the Hamas attack and Israel’s retaliation – foolhardy of the conference organiser to have commented on such a topic without weighing the consequences.

As Clara Hudson reported for Bloomberg last week, while a handful of companies like Amazon and Eli Lilly were quick to release statements, “the corporate response to the conflict [ ...] has been relatively muted so far when compared to other crises like the war between Russia and Ukraine” for fear of offending staff and partners. Either Cosgrave did not get the memo or chose to ignore it.

There is also a certain irony in the fact that it was a series of tweets that included actual, albeit qualified, praise of the Irish Government that have turned out to be Cosgrave’s most personally damaging, given his previous interactions with Irish ministers and officials.

That aside, the reality now is that next month’s conference in Lisbon could be seriously damaged. Web Summit is, after all, a marketing and networking event where tech goes to talk about itself and all the wonderful things it is doing for humanity. It boasts a celebrity element too.

This year’s line-up includes the likes of former footballers Patrice Evra and Cesc Fabregas, while actor Amy Poehler had been due to appear but no longer featured on the conference website on Friday evening. If the reaction to Cosgrave’s latest outburst gains any more momentum and other big players begin to withdraw, Web Summit’s flagship event could find itself in real difficulty.

It is hard not to feel sorry for the army of people Cosgrave employs behind the scenes to actually get and keep the show on the road. Web Summit has navigated difficult waters before but this storm may be harder to weather.