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As Cosgrave falls on his sword, where does Web Summit go from here?

Paddy Cosgrave resigned as the events company spiralled amid Israel controversy. Can it survive?

This year’s Web Summit may still be a little over two weeks away, yet already it is shaping up to be a very different event from any other.

The Lisbon event will be the first without cofounder Paddy Cosgrave at the helm since the first Dublin event in 2009, when 400 people crowded into a room to hear bloggers and journalists discuss the impact of the internet on the media and politics. It now hosts more than 70,000 attendees, spotlights big-name tech firms, and has spawned a series of spin-off events, all in pursuit of one question: where to next?

The chief executive’s resignation from the company he helped grow to a global events behemoth came after days of controversy that saw Web Summit lose several big-name sponsors and high-profile speakers.

The real trouble started with a post on X (formerly Twitter) on October 13th, criticising the Israeli action in Gaza in the wake of the Hamas attacks, although Cosgrave had liked and shared a few posts on the conflict that subsequently garnered negative attention.


“I’m shocked at the rhetoric and actions of so many Western leaders & governments, with the exception in particular of Ireland’s government, who for once are doing the right thing,” the post read. “War crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies, and should be called out for what they are.”

Israeli ambassador to Portugal Dor Shapira said Israel would no longer take part in the conference due to Cosgrave’s “outrageous statements”. Several Israeli investors and tech companies said they would also cancel their participation

The post caused widespread outrage among Israelis and Israel-linked entities. Cosgrave subsequently posted on October 15th denouncing Hamas’ actions as “outrageous and disgusting”, and “an act of monstrous evil” but the damage was done, and the exodus from Web Summit Lisbon had begun. The hashtag #BoycottWebSummit appeared online.

Israeli ambassador to Portugal Dor Shapira said Israel would no longer take part in the conference due to Cosgrave’s “outrageous statements”. Several Israeli investors and tech companies said they would also cancel their participation, taking to social media to explain why.

On X, Shapira said he had written to the mayor of Lisbon to inform him of the decision.

“Even during these difficult times, he is unable to set aside his extreme political views and denounce the Hamas terrorist activities against innocent people,” the post said. “We should have zero tolerance to [sic] terrorist and terror acts.”

The situation gradually worsened, with more and more attendees and speakers pledging to avoid the event.

Taboola chief executive Adam Singola, a previous attendee, said he would never again work with Cosgrave.

“I’ll never be part of your future initiatives and we’ll never work together again. And the truth is that I don’t matter as I’m only one Israeli guy, living in America, out of thousands who go to WebSummit,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “But – I’ll feel better about myself and that matters too.”

Garry Tan of Y Combinator, a tech startup accelerator that has been used to launch thousands of companies, also refused to appear, along with a number of prominent US investors.

Cosgrave’s follow-up apology on X struck a different note. “We are devastated to see the terrible killings and the level of innocent civilian casualties in Israel and Gaza. We condemn the attacks by Hamas and extend our deepest sympathies to everyone who has lost loved ones. We hope for peaceful reconciliation.”

It was followed up a matter of hours later by Cosgrave doubling down on his previous sentiments, saying “To repeat: War crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies and should be called out for what they are. I will not relent.”

The following day Web Summit posted a lengthy, carefully crafted apology attributed to Cosgrave on the company’s blog, noting that he “unequivocally” supported Israel’s right to defend itself.

“I understand that what I said, the timing of what I said, and the way it has been presented has caused profound hurt to many. To anyone who was hurt by my words, I apologise deeply,” the blog post said. “What is needed at this time is compassion, and I did not convey that. Web Summit has a long history of partnership with Israel and its tech firms, and I am deeply regretful that those friends were hurt by any of what I said. My aim is and always has been to strive for peace.”

Few people could have predicted quite how things would end up. If you are familiar with Cosgrave, you would know that he is not one for holding back his views, and frequently wades into controversy. He has taken aim at the Irish Government on many occasions in the past, lambasting “cronies” in politics and media.

Web Summit itself has often been at the heart of that controversy. Last year, the event cancelled a planned appearance by Grayzone editor in chief Max Blumenthal and Canadian journalist Aaron Maté after backlash on social media to the men’s appearance. Both had been accused of publishing anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian tropes related to the war, including suggestions of “false flag” operations.

The decision was poorly received by the pair. “They’ve now cancelled us and make clear below that they bowed to pressure from those who oppose our journalism on the Ukraine proxy war,” Maté tweeted. “Our detractors can’t refute us, so they silence us.”

Instead, Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska spoke on stage at the Lisbon event, urging the tech community to get behind Ukraine.

In 2021, Cosgrave raised the controversy over Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and accusations of corruption for his leaking of a confidential GP contract. He invited Village editor Michael Smith on stage at the Altice Arena to discuss the controversy.

Unfortunately, there’s a long history over the last decade that I tend to lean into controversies around any event that we’re holding anywhere in the world, especially four weeks out, because the volume of tickets that are booked locally is highest in the final weeks

—  Paddy Cosgrave

Three years earlier it was the invitation of far-right French politician Marine Le Pen to the event that caused a stir. That invite was also rescinded. Prior to that, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage was a speaker in 2017.

The event itself left Dublin under a cloud of controversy after the 2015 event, with Cosgrave critical of the facilities – from the wifi to the hotel rooms – for the more temperate climes of Lisbon. The company itself remains based in Dublin.

It is not an unthinking strategy. Cosgrave has in the past admitted to courting controversy in the run-up to his company’s events.

“Unfortunately, there’s a long history over the last decade that I tend to lean into controversies around any event that we’re holding anywhere in the world, especially four weeks out, because the volume of tickets that are booked locally is highest in the final weeks,” he said in an interview with Canadian site Betakit earlier this year.

Yet last week was different. On a global stage with current events raw and polarising, the backlash was swift. And rather than petering out in the following days, it gathered pace. Celebrity speakers began to drop out, with actress Gillian Anderson and her soft drinks company G Spot cancelling a planned speaker slot because the “brands’ values do not align”. Comedian Amy Poehler also backed out.

More damaging was the loss of sponsors and investors. After Intel and Siemens withdrew on Thursday, there was a pause as tech companies took stock of the situation. But it was inevitable that more would follow. Behind the scenes, insiders say, pressure was piling on other tech companies to back out.

Google was next to go. The tech giant has not publicly said if it would reconsider following Cosgrave’s exit.

Payments company Stripe was also out, the Irish connection hitting home for many watching events unfold.

After that, the dominoes continued to fall. Facebook owner Meta, due to take part as a speaker rather than a sponsor, pulled out last Friday. It was followed later that night by Amazon Web Services, another sponsor of the event.

IBM quietly withdrew, with its name removed from the Web Summit list of sponsors some time after Friday afternoon.

The loss of the big-name firms was a body blow to a conference that built its name on providing the opportunity to rub shoulders – and possibly chequebooks – with tech and investor giants.

It was clear at this point that Cosgrave’s position was becoming untenable and the apology had not had the desired effect.

Even so, reports emerged last Saturday that staff were being told he would remain at the helm and that Web Summit would go ahead as planned.

So the resignation, when it finally came, was almost a surprise. By Saturday afternoon, Cosgrave was no longer chief executive of Web Summit.

“I am resigning as CEO of Web Summit with immediate effect,” Cosgrave said. “Unfortunately, my personal comments have become a distraction from the event, and our team, our sponsors, our startups and the people who attend. I sincerely apologise again for any hurt I have caused.”

Few people thought that Cosgrave would hand over the running of the company that he cofounded and grew to a global events business to another. And not only has he stepped down as chief executive but also resigned his board seat, according to a spokeswoman for Web Summit.

There has been a furious debate in the days since about free speech and the impact of big tech on our freedoms. But with 300 jobs hanging in the balance, and sponsors scattering, it was unlikely to end any other way.

It has had the desired effect, it seems, in stemming at least some of the cancellations. Car company Volkswagen has also withdrawn from Web Summit, but there are some big names remaining on board. Irish company Intercom, for example, and German software company SAP are still listed as supporters.

The European Commission is set to attend this year’s event, and it was announced that the Ukrainian delegation has decided to attend Web Summit in Lisbon following the resignation of Mr Cosgrave. The event will proceed, Web Summit spokespeople have said, with a full programme.

The company has also reassured staff that they have enough cash in the bank to keep going for two years. An internal message sent to employees on Saturday said there was no risk to jobs or Web Summit’s long-term security. The company that made it through the pandemic was determined to survive.

“Once again, we are facing a challenge, it is within our collective capabilities to stay true to what we do best and deliver world-class global events and experiences,” it said.

“The entire leadership team is focused on how they can support you through this and beyond continuing this company’s extraordinary growth and delivering world-class events.”

But the question now is who will take over the running of the company. When contacted by The Irish Times, a spokeswoman for the company declined to name anyone specific, saying only that the company had an experienced executive team and an independent board who would oversee the running of the company until a new permanent replacement was appointed.

Decoupling Web Summit the event from its former chief executive’s online presence may be a more difficult task. Cosgrave retains his majority shareholding in the company, owning 81 per cent of the business

Head of events Craig Becker is understood to be running the Lisbon show in Cosgrave’s absence, but exactly who will replace Cosgrave as chief executive is another question.

With Web Summit cofounders David Kelly and Daire Hickey locked in legal battles in the commercial court, it is unlikely that either would return to lead the business. A number of names have been suggested, including Becker and chief operating officer Nida Shah. Although the general feeling is that the eventual candidate will be internal, nothing is certain.

Decoupling Web Summit the event from its former chief executive’s online presence may be a more difficult task.

Cosgrave retains his majority shareholding in the company, owning 81 per cent of the business. That may prove to be a barrier to persuading companies to return next year, particularly if it is seen as him directing events from behind the scenes.

Insiders and industry watchers have speculated that a sale may be the only option for Cosgrave if the boycott continues beyond the Lisbon event. Web Summit runs Collision in Toronto and Web Summit Rio in Brazil, alongside an upcoming event in Qatar. The Qatar event has caused raised eyebrows in recent months, coming as it did at a time when Cosgrave was taking aim at political corruption.

Web Summit is understood to have been approached in the past with a view to buying the events company, but all offers have been rebuffed. Whether that will continue to be the case is a matter that will be resolved in the coming months.

There is also the matter of commercial court cases looming and the impact current events might have on the outcome of the legal actions taken by his former partners and cofounders.

Cosgrave, for now, has remained uncharacteristically quiet since announcing last week that he would be taking a break from X. In the vacuum, accusations of schadenfreude have been levelled at those who have found themselves in the volatile founder’s firing line in the past.

But at the heart of it is an Irish founded and grown company with 300 staff – the majority located in Ireland – that has been thrown into turmoil.

Web Summit has made its brand on asking big tech about the uncertain future. But this time it is the one facing uncertainty and asking: where to next?