Web Summit’s tone changes as tech industry comes under scrutiny

There was a sense of realisation that perhaps the good guys aren’t really good guys after all

There was a definite sense of unease about the role of technology in society among speakers and attendees at this year’s conference. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

There was a definite sense of unease about the role of technology in society among speakers and attendees at this year’s conference. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

There were dark clouds over Lisbon earlier this week with many of those arriving for the start of Web Summit a little taken aback by the lack of sunshine.

It was a similar scenario inside the FIL and Altice Arena, the home of the technology-focused conference for the past three years since its move from Dublin.

Tech conferences by their nature tend to be “happy, clappy” affairs where everyone slaps each other on the back simply because everything is awesome. There was some of that at play this time out too, but also noticeable was a sense of realisation that perhaps the good guys aren’t really good guys after all.

It remains to be seen whether a backlash against tech giants has really hurt the likes of Facebook and Google, but it certainly seems to be making others take stock of what they are doing.

There was a definite sense of unease about the role of technology in society among speakers and attendees at this year’s conference. There was some sense of this last year, but it seems to have greatly increased in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and as “tech bros” come under increased scrutiny over their conduct with women.

The address by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, on the opening night gave a sense of what was to follow over the coming days.

Debate

“The web has changed everything,” the great man said, before quickly outlining how everyone assumed at the outset it could only be a force for good. We are now increasingly aware of how it can be the opposite, he said, before outlining plans to try to offset the bad with a new campaign.

Whether Berners-Lee’s “Contract for the Web” can turns things around or not is up for debate. But it was one of a number of initiatives unveiled at this year’s conference aimed at righting the wrongs.

Vera Jourová, the European commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, announced plans are afoot to fine political parties as much as 5 per cent of their annual budgets if they flout data protection rules in the run-up to next year’s elections.

Ms Jourová said the Cambridge Analytica scandal had been a “wake-up call” to politicians and citizens as it had “sent shockwaves through our democratic systems”.

That may have been the case, but according to Christopher Wylie, the man who blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica, it hasn’t led to any concrete change yet.

In a passionate speech on the main stage on Tuesday, Mr Wylie outlined how shocked he was at seeing how little knowledge regulators had about technology.

“My journey as a whistleblower has also been a journey in experiencing institutional failure,” he said in an onstage interview that proved to be one of the highlights of Web Summit.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie speaks on the centre stage of Web Summit where he outlined how shocked he was at seeing how little knowledge regulators had about technology. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie speaks on the centre stage of Web Summit where he outlined how shocked he was at seeing how little knowledge regulators had about technology. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“If we can regulate nuclear power, why can’t we regulate some f***ing code?” he asked to which the audience responded with cheers.

Mr Wylie held nothing back while on stage, criticising governments and law enforcement agencies for their lack of technical knowhow, while also tearing apart Facebook et al for their behaviour.

He also criticised the public for joining in on what he portrayed as being the worship of false idols.

“We lionise tech founders and consider them as almost divine with all their shiny technology without stepping back to ask ourselves about how we are letting them colonise our society,” he said.

Powerful

“We are creating an environment in which we will lose agency because of what we are devolving to these companies,” he added, before going on to describe Facebook as this generation’s East India Company, exploiting people around the world.

It was powerful stuff and about as controversial as this year’s event got. In fact, the greatest controversy regarding this year’s Web Summit arguably happened months ago when it invited Marine le Pen to speak at the event before co-founder and chief executive Paddy Cosgrave hastily withdrew the invitation after a backlash.

Talking of Mr Cosgrave, there was plenty of chatter among Irish attendees about his weekend tweets regarding the absence of an official delegation from Ireland in Lisbon. For most of those commenting about it, the verdict was that both Enterprise Ireland and the IDA should have been here in numbers.

There were dissenters of course, with some questioning why he would seek to stir up trouble with the Government again long after Web Summit has left the country, but to others “that’s just Paddy”.

Attendees turn on the light on their phones and raise them after being prompted to do so by Paddy Cosgrave, co-founder of the Web Summit. Photograph: Armando Franca/AP
Attendees turn on the light on their phones and raise them after being prompted to do so by Paddy Cosgrave, co-founder of the Web Summit. Photograph: Armando Franca/AP

Mr Cosgrave arguably divides opinion like no other Irish man can outside of U2 frontman Bono. But it’s hard not to be impressed at what he’s achieved when sitting in the main Altice Arena on opening night.

However, while there was plenty of excitement at the start of this year’s Web Summit, there was definitely a sense that it won’t necessarily go down as one of the best of them. Part of this was due to a lack of “must-see” speakers but also because many of those on stage have been here before.

In fact, a fair few of them including European commissioner for competition Margrethe Vestager, UN secretary-general António Guterres, Tinder co-founder Sean Rad and Slack chief executive Stewart Butterfield, were all here last time round.

What it lacked in big names the event gained in terms of variety. There was a little something for everyone with 23 conferences taking place across nine main stages. Not surprisingly, blockchain and artificial intelligence were among the key topics up for discussion along with fintech and the role of women in tech.

For the estimated 1,000 Irish attendees in Lisbon, it was generally a big thumbs-up for this year’s event.

Slightly bewildering

“My first Web Summit is quite a trip,” said Máirín Murray, co-founder of Tech for Good Dublin and owner of Digital Doodle. “I’m over with a gang of amazing women in tech from Ireland who want to be part of the conversation on how technology can shape our world for the better and we want to help make this happen.

“Web Summit for a first-timer is fun, sweaty, exciting and slightly bewildering,” she added.

Dennis Ivanov, founder of Dublin-based start-up Kudizmo, said he was in Lisbon to “network, learn and get exposure for his company”.

“I’m keen to learn from the conversations that will be happening around the big challenges affecting the tech industry today,” he told The Irish Times.

Also at Web Summit was Denis Canty, global head of technology labs at McKesson, the healthcare distributor giant, which has a facility in Cork.

“What’s really noticeable this year compared to last is the spread of industries here that are looking at emerging technologies and are more focused. The investor profile has also changed significantly and while I still see a lot of VCs, there are also plenty of companies representing M&A departments,” he said.

“Another trend I’m seeing is the merging of technologies so there are definitely more start-ups present who are combining say AI/machine learning with blockchain and then applying that to new verticals,” Mr Canty added.

Mr Canty, a long-time Web Summit attendee, also said he felt there were considerably fewer Irish start-ups at the event than in previous years.

“It has been hard to find Irish start-ups here despite seeking them out. There is some representation here but I’d like to see that increase,” he added.

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