Big tech business model based on ‘abuse’, says Edward Snowden

Whistleblower says GDPR rules a ‘paper tiger’ unless fines are consistently levied

Edward Snowden gives a speech via video conference during the opening ceremony of the 2019 Web Summit in Lisbon. Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/EPA

Edward Snowden gives a speech via video conference during the opening ceremony of the 2019 Web Summit in Lisbon. Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/EPA


Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence official who in 2013 blew the whistle on mass state surveillance through consumer technology platforms, has told the opening night of the Web Summit in Lisbon that the data-hungry business model of so-called big tech web firms was based on “abuse”.

Mr Snowden, the first big speaker at this year’s event, addressed close to 20,000 attendees inside Lisbon’s Altice Arena via video live link from Russia, where he lives in exile from US authorities.

A further 10,000 people waited outside, unable to get seats in the arena for Mr Snowden’s talk. More than 70,000 attendees overall have registered for the four-day Web Summit event.

The whistleblower was introduced onstage by Web Summit’s co-founder and majority shareholder, Irish businessman Paddy Cosgrave.

Mr Snowden, a former contractor for the CIA and NSA until he leaked details of the citizen spying programme to journalists, said he was a “square” who had faithfully taken an oath to defend his country’s citizens against enemies, “foreign and domestic”.

“I wasn’t that exciting as a person. I’d never even smoked a joint. But I believed in the importance of rules,” he said. “Then I found a gigantic conspiracy to violate the oath I had taken.”

‘Abusive’ model

Six years on from his original revelations, Mr Snowden said there was now “anger rising” about the business models of tech companies such as social media platforms, which mine and sell the personal data of users. Name-checking Google, Amazon and Facebook, he said: “Their business model is abuse.”

“We have legalised the abuse of the person, and entrenched a system that makes populations vulnerable for the benefit of private companies.”

Mr Snowden said GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), a European Union system of rules on data privacy, was a “good first step” but he criticised the law’s focus.

“The problem is not data protection. It is data collection. GDPR assumes the data was all collected properly in the first place. It is as if it is okay to spy on everyone, as long as the data never leaks. When it does, it is not data being exploited. It is people.”

He said that until the huge fines possible under GDPR – up to 4 per cent of a company’s global turnover – were levied on big tech data violators “year after year”, then the law was just a “paper tiger”.

“It gives us false assurances,” he said.

Mini pitches

Earlier, ahead of the official opening of Web Summit, the crowd around the main stage was warmed up with mini-pitch presentations from a number of new start-ups, including Irish payroll technology company Boundless.

Other start-ups presenting included Banjo Robinson, a web subscription service that sends personalised letters to children from a fictional travelling cat, and OHNE, which is building an online community based around women’s menstrual products.

More than 2,000 start-ups are taking part in Web Summit this week. Other headline speakers due to grace the main stage over the four days include EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, former UK prime minister Tony Blair and Brazilian former footballer Ronaldo.

This week’s event is Web Summit’s fourth annual visit to Lisbon since Mr Cosgrave moved it from Dublin’s RDS in the wake of a row with the Government over State assistance.