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

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

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS NEWS - Char­lie Tay­lor in­Lis­bon

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.

“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.

‘Wake-up call’

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. “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.

“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”.

Hard not to be im­pressed

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. “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.”

Den­nis Ivanov, founder of Dublin-based startup 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.

‘Spread of in­dus­tries’

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 star­tups 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 star­tups at the event than in pre­vi­ous years.

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

‘‘ 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 – Christo­pher Wylie, the man who blew the whis­tle on Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: AR­MANDO FRANCA/AP PHOTO; PE­DRO NUNES/ REURTERS

Main: At­ten­dees turn on the light on their phones and raise them after be­ing prompted to do so by Web Sum­mit co-founder Paddy Cos­grave. Above: World Wide Web In­ven­tor Tim Bern­ers-Lee speaks dur­ing the open­ing day.

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