Orbits View | Tech’s Act of Contrition

António Costa, Prime Minister, Government of Portugal on centre stage during the Web Summit Opening Ceremony at Altice Arena in Lisbon. Photo by Seb Daly/Web Summit via Sportsfile

At Web Summit 2018 in Lisbon, making amends is front and centre on the agenda

The last few years have seen a shift in public opinion towards Big Tech. From the Cambridge Analytica debacle to a myriad of data breaches, the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU and just last week, a landmark “digital services tax” introduced in Philip Hammond’s 2018 Budget signifies a tacit acknowledgment that even in lands where the invisible hand is king, the tech giants are not seen to have been paying their share.

Things were broken, elections were swung and in the court of public opinion, tech has been handed a stiff sentence. To paraphrase a recent pop hit, is it too late now to say sorry? Time is ticking.

In his opening keynote at the Web Summit on Wednesday night, which has grown from a small Dublin gathering in 2009 to the 70-thousand-strong behemoth unfolding this week in the Portuguese capital, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the self-styled Father of the Web outlined his new For The Web initiative. This movement, under the aegis of the World Wide Web Foundation, is a social contract for a better internet experience for all of humanity, a bold goal but one that is sorely needed in the light of recent happenings in the tech industry.

From the representatives of the ‘FAANG club’ in attendance, there were several contrite show-and-tell moments of corporate social responsibility. Google VP of Product Tamar Yehoshua gave a balanced talk entitled Earning User Trust, explaining the upsides (and frank necessities) of using user data to improve products and Apple’s Lisa Jackson emphasised her employers sustainability efforts, in particular the fact that the new Macbook Air is made from 100% recycled aluminium and the company has established plants to recycle core components in the Netherlands and the USA. Representatives from the recently deemed “anti-social” network Facebook were noticeable in their absence, as were official trade delegations from the organiser’s home turf of Ireland, no doubt still smarting from the festival’s change of location from the banks of the Liffey to the shores of the Rio Tejo.

Instead, the floor was given to impassioned mavericks such as Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who delivered a rousing treatise during the First Day explaining how and why he went against his former employer, although any rousing message is muted slightly by the oft-stilted fireside chat format and EU Completion Commissioner Margarete Vestager, a Web Summit repeat attraction who reminded attendees that fairness must reign supreme, even in the winner-takes-all world of tech.

Looking to the future

This year the Web Summit announced its commitment to Portugal with a ten year guarantee to stay in the city. All is not completely rosy on the ground however, there are some cracks in the azulejo-tiled facade, a police protest against wage stagnation on the opening night here, a narrowly averted Metro strike on the opening day there. Lisbon is no longer the best kept secret of digital nomads and other location-optional hipsterati and the rising tide of affluence brought on by the burgeoning tech scene and the dreaded “Airbnb effect” mean rents are rising at some of the fastest rates in Europe.

There is no doubt that the Summit is a massive boon to the Portuguese capital and the country at large, with talks on the expansion of the FIL venue itself to accommodate a growing visitor base, although clearly one week of heaving bars, hotels and bakeries does not an economic miracle make. However boasting 90-euro a month co-working spaces, great food, and excellent infrastructure and (generally excellent) weather, there’s a lot to be found here on the forward-looking far West of Europe, as long as everyone gets a fair share.

Wide Orbits editorial team