As tech and politics collide, Web Summit emerges as a neutral ground for discussion

Whistleblower Edward Snowden was beamed into the Altice Arena in Lisbon

It’s been called 'Davos for geeks', 'the Olympus of tech' and 'Glastonbury for nerds', but the speakers, talks and off-stage conversations at Web Summit 2019 indicated the two parties of politics and tech are – somewhat begrudgingly – turning towards each other for perhaps the first time in modern history.

The headliner of Web Summit 2019 was so political he wasn’t able to attend. Extradited in Russia, whistleblower Edward Snowden was beamed into the Altice Arena in Lisbon where he urged the audience to challenge the status quo of corporate data collection and misuse.

Six years on from breaking his silence on NSA surveillance, Snowden declared society is now at a point of “primary vulnerability”.

“[Governments and corporations] are engaged in abuse, particularly when you look at a Google and Amazon, Facebook ... And yet every bit of it they argue is legal,” he said. “And whether we're talking about Facebook or the NSA, that is the problem ... we have legalized the abuse of the person through the personal.

"We have entrenched a system that makes the population vulnerable for the benefit of the privileged.”

The magnitude of Snowden’s opinions – macro in their retelling of the norms the tech world has come to live by – set the tone for a conference unafraid to reflect the reality of technology in 2019: governments are growing agitated about its power, but lack the language and location to engage in a constructive, two-way conversation.

Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, took to the stage on the first day of the week-long event to lay out the demands and hopes for an EU without Britain, and warn of the real risk of a “cliff-edge” should negotiations fail.

Then came former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who used the platform to drive the political-tech nexus forward.

Elsewhere, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser gave her frank opinions on Twitter’s political ad ban, which she believes is “heroic” but not “a permanent fix”, while others – such as Trump’s chief technology officer, Michael Kratsios – used their time on stage to shill the work of their own administrations.

Coupled with a dedicated ‘whistleblower’ track, such a speaker list was a stark contrast to those of Web Summit’s competition. Cannes Lions appeared to actively back away from the geopolitical discussion earlier this year when it physically manhandled Extinction Rebellion off the premises, while CES’s in-progress speaker list currently features a lot of tech-side policy experts but few policy makers.

'Tech has become more political'

The collective political power held by the conference’s speakers this year additionally overshadows the programming of its beginnings as a “scrappy” Irish meet-up on the outskirts of Dublin.

“Web Summit hasn't become more political – tech has become more political,” argued co-founder Paddy Cosgrave.

“Policies aren't suddenly formulated by a singular person at a table somewhere in the world: growing levels of discourse in lots of important forums slowly move countries or unions in a particular direction. Web Summit just happens to be one of these places where discussion happens.”

Cosgrave believes the relative youth of Web Summit has meant it is has been relatively painless to pivot its conversation away from pure technology and towards how that technology intersects with politics, in order to accurately reflect the contemporary issues of the sector.

Five years ago, he recalled, his team was proactively imploring political figures to attend – now, “things are very different”.

Yet this year, he’s conscious that while political big hitters are in attendance, it’s the presence of the platforms that’s now lacking somewhat.

The likes of Google and Facebook – the companies currently under the most scrutiny across the spectrum of lawmaking – were in attendance. But this time, it was on their own terms.

Google sent its global head of product policy and content moderation, its engineering director of privacy and identity and its sustainability officer. Facebook, on the other hand, focused on pitching its product offerings outside the core app by sending representatives from its Calibra, Workplace and Messenger subsidiaries.

This is in contrast to prior years at Web Summit, when “a full brigade of C-level” employees would show up.

“We’d have the chief technology officer of Facebook, the chief marketing officer of Facebook ... Sheryl [Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer] would send a video...” said Cosgrave.

“[This year] the big tech companies are still participating but on very focused topics. And that's fantastic ... but I think those companies have a lot more to say. They've said a lot more here in the past and I look forward to them saying lots more here again in the future.”

Change behind the curtain

But like every political performance, the behind the scenes goings-on at Web Summit are just as important as the on-stage calls to action.

A number of governments took up bilateral rooms around the main space for meetings, while the likes of Blair and Trump’s top advisor on China also hosted dinners once the day was over, according to Cosgrave.

It’s in these spaces, he believes, that the real connection between politics and technology is being made. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg being called forth in front of congress, or Kratsios blasting China's Huawei on stage, these pockets of off-the-record time during the four-day event are where the two parties can sit down and begin to understand the other’s grievances.

“No policy is getting decided – people are just breaking bread in a non-confrontational manner,” he said. “It's not a congressional hearing, it's not a parliamentary committee hearing, it's actually just humans meeting each other.

“It's weird to see rooms evolve just by having a meal. Initially, people are pointing figures and by the end of it they're just having chats.”

A 'second-to-none' opportunity

If anything, Web Summit can act as an accessible education to the policymakers who feel lost, confused and disassociated from the tech industry, according to the testimony of Margrethe Vestager.

The EU's high-flying competition commissioner addressed the tech world at two talks during the week. Renowned for taking on the Googles and Apples of the world (and upsetting Donald Trump in the process), the Danish politician told The Drum she saw Web Summit as an opportunity to observe the world she regulates in a more informal setting.

"When you're in a place like this you can meet all different types of people. Taking a walk through the exhibition halls gives you a sense of what's moving and it's very inspirational," she explained.

"On stage, you get a second-to-none opportunity to have a more open discussion about ideas and reflections, that are not necessarily to be hammered down in regulation."

On the final day of the conference, the EU Commission's president-elect Ursula von der Leyen made an impassioned address to delegates telling them that "technology is new, but our values are not".

"And if we want our fundamental values to travel with us and be reinterpreted when we embrace new technology, then we need these kinds of events to be able to talk about it," concluded Vestager.

Additional reporting by Rebecca Stewart.

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