Tech’s n°1 critics are now its biggest stars

Tech is now bigger than ever. Despite – or thanks to? – the pandemic, the sector gathered over 42,000 people in Lisbon this week, for Web Summit, Europe’s largest tech event. Yes, it was as brimming with Silicon Valley bravado as you’d expect. Yet this year, there was a major difference: the biggest crowds were drawn by those most critical of the current state of affairs.

Whilst Frances Haugen, the whistleblower behind the Facebook Papers (above), packed the 20,000-capacity Altice Arena (below), Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web and vehement GAFAM critic, filled around two thirds of the same massive venue, which is usually reserved for mega-tours by the likes of Coldplay.

Haugen used her first live public speaking opportunity to highlight one of the key aspects of her much-publicised Facebook revelations: the 90% of its users who live outside the western world are the worst-served in terms of content moderation. This means ill-intentioned leaders can easily stir up hate – as was most notoriously the case in Myanmar – and Facebook can’t stop it, as it only has a handful of local experts on its staff.

That, plus Facebook’s controversy-loving algorithm – and the fact that for many countries, Facebook IS the internet – equals a recipe for disaster, said Haugen: “Facebook’s current way of prioritising content in the newsfeed has a way of prioritising polarising content. In the US, that can ruin a dinner. In the most fragile places in the world – like Ethiopia, which has nearly a hundred different dialects – that can cause irreparable damage.”

Whence the Facebook Papers, the latest episode of an intricately-orchestrated campaign (Haugen said it’s improvised: we have trouble believing this) which has spread Haugen’s leaked internal documents with press outlets worldwide. “I wanted to make sure that non-English-speaking media had access to this too”, she said, so that they also know “how Facebook products were causing mental health problems in teenagers, and all the laundry list” (of other problems it’s been hiding or ignoring over the years).

So what are the solutions? “My point is solutions exist to make the platform safer and slower”, said Haugen. “It’s not a case of whether bad people say things. It’s a case of who gets the largest megaphone.”

Reviewing – or stopping – Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, to go back to chronological post displays, is an increasingly-shared solution at the moment. But what about going further: should Mark Zuckerberg step down?

“I hope he can see there’s so much good he can do in the world…” with a new, safety-focused CEO, she answered. Or, in other words, she said Zuckerberg should step down. But didn’t go as far as to call for the company to be dismantled. “I have faith that Facebook can change,” she added. “It doesn’t make him a bad person to make mistakes. But it does to continue making those same mistakes again and again.”

20,000 tech people heartily applauding a call for one of the sector’s biggest leaders to step down – when just a few years ago, theyd’ve welcomed Zuckerberg as warmly as Haugen to the same stage – was a fitting reminder of the momentousness of this instant.

As was the web’s inventor essentially saying that GAFAM had broken his dream of an open internet… and that he knew how to fix it. “Our data is stuck in silos,” said Tim Berners-Lee (below), “that we can’t control. It only benefits those who hold all the data. Everyone else misses out.”

His solution, called the Solid protocol, “stores data in your own personal pod, like a USB key in the sky. You can grant, or remove, access to that pod at any time.”

Sounds like a pipe dream? Not necessarily. John Bruce, CEO of Berners-Lee’s Inrupt, said Solid is already being rolled out in Belgium’s Flanders region, where “every citizen is going to get a pod. Then, we can build a network” covering both public and private organisations, said Bruce.

Seems like a lovely plan. We just can’t help thinking it’ll run straight into the considerable barriers that GAFAM tend to place in front of anything not fitting with their agenda.

Meanwhile, Berners-Lee’s key message – that consumers should decide which personal data they grant access to, not Google or Facebook – was shared by fellow tech rockstars Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie, amongst others speaking at Web Summit.

Whilst the two Cambridge Analytica whistleblowers have taken widely constrasting paths since they started chipping away at Facebook’s credibility – he at H&M, she as a militant for data protection – Kaiser told me that progress in terms of asserting individuals’ data ownership was currently positive, stalled only by legislators’ ongoing difficulties in understanding the tech sector, which means the latter will always be one step ahead.

Which is precisely why we need whistleblowers today: to explain big tech’s abuses to national governments. That’s just what Haugen did right after Web Summit: a European tour, where she met with political leaders in the UK, Germany and more.

And we’re just getting started. As Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave was very keen to point out, his event has been a key platform for Whistleblower Aid, the organisation behind the revelations of Haugen and many more before her (including around Jeffrey Epstein and Leo Varadkar) in recent years. And given the increasingly large crowds tech whistleblowers draw, Cosgrave is bound to keep putting them on such massive stages in years to come. Indeed, there are even enough high-profile tech whistleblowers around today to start a conference just with them…

That, plus the event’s continued focus on sustainable tech*, and its proudly announcing it had more female than male attendees this year, for the first time ever (50.5%!), are as many reasons to assert that Web Summit 2021 was the tipping point moment for responsible tech to go mainstream.

As is the case for sustainability, it would seem that tech companies who can’t prove they have a safe and responsible approach to business — i.e. that they’re genuinely working for social as well as financial benefit — will end up dead in the water, unable to attract clients or talent.

*Of course, it’s not all roses. Crypto and NFTs, some of the most environmentally-unfriendly tech out there right now, were the other talk of this Web Summit. The founder of football NFT company Sorare was onstage just before Haugen, having raised $680m last month for his digital equivalent of Panini stickers (reminder: selling one piece of crypto art can use as much energy as the studio it was made in consumes in two years). We didn’t clap.

At BetterTech, however, we remain eternal optimists. Things can only get… better! 😇🙏🏻

*full disclosure: I was there with my current employer, Scaleway, notably to talk about sustainable tech 😬

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