Regulation and Gender Equality Dominate Talks at This Year’s Web Summit in Lisbon

Techies, policymakers and high-profile executives convened in Lisbon last week to highlight innovation and ongoing trends in the tech industry. Notably, greater regulatory oversight and gender inequality were prominent topics addressed by this year’s panellists.

From November 5th through 9th, representatives from the world’s largest companies, entrepreneurs, and policymakers, gathered in Lisbon to discuss a myriad of topics impacting the tech industry. This year’s Web Summit saw record participation rates, with around 70,000 attendees, including 1,800 start-ups, 1,500 investors and 2,600 media outlets. The conference took place at a time when increased pressure has been placed on tech firms to improve data protection and tackle gender discrimination.

The Web Summit got its start in Dublin, Ireland, with the goal of convening experts to address the future of technological innovation. However, the event moved to Lisbon in 2016, and since then has seen impressive growth. Known as the Davos for techies, the Web Summit showcases panel discussion, innovative start-ups, and new technology features from some of the world’s leading companies.

The event’s success has raised Lisbon’s profile as a burgeoning tech hub while also generating around 300 million euros for local businesses. For that reason, the Portuguese government aggressively campaigned to keep it in Lisbon. After a tender process that included offers from 20 other European cities, it was announced last month that the Web Summit would remain in Lisbon, for at least another 10 years. As part of the deal, the conference will be expanded to eventually accommodate 100,000 visitors.

The Web Summit is an international event, attracting participants from more than 150 countries. However, its location means that Portuguese tech firms are given a unique platform to promote their innovative business ideas. While visiting start-up stands at the event, Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, stated that the “Web Summit is not only an event to bring foreigners to Portugal, but also an excellent opportunity to incentivise the Portuguese to undertake business and encourage all those who are graduating from our universities to develop their own businesses.”

This year’s conference came on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the enactment of new privacy laws in Europe, known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This made regulation a key topic of discussion at the Web Summit.  Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer, a panelist at the event said, “I definitely think the era of technology companies thinking it was good to move fast and break things is over,” suggesting the industry is starting to take a more cautious approach in the way it innovates and expands.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of Internet, calls for a “Contract for the Web” during the opening of Lisbon’s 2018 Web Summit. Copyright: (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Vera Jourova, EU Commissioner for Justice, echoed this sentiment. In an interview with CNN Business at the summit, she argued that tech firms will have to get used to a more robust regulatory environment. “I think they started to understand the law must be applied online, and that they don’t operate in (a) vacuum.”

During the Web Summit’s opening talk, Tim Berners – Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, lobbied for what he refers to as a Magna Carta for the internet. Specifically, he wants governments to do more to improve internet access and data protection. Furthermore, he’s called on tech firms to make the internet more affordable, protect users’ privacy, and develop technologies that transform the web into “a public good that puts people first”.

The issue of gender discrimination was also front and centre at the Web Summit. Notably, nearly half of this year’s participants were women. Many used the event as a platform to address issues of gender inequality in the tech industry.

The event was held in the wake of a walkout by Google employees over the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.  Speaking at the summit, Jacquelline Fuller, the president of Google’s charitable arm, emphasised that Google must do a “better job at creating a safe and inclusive workplace.”

If comments at the Web Summit are anything to go by, it does seem like tech firms are slowly starting to accept the need for change. Numerous firms highlighted initiatives they had recently introduced to improve gender equality. This included bias training for staff members, removing gender from resumes, and providing more generous family leave.

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Katrina Pirner

Katrina is a Berlin-based freelance writer who focuses on economics, disruptive technology and politics. She’s previously worked in Canada, Italy, Belgium, and the US. Katrina holds a MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University where she concentrated in European political economy.

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