The Web Summit, the digital high mass under the sign of disillusionment

by bold-lichterman

“Is technology going to kill democracy?”, “Building trust in the age of disinformation”, “A free and open Internet is no longer possible”: digital disillusion is emerging as a major theme of the Web Summit which opened Monday evening in Lisbon. The 2018 edition of the “Davos des geeks” should welcome around 70,000 participants, including 2,000 start-ups and 1,500 investors looking for partners. But this year, the headliners of the conferences that will follow one another until Thursday have been invited as a moral compass, for a digital world that has a hangover.

Tim Berners-Lee, one of the Internet pioneers, opened the ball to the ovations of thousands of participants at the opening night, by launching a new “contract for the Web” supposed to make the Internet safe and accessible to all. The British physicist, who in 1989 had imagined a “decentralized information management system” which became the birth certificate of the Web, notes that the Internet, despite all its positive aspects, has moved considerably away from the ideals of founders such as him : “A lot of things have gone wrong… We have fake news, privacy issues, people being manipulated“, did he declare.

His foundation also denounces the extreme concentration that has occurred on the Internet. Google, one of the very first signatories of the “contract for the Web” with Facebook and the French government, collects 92% of advertising revenue linked to Internet searches in Europe. Many personalities today openly criticize the centralization of the Internet in the hands of a few giants – the American GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) and the Chinese Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Xiaomi or BATX. These firms have acquired quasi-monopolies each in their field, and an economic power which translates into a strong political power, far from the ideals which animated the beginnings of Internet.

The Web Summit the digital high mass under the sign
The Altice Arena during the Web Summit. Credits: Decode Media.

The Web in the footsteps of the printing press?

We go through an air hole», Admitted to theAFP Paddy Cosgrave, founder and patron of the Web Summit. “It is a period of reflection. All new technologies go through similar cycles. (…) When the printing press was invented, the initial excitement was replaced over time by the fear of potentially harmful consequences. And finally, it went well.If the emergence of social networks played a role in the Arab Spring and the election of Barack Obama, the first black American president, the following phase rhymed with disinformation and suspicion of manipulation of the campaigns which marked in 2016 l election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom.

Among the most anticipated speakers on these themes is Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who revealed the Cambridge Analytica scandal at the start of the year, a company for which he worked as a research director, and who is accused of having used the private data of 50 million Facebook users for political purposes. Another tech-savage, Ev Williams, best known for having co-founded Blogger (sold to Google) then Twitter, will close the show on Thursday as the boss of Medium, a blogging platform that goes against the buzz culture.

“Economy of addiction”

We got used to having it all for free, and we underestimated the cost», He wrote last May in a mini-manifesto published by the New York Times, where he discusses the problems posed by the financial models of large digital platforms, based on advertising. Users have access to seemingly free services (messaging, information search and sharing, videos, etc.), but, in exchange, their personal data is sold to advertisers. These models, called the “attention economy”, promote content that attracts as many Internet users as possible and holds their attention for the longest time.

It’s an economy of addiction, like betting or video games», Said Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation, also invited to the Web Summit, during an interview with theAFP. “Today, everyone has a voice, (…) but, unfortunately, it is the loudest and often the most violent voices that are amplified because the most negative, the most frightening things catch our attention.Repentant or disappointed, the pioneers of the Web intend to take advantage of this Web Summit to demonstrate that the dream of an Internet that would get the best out of us can still be realized.