Main content

Martha Lane-Fox's vision for reclaiming the web is inspiring, but is it realistic?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 30, 2015
Summary:
Britain's digital tzar, Martha Lane-Fox, presented in her Dimbleby lecture an argument for a public institution that sets out to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the Internet today.

 

martha lane fox
Martha Lane-Fox

Martha Lane-Fox, or Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho as she's known in Westminster, has pitched the idea of using public funds to create a new British institution – in a similar vein to the BBC or the NHS – which would be focused on tackling some of the biggest and most difficult issues facing the technology industry today.

The institution, dubbed Dot Everyone, would be about 'reclaiming' the Internet, bringing some of the power away from the few tech giants that seem to dominate the web, balancing inequalities, forcing regulatory change and making Britain the most digitally connected nation in the world.

Lane-Fox, who is seen as one of the darlings of the dot com bubble, having founded successful website Lastminute.com in the 1990s, and acts as a digital tzar to the UK government, delivered her pitch on the BBC last night, in the form of the organisation's annual Dimbleby lecture.

For those unaware, the Dimbleby Lecture has happened almost every year since 1972 and was founded in the memory of Richard Dimbleby, a journalist and broadcaster, who became the BBC's first war correspondent and then its leading news commentator. The lecture has been delivered by the likes of Bill Gates, Sir Terry Pratchett, Prince Charles and Bill Clinton.

This year, Lane-Fox took the opportunity to argue the case for Dot Everyone. She said:

It is in within our reach for Britain to leapfrog every nation in the world and become the most digital, most connected, most skilled, most informed on the planet. And I think that if we did that, it would not only be good for our economy, but it would be good for our culture, our people, our health and our happiness.

I’m not going to tell you it’s simple. It’s not. I get frustrated when discussions of the internet are reduced to “its going to solve all world problems’ or “its screwing everything up”. It’s always more complicated than that.

But, if you want me to give you a single big thought, it’s this: We need a new national institution that would lead an ambitious charge – to make us the most digital nation on the planet.

I don’t say this because I’m a fan of institutions. I say this because the values of the internet have always been a dialogue between private companies and public bodies. And right now the civic, public, non-commercial side of that equation needs a boost.

It needs more weight. We’re going too slow, being too incremental. We need to be bolder. A new institution could be the catalyst we need to shape the world we want to live in and Britain’s role in that world.

It would be an independent organisation that is given its power by government but has a strong mandate from the public – we will be setting its agenda, we will be informing it and taking part in it.

It must help us address some of the biggest issues that we face but it must engage with people in a radical new way. In fact I wouldn’t call it an institution at all. This is no normal public body.

It’s time to balance the world of dot com, so I would call it Dot Everyone.

dot everyone
If there's one thing that Britain is particularly good at, it's creating public institutions that deliver quality, solve a problem and give the public a service that forms part of its culture. We've got the NHS, we've got the BBC, there's the Open University – all public funded organisations that are recognised internationally and are considered to provide some sort of value.

So, what would Dot Everyone's purpose be exactly? Lane-Fox sees that it should have three main priorities. The first would be educating everyone, from all walks of life, about the internet. She referenced late activist Aaron Swartz, who famously said, 'It's not OK not to understand the Internet anymore'. Lane Fox said:

But among the top 100 visited websites in the world, there’s only one from the UK. Last time i looked it was at number 74. After Pornhub, at 73. And what is it? The BBC. A public institution.

It’s not that we lack digital talent. 8 of the 20 most popular YouTubers in the world are British. It’s just that the platforms they’re doing it on are American. The zero cost margin businesses that the internet enabled have become monopolies at breakneck speed and these businesses are mostly from the west coast of California.

We suffer from a shortage of digital imagination in the boardrooms. There are only 4 digital executives on FTSE 100 boards. But I’m willing to wager at least 80% of board discussion and decisions have a digital element.

This lack of imagination definitely contributes to our relatively small research and development spend which is just 1.8% of GDP versus 4.5% in the US. This in turn hampers start-up growth as there is less money available for innovation.

So, job one, Lane Fox wants Dot Everyone to be an institution that educates. It would teach us all about the Internet, get us all up to speed, making sure no-one is left behind.

Equality

Secondly, Dot Everyone will focus on trying to get more women into the digital field. Rightly so, Lane-Fox highlights that women have historically played a prime role in the technology industry – everyone from Ada Lovelace to the female codebreakers at Bletchley Park – but for whatever reason, women are severely under-represented in technology companies today. There are also ongoing gender discrimination disputes, with it widely accepted that Silicon Valley has a widespread 'bro-culture'. Lane-Fox said:

The big Internet companies we use every day and the cultures they spawn do not reflect the diversity of their users. They under-represent every group of the population that’s not male, white and able-bodied.

I’m enormously concerned that none of the biggest internet businesses we all rely on were founded by or are run by a woman.

Yes, there are some impressive senior women in tech, women like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Marissa Mayer running Yahoo! but you can count them on one hand and they’re mostly based in the U.S.

If you take a look at the tech sector as a whole, 14% are women. That’s a noticeably lower percentage

HR
than the 24% I find in the House of Lords. So much for the old fashioned world of Parliament versus the shiny modernity of the internet

I reckon it is not misleading to suggest that about 98% of the code that the internet and web technologies rely on was and continues to be programmed by men.

The digital sector should be leading the way in our striving, as a society, to move beyond prejudice based on gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, class or disability. It should not be languishing in a comfortably monocultural world.

Something that is 'for everyone', needs to reflect that. And that means being built by everyone.

Lane-Fox said that one straightforward, achievable goal would be to make the UK the best place to be a female technologist in the world. She wants to create a whole new cohort of female coders, creators, designers. Why not launch a national challenge to find the best ideas to tackle this problem? Why Not offer every unemployed woman free education and training? These were some of the Dot Everyone proposals put forward by Lane-Fox.

The regulatory environment

Finally, Lane-Fox's final target for Dot Everyone, is for the public organisation to help Britain navigate the multiple ethical and moral issues that the Internet presents. Whether that be about personal data, surveillance, online bullying or children's privacy, the Internet often operates in legal 'grey areas' and the traditional regulatory frameworks struggle to keep up with the pace of change. Lane-Fox believes that Dot Everyone could act as a force in the technology industry, fuelled by digital experts, to drive the right, appropriate regulatory change. She said:

Dot Everyone must help us navigate the multiple ethical and moral issues that the internet is presenting and will continue to present.

It’s not right for us or fair on them that it’s the big commercial technology platforms that are currently the dominant voices in these debates. Google and Facebook are writing the answers because our institutions and legislators can’t cope and don’t have enough expertise.

We should be ambitious about this. We could be world leading in our thinking.

In this 800th year anniversary of Magna Carta, the document widely upheld as one of the first examples of the rule of law, why don’t we establish frameworks to help navigate the online world?

That, for me, would be DOT EVERYONE’s third big task – help us embed our national values in the digital world.

So that's the idea. Dot Everyone would tackle three of the biggest challenges facing the technology industry and the internet today: education, inequality, and regulation. Lane-Fox said that for the organisation to have some credibility, it would need a dose of public money, although this doesn't need to be new money, it could come from reorganising existing funds.

Law theme with gavel scales books © Sebastian Duda - Fotolia.com
Not only this, but it would engage with the public in a way that hasn't been done before. It would crowdsource the priorities people want to see Dot Everyone work on. It would also have a clear mandate from government that would give it the ability to take certain actions.

Lane-Fox also sees Dot Everyone producing prototypes, as she believes that the best way to help people to understand is to show and not tell. Dot Everyone should aim to do 50 significant projects in the next ten years, she said. After that, we should be “brutal” about assessing whether or not we need Dot Everyone. She said:

We have a rare opportunity to have a new and significant role in the world. To lead in the civic public digital world – to help give it weight.

And the great news is that this time we don’t need “dark satanic mills” or workhouses or choking cities to fuel our success. We need vision and drive.

My take

Martha Lane-Fox should be commended for bringing these issues to the fore, in such an inspiring way. Reading the transcript of her speech, it's an impressive, eloquent pitch to the UK government to get off its backside and do something about the challenges that the Internet has created, as well as the opportunities it presents. Lane-Fox sums up perfectly what many of us are thinking about that industry and attempts to provide us a solution.

And I agree, that there are areas that a public-backed organisation could certainly help Britain get to grips with this digital sphere, especially if it had a mandate from government. For example, you can see education being a successful project for Dot Everyone, as is true of equality and improving diversity.

There are obviously a number of organisations in the UK, and abroad, that are tackling these issues already, but having them centralised in a public-backed body with a brand that is backed by Martha Lane-Fox, could potentially make more of a difference.

However, I do think that there are two areas that Dot Everyone will struggle to address. Firstly, tackling the regulatory environment and ethical issues will be near impossible at a local level. And secondly, regaining some of the web, the idea that control can be bought closer to the people, away from the tech giants, will be a significant challenge.

The problem with trying to provide regulatory guidance from Britain, to act as a force for Internet-based ethical issues, is that the 'Internet' won't take one State seriously. That's regardless of whether or not the suggestions being made are credible or whether or not it's backed by Lane-Fox. It may hold influence, but the Internet is a global network that needs international cooperation. We would probably have more success on this front if we could establish an EU-wide consensus.

Secondly, I empathise hugely with Lane-Fox's description of the Internet as it currently stands. She spoke about how when she launched Lastminute.com in the late 1990s, it felt like the corporate structures of days gone by were being reversed, the power was being given to the people, on this new democratic platform. Since then, however, the low-margins and huge scale of the internet has resulted in a number of web-based monopolies that are arguably replicating the structures of the physical world.

business fight

A blog has been doing the rounds on Twitter by Adrian Short, who sums this up perfectly. Although his blog is more anti-Dot Everyone than I would be, his words do ring true for many. It states:

Digital inclusion works the same way by combining the interests of business, the state and charities for the supposed benefit of individuals but principally for the providers not the recipients. Government gives money to charities to provide training (let’s not dignify it by calling it “education”) so that disadvantaged people can use Facebook, Google and Amazon. As a side benefit, those people, like the rest of us online, can be served cheaply by government and become significantly more legible to state and corporate surveillance. DOT EVERYONE wants to see more of this, and while there is great potential benefit to individuals being online it’s hard to see how 10 million more Facebook users and Gmail accounts is going to keep corporate power in check, nor more generally how digital inclusion leads to greater social equality overall in the absence of more fundamental social changes.

You might be able to search for jobs online but you’ll still be skint while you do it and if you’ve got few skills or qualifications you’ll still be skint when you get a job. Access to technology in itself doesn’t solve the problem of the inequality that’s a feature not a bug of capitalism.

The same is true of sexism. It’s a great evil and one that should be eradicated from the tech industry as elsewhere. And yet Lane Fox’s analysis is that sexism is a cause of inequality rather than a consequence of it. Getting more women on the ladder doesn’t eliminate the ladder: there’ll always be people at the bottom of it. Getting more women into the senior ranks of the tech industry will be fine for those women but it’ll do nothing to counterbalance corporate power, nor to improve the lot of those who’ll never have a chance at those jobs. This again is a feature of capitalism. Inequality is the name of the game and choosing a new set of winners doesn’t help anyone else.

Words worth considering.

Loading
A grey colored placeholder image