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World Economic Forum 2018 - UK Prime Minister hectors social media investors at expense of stronger post-Brexit pitch

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 24, 2018
UK Prime Minister Theresa May addressed an audience of billionaires and potential post-Brexit investors at the WEF. So she decided the best use of her speech was to launch yet another attack on Facebook and Google.

British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the World Economic Forum (WEF) today with a speech that was frankly off-target to its audience of billionaires and business people and fell back on headine-grabbing threats to social media providers.

What attendees needed to hear from May was a positive Brexit message to calm nerves and provide the impression at least that the ship of state is on a steady course. Or as WEF founder Klaus Schwab tactfully reminded her in his introduction:

You are now just 14 months from the famous [Brexit] deadline…you can imagine what interest we all have in this room to hear you.

That being so, let’s hope the audience was ready to be disappointed.

What delegates got was a staking of a claim to AI market leadership, both technologically and ethically, an upbeat message that was overshadowed by a pitch to investors in Facebook, Twitter et al to look past the share price and face up to “social responsibilities”.

The idea that Wall Street is seriously going to tank on Facebook, as an example, is naive at best, frankly foolish at worst when addressing the Davos crowd. The UK Government justifies its argument by pointing to examples of shareholder activism at Twitter and Facebook as a template.

But realistically, this is another example of a politician needing to be seen to be tough and ending up with a further iteration of ‘something must be done, this is something, let’s do this’ sabre rattling at the platform providers. So, May insisted:

Investors can play a vital role by considering the social impact of the companies they are investing in. This is fundamental to the proper functioning of markets, choice and competition.

Shareholders should care about these social impacts because the business model of a company is not sustainable if it does not command public support and consent. And they can use their influence to ensure these issues are taken seriously…investors can make a big difference here by ensuring trust and safety issues are being properly considered. And I urge them to do so.

Then out came the by now cliched declarations about taking on and taming the social media giants unless they put their online houses in order:

Technology companies still need to go further in stepping up to their responsibilities for dealing with harmful and illegal online activity. These companies simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content. We need to go further, so that ultimately this content is removed automatically. These companies have some of the best brains in the world. They must focus their brightest and best on meeting these fundamental social responsibilities.

She added:

No-one wants to be known as “the terrorists’ platform” or the first choice app for paedophiles.

AI and life after Brexit

Lecturing aside, a  better post-Brexit vision - or at least a better stab at one - came with May’s pitch to secure British leadership in the AI sector. Her claim was based on data that finds that a new AI-related company has been created in the UK every week for the last three years.

That’s not a bad starting-point, although one that has to be read in the context of Google this week selecting France as the base for a new AI research center and Facebook announcing that it was doubling its investment in its Paris AI lab. Given how much kudos the UK government is currently seeking for getting just such firms to invest more in the UK, that’s unfortunate timing for the British delegation to Davos.

May did however make a case for the UK as a post-Brexit start-up nirvana:

The message of our Industrial Strategy to the world is clear - Britain will be one of the best places in the world to start and grow a business.

Particular focus was placed on encouraging the AI sector to grow:

We are investing in the skills [AI] start-ups need, spending £45 million to support additional PhDs in AI and related disciplines and creating at least 200 extra places a year by 2020-21. We are absolutely determined to make our country the place to come and set up to seize the opportunities of Artificial Intelligence for the future.

The Prime Minister also bid for the UK to assume a leadership role when it comes to the ethical challenges of AI and automation:

In a global digital age we need the norms and rules we establish to be shared by all. That includes establishing the rules and standards that can make the most of Artificial Intelligence in a responsible way, such as by ensuring that algorithms don’t perpetuate the human biases of their developers.

So we want our new world-leading Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to work closely with international partners to build a common understanding of how to ensure the safe, ethical and innovative deployment of Artificial Intelligence. And I am delighted that the UK will also be joining the World Economic Forum’s new council on Artificial Intelligence to help shape global governance and applications of this new technology.

My take

Let’s look for the positive here. May did start to make a good case, building on her speech at Davos last year, for the need for more progress by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on global free trade, something that a Brexited-Britain is obviously going to be rather keen on.

She cited the example of the lack of progress around removing barriers to the e-commerce industry as a case in point. As May put it:

Frankly too often our rhetoric around free trade here at Davos is not matched by our actions…While the likes of eBay, Amazon and Alibaba have grown into global giants, taking on a central role in the lives of billions around the world, the WTO has been struggling to remove barriers to e-commerce trade for almost twenty years.

Progress on these issues really matters. Because technological advances continue to revolutionise the possibilities for humanity and we must have the international frameworks in place to ensure everyone can benefit from them.

That said, it was ultimately all a bit ‘something must be done’ without any practical solutions being presented.

The social media bashing was just tedious and repetitive, with the unlikely plea to investors to look past the bottom line not adding much to the mix. It will go down well in Daily Mail-land of course and the Murdoch media will cheer on any new stick with which to beat Facebook and Google, but it doesn’t get us very much further.

It will also steal attention away from the AI opportunities angle and the emphasis on a positive start-up culture in the UK, both stronger ‘life after Brexit’ messages and far more encouraging takeaways for an audience of potential investors.

And with 14 (theoretical) months to go, that’s a wasted opportunity for the sake of some more social media grandstanding.

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