Web Summit 2019
“What do you do when the most powerful institutions in society have become the least accountable to society?” This rhetorical question asked by Edward Snowden during the opening night of the 2019 Web Summit sent a strong message of warning to the audience which patronized the whole event. It was probably clear to everyone that not only did he mean governments and authorities, but also private companies whose representatives were just about to start their marketing talks.
Edward Snowden’s conversation with James Ball, a British journalist, was definitely the most spectacular part of this year’s edition of the Web Summit. During his speech, Snowden was making even more direct accusations: “Their business model is abuse. And yet, every bit of it – they argued – is legal. Whether we’re talking about Facebook or the NSA. […] We have legalized the abuse of the person through a person.” He mentioned also the PRISM program which was collecting and keeping large amounts of information contributed by big IT companies, revealed in 2013. One of the important threads (which was also touched by other speakers) was GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Although Snowden calls it “a good bit of legislation”, he warns that its name misplaces the problem. “The problem is not data protection, the problem is data collection” - he says, meaning that regulating the protection of data justifies the fact that everyone is spied on, as long as collected information never leaks.
But in general, politics was frequently present at different stages of the conference. We could hear, for example, speeches given by Tony Blair (former British Prime Minister) or Michel Barnier (European Union's Chief Negotiator for brexit). Especially the latter one is worth focusing on. What he described, was an interesting overview of the most important issues discussed currently with the UK. What was probably mostly applying to the audience was again the data protection aspect. “What happens to your personal data in the UK after brexit?” said mr. Barnier and immediately answered that the British government was going to ensure the level of protection that is equivalent to that under EU law.
Another very broadly commented discussion panel was titled “One year out. Will Trump be reelected?”. It’s participants: Joe Pounder (Republican Party), Neal Katyal (Democratic Party) and Brittany Kaiser (former director of Cambridge Analytica, connected with Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal), were speculating about possible scenarios in the upcoming US presidential campaign. It was easily noticeable that a liberally-oriented audience was often rewarding the democratic politician with applause, who was strongly convinced that Donald Trump was going to be impeached before the campaign even starts. The IT-related component in this conversation was brought by Brittany Kaiser, who was blaming Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for supporting illegal personal data usage during campaign in 2016.
One may ask: ok, but was it really an IT conference or was every part of it revolving around politics? Well, let us try to select some interesting topics which may be a little bit more appealing to technological companies.
Daniel Wiegand, a co-founder of Lilium Aviation presented an impressive video of his flying car prototype. The machine named Lilium Jet was a fully electric and in future, would be supposed to be fully autonomous. Daniel was accompanied by representative of Tencent Holding – David Wallerstein, who was convincing us how Lilium’s vision matches the forecasts of future transport infrastructure expansion. Both speakers tried to cover all important topics that are currently applied to contemporary air transport: safety, noise generation, visual pollution. Of course, as usual, all these calculations and predictions should be taken with a grain of salt, especially because Lilium Jet is expected to start commercial transfers in 2025. Additionally, there are still some other inhibitory aspects like traffic regulations or ethical approach which were not even mentioned in this presentation.
During the last day of the Web Summit 2019 a stage called MusicNotes was launched which triggered talks related to the music industry. We could hear the presentations of 5 startups nominated for the Music Innovation Prize 2019. The winner was Vochlea Music presenting their product called Dubler Studio Kit which allowed for real-time vocal recognition and translation into various sound effects. The most recognizable and expected guest during that day was Jean-Michel Jarre. He talked about his collaboration with Sony which resulted in an application called EoN. It is an AI- based music generator which takes advantage of small amounts of samples and tones composed by the artist himself. It was difficult to evaluate its usability during just a short presentation, but the idea gives really meaningful sign on how artificial intelligence influences the musical world.
Of course Altice Arena in Lisbon was hosting many other celebrities, but the talks were only part of the conference. Everyone could spend hours visiting large companies stands and talking to their representatives (the organizers prepared 5 big pavilions where kind of a Startup Fair was constantly taking place). All of them very impressive, all of them glittering and shiny, all of them concentrated on marketing. That is why they were not bringing much value to an ordinary employee interested in coding and the IT infrastructure (like me). But still, one could reach out to our great big world, which is talking much about great ideas but actually thinking about benefits only.