Social Media: News - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 11th January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Crossbench 4:50 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for this debate. We joined the House together and I remember clearly her saying to me, “Oh, I really do not know anything about technology”. That is clearly untrue and I learn from my noble friend all the time. If the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, is a hypocrite, I am afraid that I am Judas, as I must confess early on that I am a board member of Twitter—I shall come back to that in a second.

I was lucky enough to give the 2015 Dimbleby Lecture, in which I presented the case for believing that the Silicon Valley giants would come for a tumbling over the next few years, but even I could not imagine how quickly they would fall. My own small think-tank charity, Doteveryone, did some research that has been released this year showing that 63% of the UK’s adult population does not trust technology. Only one in five people believe that technology companies are doing something valuable with their data. More than 90% of people want to know what is being done with their data, and only 30% can find out what. These are staggering statistics, and it is important to put in the context of today’s debate that failing wider consumer and civil trust in technology, because it is corrosive. As we have heard it most eloquently said by many people around the House, technology is not going away.

Perhaps I may return to Twitter. I joined the board because I am an avid user—not quite with the 5 million followers of the noble Lord, Lord Sugar; my own small number is a fraction of that—and because, when I became UK digital champion in 2009, it immediately gave me a route to some of the local community groups working on aspects of digital inclusion that I knew nothing about. It enabled me also to tap into the biggest brains in the sector and build up my own small following of people who were interested in what was happening. I have learnt three things from being on the board that I would like to share with your Lordships today as they are very relevant to the debate.

First—and this perhaps is the most important—nuance, complexity and specificity of argument, policy decision and change are incredibly important. Twitter is not Facebook; Facebook is not Amazon; Amazon is not Google. Yes, they share many characteristics. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, I wish that Twitter had even made a profit. I am sure that many of your Lordships in this Chamber would think that it had, but it has not. We have enormous reach—350 million users; we have fewer than 3,000 members of staff and, as yet, no profitable revenues. Google, as is well documented, has $70 billion on its balance sheet. As noble Lords may have seen from the front page of the Guardian today, Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in the world with $106 billion of wealth personally to his name, which could pay off the UK national debt twice. It is incredibly important if we are to make good decisions in this Chamber and beyond as users and citizens that we are specific in our discussions.

Secondly, I have learnt more than anything that diversity of thought and view is vital. I am surprised and happy that the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, remarked on parliamentary candidates’ roles on social media. We must fight for more equality of representation in all those companies at the most senior levels. I was the second woman to join the Twitter board. There are only two women on the board of Facebook; one is Sheryl Sandberg; there is only one woman on the board of Snap. We will never get to a point where some of the counter-winds that we face are recognised and some of the incredibly unpleasant behaviours nailed in engineering terms if we do not fight for more women to be at both board level and engineering level. What action can the UK take to build the role of women in the technology sector in this country? It is vital.

My final point concerns something we have under-egged in the debate today: I do not really believe that many countries understand the internet but I very much believe, as I said in a recent debate here, that Russia, China and North Korea do. We ignore that at our peril. They are the experts in social media. China has built a parallel internet, as we are all aware. They are now monitoring their own citizens, building huge profiles of them and will reward them in the future with services and different mechanisms to keep them incentivised to behave well. Yes, our UK issues are very important, but we are a minnow. The entire European tech sector is just 7% of that of the US. We have to keep focused on our role globally and the big geopolitical headwinds we face.