What are militant anarchists, leftist trade union leaders, right-wing populists and libertarians all doing at a tech conference?

By Paddy Cosgrave

I remember when men who had murdered innocent women and children spoke at my university. Some had detonated bombs in London, others had ordered the most heinous of human acts across the island of Ireland. Some were Irish republicans, others were British loyalists.

Whatever their allegiance they shared one thing in common: All had filled their hearts with hate and drenched their hands in human blood in the name of their “political cause”.

I remember meeting many of these men, eating with them, listening to them, arguing with them, and later thanking them for speaking at my university.

I remember because I was on the committee of a student debating society that invited many of these murderers to speak at Trinity College, Dublin.

It was the mid 2000s. At the time nobody objected. Nobody objected largely because the extremism, the violence, the hatred and the horror that had ripped apart communities in Northern Ireland for decades, claiming thousands of innocent lives, had been replaced with peace. An uneasy peace, but peace nonetheless.

That peace came about in part because people talked and people listened to all views, no matter how hate-filled. And from that process the Good Friday Agreement was born.

In the years before the Good Friday Agreement, oftentimes those with extreme viewpoints in Northern Ireland were denied a platform, including a television news ban. It seemed like a reasonable policy at the time to many.

For example, a British broadcast ban was introduced by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in 1988. It was introduced because according to the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd “the time has come to deny an easy platform to those who propagate terrorism”.

However with the benefit of hindsight, some have argued that silencing these sometimes hate-filled voices only served to fuel the sense of marginalisation of the communities they avowed to represent. And, perhaps more crucially for some, prevented “rigourous interviewing” of, for example, Sinn Fein politicians by “committed journalists”, to quote the official UK Labour stance at the time.

When the broadcast ban was eventually lifted, those at the forefront of British media finally aired their views on the effectiveness of the efforts to deny a broadcast platform to hate-filled and murdering terrorists.

The Chief Executive of Channel 4 described the broadcast ban as “embarrassing”. The BBC’s Director General wrote that “we can once again apply normal and testing scrutiny to all sides in the debate”. The former Director of Information at the Northern Ireland Office branded the broadcast ban as simply “politically inept”.

But that was then.

Fast forward to today and technology is reshaping our world, sometimes for the better but sometimes for the worse. It is changing politics, impacting elections, altering the distribution of wealth and opportunity, and increasing the sense of marginalisation for many.

Across Europe extreme, and in my view detestable politicians, are being voted into power by their respective electorates. This is certainly the case in Italy, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere.

There’s a palpable need in my view for debate and discussion on this phenomenon, its causes and the role technology is playing.

Web Summit is a forum for debate and discussion for many points of view, not a party political platform for a single point of view.

Web Summit is a place where people should be prepared to have their opinions deeply challenged, and in turn to deeply challenge the opinions of others.

In 2017 at Web Summit, for example, some of the most powerful leftist trade union leaders, who represent hundreds of millions of workers around the world, spoke for the first time. And not for the first time, socialist European politicians clashed with staggeringly right wing American libertarian investors. Each considers the other dangerous ideologues.

Web Summit 2018 will be no different. There will be those who decry the actions of large corporations, and those who champion them. And just when we thought the world was clear cut, some left-wing business and political leaders will call for enhanced restrictions on migration, while some on the right will call for the opposite.

I couldn’t disagree more with the libertarian views of Peter Thiel, who spoke previously at Web Summit. I believe many of his views are deeply destructive to society. Similarly I couldn’t disagree more with another former speaker, Nigel Farage. Farage more than any other person helped, in my view, mislead greater than 50 percent of voters in the UK to vote to leave the European Union. A highly destructive act.

But Peter Thiel and Nigel Farage articulate viewpoints, however offensive to some, that resonate with a sizeable and by many accounts growing portion of not just the western world. And I think they have a place alongside leftist trade union leaders, socialist prime ministers, anarchist hackers, big corporate lobbyists and more.

That is why we have invited them to debate their views at Forum, Web Summit’s gathering of policy-makers, politicians, tech CEOs, regulators and academics.

In total there will be more than 1,000 speakers at Web Summit 2018. As has always been the case with speakers who express what might be considered offensive viewpoints, they are explicitly not invited to speak on our centre stage, nor on our more than 20 other primary stages. They appear instead on our smallest stages at Forum.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, these speakers are not invited to deliver an uncontested address, but are instead invited to have their views thoroughly challenged and scrutinised by a professional journalist. Moreover they sit on a panel, surrounded by authoritative and alternative voices who will openly contest the extreme viewpoints of these speakers. This has always been the case, and will be the case with Marine Le Pen.

Ultimately the easy decision is to turn Web Summit into a commercially safe space by precluding views, both economic and political, that may cause offense to our commercial partners and other stakeholders.

Excluding those who are “too socialist” or “too nationalistic” or “too extreme” from Web Summit would, I assure you, be a very easy and very pragmatic decision for us to take as a business.

The world’s leading technology companies might likely warmly welcome the opportunity to avoid confrontations at Web Summit with those who decry their tax policies, as well as question their tendency towards monopolistic and anti-competitive practices.

Similarly the world’s leading technology companies might also warmly welcome the opportunity to avoid, water down or reduce the focus on difficult conversations at Web Summit on the role of their technology platforms in the rise of fake news, extremism and voter manipulation.

Marine Le Pen’s views are in my view wrongheaded. That more than 30% of French voters selected her as their candidate in France’s most recent presidential election does not in any way, in my view, legitimise her views. Nor does the rise into power of politicians of a similar hew in Italy, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere legitimise her reprehensible views.

Again, the easy decision for Web Summit is to shirk robust debate with those who hold extreme views of this nature. The easy decision for Web Summit is to rescind Marine Le Pen’s invitation.

But for now we have chosen not to because we believe banning or attempting to ignore these views, which have been fanned in our view by technology, does little to furthering understanding. More importantly perhaps, banning or attempting to ignore these views is unlikely to help address the roots of the rise in support for these views across parts of Europe in particular.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right within the European Union and a basic cornerstone of any democratic society. This principle was perhaps most informed by the ideas of the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, which while often stated are worth stating once more:

“Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

While I was a student in Trinity, if ever the university had asked our student debating society to cancel an invitation to a terrorist or an anarchist or a fascist to speak, I am sure we would have immediately done so. We would have protested as a matter of principle, but we would have respected the preferences of our ultimate host, the university.

Should our hosts in Portugal, the Portuguese government, ask us to cancel Marine Le Pen’s invitation, we will of course respect that request and immediately do so.

My views on the limits of debate and discussion, and on the merits of banning and silencing dissidents and militants, is to a very real extent shaped by the unique history of Ireland. And Ireland until very recently was grappling with an incredibly violent and inhuman terrorist conflict.

Portugal’s recent history is somewhat different and I’m both mindful and sensitive of that fact. Ultimately the interest of our hosts, Portugal, and the interest of the people of Portugal, should be placed far above those of Web Summit.