Evening Standard Young Progress Makers Speech — Roundhouse

With changes — as delivered January 25, 2017

Good afternoon, it is a great pleasure to be with you today in the most diverse, dynamic and progressive city on earth to explore ideas that have the power to change our world.

I would like to start with an admission — I am a recovering web utopian. For years, I preached about the promise and the potential of a connected world. And I pontificated about the empowerment the internet would bring.

But today, even I am feeling a bit uneasy.

Online abuse, sexual exploitation and misogyny, trolling and cyber-bullying, hate speech and extremism, security risks — all of this can make the internet a bewildering and threatening place.

Tim Wu, law professor at Columbia University and influential tech thinker, recently wrote a book called The Attention Merchants. Wu’s core thesis is that the great mistake of the web’s idealists was the failure to create systems and institutions that preserved the internet’s openness and diversity of voices, whilst also warding off its harms.

He argues that we left the internet to solve its own problems, eradicate its own negative impacts, but that this has failed. The internet became filled, in Wu’s words — with the ‘lowest forms of human conduct and basest norms of commerce’.

So, you are probably listening to me and thinking, “that’s great, your generation got to dream about an enlightened connected society and now my generation has to clean up the mess.” Well there is some truth in that but I would suggest that you guys, the world’s digital natives, are now in charge. And you can shape the next phase of progress and put your signature on it. You can harness the great potential of the internet for good and use it to fight those who threaten it.

Today, there are over three billion people online; that’s approaching half the world’s population communicating with and learning from each other, and experiencing life in previously unimaginable ways. People, some of whom would otherwise never have a voice, never have an opportunity. And people from whom the next great invention might come from, now that they have a chance.

That’s a remarkable achievement and it represents incredible opportunities. Our lives are without a doubt easier, more convenient, and more efficient. When you leave here tonight, you’ll use your phone to order a taxi or check your route home. You’ll click on something of interest and within hours that impulse purchase arrives at your door. With a tap of the finger you can participate in a global movement and make your voice heard on any topic or issue.

Amazing benefits for sure, but have you ever wondered what you give up in exchange? When you click “agree” to online terms and conditions, you consent to give away insights into your behaviour, your interests, preferences and your friends. You reveal your actions and wishes to virtual machines that purport to understand you better than you understand yourself.

Now this is headline grabbing stuff and it consumes much of the public debate on privacy and security, but if you ask most people, they really aren’t bothered — the benefits outweigh the negatives.

When I was about your age, it was the height of the Cold War. Words then were a weapon, much like they are today, but there was an appreciation of the power and sanctity of their meaning. Today, in what some are calling a post-truth world, we are experiencing a different war of words — this time it’s online and often anonymously.

In free and democratic societies like ours, everyone is entitled to their opinions but what has changed is that the Internet gives some a platform to take hateful messages and violent provocations to millions.

Technology is by no means creating this hate but algorithms expose and amplify it. Divisive posts rise to the top of newsfeeds, giving the appearance that they reflect widely held views when in fact they represent extreme or fringe views. It becomes easy to lose perspective.

And as the first generation to grow up more technologically literate than your parents and teachers, you are more open to exploring relationships and information with people you don’t know. But let’s face it, this can lead to abuse and exploitation in this vast uncontested space.

For instance, criminals with a sexual interest in children can join forces with other offenders to abuse on a mass scale. They can pay to watch child sexual abuse live-streamed all over the world, and children are being groomed and coerced into producing sexually explicit images by people they have never met, sometimes in countries far away.

I am afraid that evil has access to all the same technology tools which is why we are working with tech industry leaders to use technology to outsmart and thwart criminals to stay one step ahead.

This has become a life mission for me. To use technology for good.

In February 2014, I founded an organisation called WeProtect to eradicate online child sexual exploitation and abuse using a multi-stakeholder approach. WeProtect leverages the power of technology to rescue victims, thwart criminals and bring perpetrators to justice.

With the support of Prime Minister Theresa May and the leaders of 70 other governments, law enforcement, tech companies and NGOs, we are making great progress and we will not stop until every child can use the internet safely without fear.

The success of WeProtect’s collaborative approach shows us that in this interconnected world, no one person, company, or country for that matter, can solve these problems alone, it takes us all.

We have proven that when the world comes together, we can achieve unprecedented things.

And as leaders of this next phase of connected humanity, remember that technology will continue to become more pervasive and powerful, but the decisions you make will still be your own.

Use the power that you have for good.

CEO of @benevolent_ai. UK Minister for Internet Safety & Security 2015–17. Founder of @WePROTECT. Former exec Facebook, Google, Aol/Bebo.