Oxford Union speech: This House Believes the Rise of Tech Empires Threatens Society

Madam President it’s a pleasure to be back here at the Oxford Union this evening – it was in 2012 that a predecessor of yours, Isabel Ernst, very kindly asked me, a humble journalist, to speak against the idea that social media had reinvented activism. Earlier today my colleagues in Parliament reminded me that since that was more than three years ago I can reuse every one of my jokes from that speech safe in the knowledge that today’s fresh, and may I say even brighter looking, generation of Union members will not have suffered them before.

And I must confess that when I first sat down to write this speech I worried that those jokes would be all I’ve got because I looked at the motion and I thought I agreed with it. Yes I thought, Facebook and Google have got too much power, they do need to be kept in check. According to the BBC Jeremy Corbyn did so well in the election because of Snapchat. Society needs all the help it can get. These are empires, and isn’t it a cowardly politician who sides with the imperialists?

Except, Madame President, there’s a problem with this motion, and it is this: if the members of this house see all the wondrous opportunities of the internet, see everything from connected cars and smart meters, the voice it offered the voiceless in the Arab Spring, the collective sudden power the web bestows on the powerless, if this house sees the iPhone and the google search as a threat to society – then Madame President I say to you that this house is not following in the footsteps of those who went on from here to even greater things: because it is the choice of every generation’s leaders to look at the challenges and opportunities we face in this country and ask not how, with these ever greater tools, is society threatened – but rather we must ask how do we seize the day and build the greater, better society we all know is possible. Parliament, regulators, influencers, journalists and co can stand baffled by the empires of Google and Twitter and all the rest and pretend that it is our duty to put the genie back in the bottle because society is evolving – or we can do the grown up thing and realise the true threat to society comes from not seizing, carefully or even gingerly, every opportunity that comes our way.

Now, many of you may be thinking – but haven’t things gone too far, isn’t the motion before us today really all about government’s duty to tackle the empire building, isn’t it a scandal that Google has more say over free speech across the world than any one government, how come Facebook has power over all the news we see, how come Twitter has single handedly crashed the quality of global debate, how come Instagram’s made us all more superficial and depressed, how come WhatsApp’s encryption means that MI5 and MI6 can’t keep us safe, how come Uber’s killed every minicab firm going, how come Amazon’s wrecking the highstreet, how come YouTube means every cat has delusions of stardom and how come even Pornhub has, well, Madame President, the only thing I know about Pornhub is MPs best not have an opinion on it that’s based on familiarity.

Well Madam President, all those things are true. But I would like you to ask yourself this – do they threaten society? Or is society in all its multitudinous glory big enough and ugly enough to deal with all these things and many, many more? Should we, as I’ve said, not realise that we must seize the opportunities we have because what threatens British society is pretending that we’re not able to manage, to regulate and to harness all that is good about modern technology? As we have seen recently in French and German legal cases, and as this Government is already doing with the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, regulation can change behaviour but still move society forward. Does Rory really want you to stand like the Luddites tearing down the edifice of Google, yet also film it on your phone and share it with Facebook and the BBC? Is Rory’s argument a bit, well, hypocritical?

Well, yes and no. Because let me put it to you that actually this debate isn’t about technology. Rory’s a great journalist but you’ve got the wrong man. Or at least that’s what I thought after his speech. No of course I don’t mean it. Much.

This is a debate about society itself – you can argue that anything threatens society – childhood obesity, fake news, Starbucks, leaving the EU, not leaving the EU, Jeremy Corbyn winning an election, Jeremy Corbyn winning an election, there are even people who think that the BBC threatens society, and there are people who think abolishing the BBC threatens society. Sometimes these are the same people and they’ve just turned over from one BBC channel to another.

Because the truth is madam president that what threatens society is not the bright brilliance of technology or the ambitious, sometimes monopolistic companies who would seek to profit from it. They, like their predecessors the railway companies, have reshaped society without much of a plan but without much in the way of malevolence either. It’s been haphazard. And if we’re worrying about empires bear in mind that the rump of MySpace stands like the legs of Ozymandias in the digital desert. Today’s companies are different and are maturing. Society must mature with them – the thing that threatens society is our timidity in the face of the future. And as I look around this room, except in the proposition, I don’t see timidity. I see the descendants of Prime Ministers, those who will follow in the footsteps of past Union Presidents such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove or Michael Foot if we’re being impartial, and heaven knows who else. And so I end with a question: if you vote for this motion what are you saying? That society can’t cope with a challenge, that society can’t cope with the future? The only thing that threatens society is if we think we are threatened by big companies – but society itself is greater than all of them combined.

So look, I don’t think of myself as the cleverest person in the room. I went to Durham. I mean, we knew where Oxford was. It was just above us in the league tables. But I do think this – vote for this motion tonight and you’re voting against yourselves. You’re voting to say that we can’t cope. And you know what Madam President I reckon you can cope with anything – those technology empires might be ambitious, they might be dangerous, they might be annoying. But Madam President I know that you, this house, can be more ambitious, more daring. Those technologies present an opportunity and they impose a duty on all of us here to look after the society we all live in and which we all want to see grow. With the right, bold regulation, technology empires won’t even be the monopolies we all fear will hold back innovation itself. Don’t vote for timidity because you think Google’s a bit scary – vote against this motion tonight, for a braver, fairer, optimistic future. Vote to harness all that is great about the greatest inventions of our age for the greater good.

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