World needs new rules for powerful tech, says Web Summit chief

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Tech companies like Google and Facebook seem like monopolies and need new rules, the organizer of one of the world’s biggest technology summits said.

Paddy Cosgrave, whose annual Web Summit takes place in Lisbon this week, joins growing calls for tighter regulation of big technology firms especially after news that Russia may have manipulated the last US election with political advertisements on Facebook.

He said recent initiatives by European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager could bring big changes for big tech companies and help level the playing field in a sector which is having a profound impact on societies.

Vestager, who will speak at the Web Summit on Tuesday, has levied huge fines for unpaid taxes and unfair competition on big technology firms, including Apple, Google and Amazon in the past couple of years.

“In economic terms these (companies) would appear to fall into a classic definition of monopolies,” Cosgrave told Reuters in an interview.

“And if she (Vestager) is successful she will probably set the standard for the rest of the world and will usher in a fundamental change in how the largest and most profitable companies in the history of the world are treated. This changes the playing field for all other companies.”

‘Incredibly disruptive’

Cosgrave said that new technology had been assumed by many to be just positive, but it often “can be incredibly disruptive”.

He said the need for new rules was similar to past technological shifts such as the invention of cars.

“We had an operating system that, by and large with some modifications every decade, worked for the last 200 years,” Cosgrave said.

“And then suddenly, you’d have to be naive or have your head buried in the sand, to not realize that the very fabric of our society, certainly western society, feels like it’s getting pulled and stretched in weird ways. I think we need ... a new operating system.”

Web Summit has grown into one of the world’s largest technology conferences, from 400 participants when it started in Dublin in 2010, to 59,000 participants this week. It started as a venue for tech startups and includes investors, but also increasingly politicians and regulators. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to attend the Lisbon summit.