Facebook whistleblower to open Lisbon Web Summit

·3-min read
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is set to open Lisbon's Web Summit on Monday evening.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is set to open Lisbon's Web Summit on Monday evening, putting more pressure on the company as tens of thousands arrive for the tech world's first mass gathering since the pandemic struck.

Organisers of one of the world's largest technology conferences, which was called off last year due to Covid-19, have hailed the fact that its return is taking place in a country with one of the world's highest vaccination rates.

With some 40,000 attendees flying in to Portugal from worldwide -- all of them required to show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test -- Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave said there was huge excitement, as well as caution.

"There's that very strange euphoria that probably happened at the start of the roaring twenties. People are coming out of an apocalyptic pandemic," Cosgrave told AFP.

The Web Summit's capacity has been cut from 70,000 to allow for greater social distancing, with masks required throughout the Altice Arena and one-way systems in place for an event which runs through Thursday.

Haugen, the former Facebook engineer who leaked a trove of damaging internal documents, tops the bill at a conference that will also see executives from some 70 tech unicorns -- start-ups valued at over $1 billion -- take to the stage.

The future of Facebook, the world's biggest social media platform, is set to provide a key talking point as the company struggles to move on from the scandal.

The "Facebook Papers" have unleashed a torrent of negative media reports in recent weeks, showing that company executives knew of their sites' potential for harm on numerous fronts.

These include spiralling concerns over the spread of hate speech on Facebook in developing countries, and worries over Instagram's impact on teens' mental health.

Haugen, who is due on stage some time after 1700 GMT, has testified before US and UK lawmakers, but this will mark her first appearance before a wider public.

- Metaverse 'hype'? -

Top Facebook executives attending the Web Summit, including vice president Nick Clegg, will meanwhile be keen to move the conversation on to the company's much-discussed "Meta" rebrand.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday that Facebook's parent company is changing its name, as he shifts his focus to creating the "metaverse", a futuristic vision of the internet that would involve heavy use of virtual reality.

"Within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people, post hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers," Zuckerberg told a launch event that showed him exploring psychedelic-looking virtual worlds.

The metaverse would blur the physical world with the digital one, making online experiences -- like chatting with a friend, or attending a concert -- feel face-to-face.

While critics have derided the rebrand as an attempt to distract attention from Facebook's troubles, Silicon Valley enthusiasts nonetheless believe the metaverse could indeed represent the next great leap in the evolution of the internet.

Various events are themed around the metaverse at this year's Web Summit.

"I think some of the discussion will be, 'how much of it is hype and how much of it is real?'" Cosgrave said.

Beyond the metaverse, major themes of the Web Summit include the extent to which technology can help to mitigate climate change -- a timely issue given that the conference coincides with the COP26 global climate negotiations in Scotland.

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