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Neil Ainger


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LastMinute.com co-founder wants Britain to be brilliant at net

31 March 2015  |  2020 views  |  0

“Let’s create a new institution [DotEveryone] and make Britain brilliant at the internet,” said Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of LastMinute.com, during her 2015 Richard Dimbleby Lecture screened live last night on BBC TV.

The DotEveryone campaign Lane Fox launched during her televised address to the nation from the Science Museum, London, calls for a more inclusive internet.

This means better public understanding, oversight, more women in technology, and a better moral and ethical understanding of how the net impacts the lives of poor and rich alike.

As Lane Fox said, quoting the late activist Aaron Swartz: “It’s not OK, not to understand the Internet anymore.”

There is a need for better education, entrepreneurship, delivery of government services, health, innovation, more jobs, and so forth, which Lane Fox argued could all be helped by harnessing the power of the net and of technology.

“The internet is the organising principle of our age, touching all our lives, every day,” she said, while extolling Britain’s heritage in the technology sector by citing Ida Lovelace, the women code-breakers at Bletchley Park and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, among others.

The lady, Baroness of Soho in the House of Lords, could be included in that pioneering list herself, as the co-founder of the LastMinute.com. She started the e-commerce website with Brent Hoberman in the 1990s dot com boom with £600,000 of initial funding and took it through to an IPO worth £768m.

“We need a new national institution to lead an ambitious charge – to make us the most digital nation on the planet,” continued Lane Fox, as she unveiled her DotEveryone campaign for the UK government to setup the inclusive DotEveryone agency she wants to see.

“I don’t say this because I’m a fan of institutions. I say this because the values of the internet have always been a dialogue between private companies and public bodies. And right now the civic, public, non-commercial side of the equation needs a boost. It needs more weight. We’ve been going too slow, being too incremental – in skills, in infrastructure, in public services. We need to be bolder." 

  • "Firstly, DotEveryone has to help educate all of us, from all walks of life, about the internet," continued Lane Fox.
  • "Secondly, DotEveryone must put women at the heart of the technology sector. Currently there are fewer women in the digital sector than there are in the UK Parliament. Only 14% of people in UK technology are women, versus 24% in the House of Lords.
  • Finally, we should aim for a much more ambitious global role in unpicking the complex moral and ethical issues that the internet presents. For example, what are the implications of an internet embedded in your home appliances? Do children need online rights? What is an acceptable use of drones?”    [She later referred to the privacy issues raised by Edward Snowden and the need for non-US companies to get better in the tech sector –Ed]. 

More Entrepreneurship Needed
Lane Fox supported her argument by pointing out that 76% of Britons use the internet every day. “In 2014, e-commerce accounted for about 15% of total UK retail sales," she said, before observing there are now 1.4m people in the UK employed in digital businesses and venture capital. “The [tech] sector is 20 times what it was just five years ago.”

But sill, “only 30% of UK SMEs buy or sell online,” she added.

A lack of imagination and boldness in the UK was blamed for the lack of successor companies to LastMinute.com and the fact that the BBC, a public institution, is the only UK website in the global top 100. 

The UK’s relatively small research and development (R&D) spend, “which is just 1.8% of GDP versus 4.5% in the US,” was also castigated as this, “hampers start-up growth … and there is less money available for innovation.”

In conclusion Lane Fox reminded her audience that Britain invented the BBC, the NHS and the Open University, but there wasn’t an equivalent 21st century public institution of a similar global standing. She hopes to make her DotEveryone institution – which she wisely suggested should be stopped once it’s completed its job – just such a body.

But Lane Fox needs the new UK prime minister, whoever is elected at the end of the present general election campaign, to support her initiative if it is ever to see the light of day.

“Let’s not have a poverty of ambition – we can and should be inventing the definitive public institution for our digital age,” she concluded.

• If you’d like to support Lane Fox's initiative sign the change.org petition here. You can see Martha Lane Fox’s blog and speech text here


Neil Ainger, Freelance treasury and fintech writer TagsMobile & onlineInnovation

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