Sunday 23 September 2018

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at Davos: greater regulation of tech sector - particularly social networks - now inevitable

*Comments apparently aimed at the heads of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter

Marc R. Benioff, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Salesforce, Member of the Board of Trustees of World Economic Forum, gestures as he attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Marc R. Benioff, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Salesforce, Member of the Board of Trustees of World Economic Forum, gestures as he attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Donal O'Donovan in Davos, Switzerland

The head of one of the world’s biggest technology firms has told business and political leaders that greater regulation of the sector is now inevitable in comments apparently aimed at the heads of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter.

Speaking as part of a high level panel on the topic “In Tech We Trust” Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff told delegates attending the annual World Economic Forum in Davos in the Swiss Alps that the industry has had a “free pass” until now.

“In the tech industry, we have been clear of those regulations for the entire lifespan of the industry (but) we are seeing signs, especially this year, especially with the elections, especially with social networks, and especially when you see CEOs who abdicate their responsibility and say ‘I didn’t know.’ ”

That was taken by many listeners as a commentary on growing criticism of sexism within tech firms and of social media businesses seen as too slow to tackle problem material shared across their platforms including everything from ‘fake news’ to hate speech aimed at radicalisation and sexual violence.

“Trust has to be your highest value in your company and if it’s not, something bad is going to happen to you,” the Salesforce boss said.

His comments were supported by the recently installed CEO of taxi app Uber. Dara Khosrowshahi’s  own business faced a storm of criticism after Susan Fowler, a former employee detailed a litany of sexism and a culture or bullying at the company that eventually led to CEO Travis Kalanick’s resignation from the top job at the world’s most valuable start-up.

Since then Dara Khosrowshahi has taken on the job, and he told delegates at Davos that business leaders who don’t know what’s happening at their companies, should be removed.

Davos panels traditionally mix business leaders with policy makers, academics and experts. Rachel Botsman, who works with the Saïd Business School at Oxford, in the UK, said demands for transparency increase as trust in institutions goes down.

“You’ve given up on trust if you need transparency,” she said.

While there was criticism of social media at the event, there was also support.

On a separate panel Irish disability rights campaigner Sinead Burke said the internet and social media had been "personally and professionally transformative" for her, allowing doors to be knocked on that never had been in the past.

The big news at this year’s meeting in the Swiss resort, amid panels on the implications of the rise of automation and the plight of refugees, is the anticipated arrival of US President Donald Trump, who is due to speak on Friday.

The US leader’s outspoken nativism and blunt-to-the-point-of-rudeness speaking style are a sharp contrast to the heavy emphasis by the Forum conveners on dialogue, internationalism and mutual support. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Germany’s Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May are all due to attend the event, where they’ll mix with billionaires and CEOs and the likes of singer Elton John and actress Kate Blanchett.

Along with Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan , Elton John and Kate Blanchett picked up awards on Monday for their work raising awareness about human rights issues.

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