PARIS — Organizers were confident the Viva Technology show, in its third edition, would be the largest yet; a near doubling of visitors, to more than 100,000, helped secure the event’s prominence and push France’s techie aspirations forward a notch.
But beneath the veneer of optimism and self-promotion customary at such events, the conference thrust a tangle of consumer rights issues to the fore, laying bare the depth of challenges facing companies as they navigate their digital futures.
Topping the list was the use and collection of consumer data, with the European General Protection Data Regulation, commonly known as GPDR rules, coming into effect as the conference hit full swing, on its second day.
“I share the concern of privacy and I think it’s key for the future to be able to show to the consumer that he or she is protected,” said luxury titan Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Europe is leading the charge to regulate the tech industry, with French President Emmanuel Macron acting as a cheerleader in the drive to build political support for governing the sector. Opening up the conference, the youthful and ambitious leader laid out the case for bolstering controls, citing thorny issues like cyberbullying, unequal tax regimes and labor protections.
“For me, the U.S. model is no longer sustainable because there is no political accountability,” he said, prompting applause from the audience of entrepreneurs, executives and students.
“The Chinese model is very efficient…but this model has not the same models as we have. In terms of privacy, in terms of human rights, in terms of just respect for everybody,” he asserted.
“I don’t want my people being regulated under Chinese law.”
Macron, who invited top executives from global tech giants including Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Uber to the French Presidential Palace for a “Tech for Good” summit on the eve of VivaTech, pushed for cooperation between public and private sectors to tackle matters.
“How we build a European model reconciling innovation and common good — that’s the challenge of our generation. And this challenge is a job between start-ups, large caps, big high tech companies and governments,” he concluded.
Facebook ceo Mark Zuckerberg, hard-pressed to show evidence the company is proactively working to protect users of its network following the recent slew of scandals, including election interference, said Facebook plans to adopt Europe’s GPDR rules on a global level.
But the company plans to stick to its business model based on allowing consumers to use it as a free platform for communication, he said, seated on a stage with veteran advertising executive Maurice Levy, an organizer of the conference.
“Ads are the right business model,” asserted Zuckerberg.
“People want them to be relevant,” he added, employing an argument also used by executives in consumer goods industries.
Still, illustrating there are shortcomings in the tech giant’s approach, Zuckerberg outlined plans over the next six months to explore community governance systems in order to build a system allowing users to appeal content-related decisions.
“We need to be informed by some of these governance principles of things like due process that have emerged in other places around the world,” he said.
For companies selling goods, like luxury conglomerate LVMH, it is important to reassure consumers on how their data is being used, noted Arnault, speaking to a small gathering of journalists.
“What we know about the consumer should be something to help him or help her. It should not be something that is used as a commercial element…that we are using her or his name and what we know about them to make money,” posited the luxury executive.
“We try to use it to promote our products and to give them more accessibility and [the means] for them to get the product faster, to have a better choice, to be able to know as fast as possible what is available,” he continued.
Running through the discussions at the technology fair was the awareness that change is fast-paced and wide-reaching.
“I think that this is a moment of great consequence,” said IBM ceo Ginni Rometty.
“When there’s a technology change and a business change that are happening at the same time instead of sequentially, like every great moment in history, there will be positives and there will be challenges,” asserted the executive.
Illustrating the extent of further transformations down the road, she noted that only 20 percent of data is currently searchable.
“There’s no free lunch,” Macron recounted telling his gathering of executives, who responded with promises of training schemes, job creation and labor protection measures in France.
“We must be responsible guardians of progress,” said Microsoft ceo Satya Nadella, in a short speech introducing Macron.