Martha Lane Fox on her Richard Dimbleby Lecture: The Internet should be for everyone

The Baroness and founder of lastminute.com on how going online can be "phenomenally empowering"

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It’s not just about nipple tassels, of which more later. Martha Lane Fox, or Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, has started her peerage as she means to go on, namely by shaking up the status quo a bit. “Well done, dear,” says a colleague, greeting her as we walk together through the lobby of the House of Lords. “I support you entirely.” I look at her for explanation. “I have said that these days it’s no excuse for people not to be online,” she whispers. “This has been translated as me criticising my fellow peers, which I was not. At all.”

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We sit down in an aged tearoom, all panelled walls, latticed windows and deep carpet. This is a Victorian time capsule. Except here I am with Lane Fox, 42, early adopter of the dot-com boom, who is in a tangerine dress, with nail varnish to match, looking and sounding as contemporary as ever. She was made a cross-bench peer in 2013, with a mission to speak up for the technology sector. Now she’s about to give the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture, in which she will expound on her ideas.

First, the bee in her bonnet about people not being online. “There are ten million adults in the UK who don’t get the benefits from the internet. I have never seen a tool that is as phenomenally empowering as the internet, for so little effort. I have met from people all over the country, from Bridlington to Bournemouth, saying it has helped them get back to work, helped them get their life back on track. I believe it’s worth spending the time showing people who haven’t had the money or exposure, the benefits.” 

What about people like my mum, who simply resists it? “It’s not enough to just say, ‘I don’t do the internet’,” says Lane Fox crisply. “We should give those people a gentle nudge.”

Lane Fox and her business partner Brent Hoberman came up with Lastminute.com, a revolutionary notion of online ticket booking, when she was in her 20s. This was in 1998, at the dawn of the internet age. They sold the company in 2005 for £557 million. Now she says it is time for public organisations to take up the baton. “Putting the internet at the heart of things enables you to make more interesting choices. But that requires people understanding the transformative power of the net, and how to use it to build great services. We have to embed the net into public and civic life.”

What, like that disastrous NHS big computer? “No! That was just bad IT. I think the power of the internet to enable better services for us, the users, the citizens, consumers, educators, patients, is enormous. And we haven’t really begun to tap into it.”

Second on her list is the issue of gender. “The first venture capitalist Brent and I met when we were raising funds said he had one question, which was, ‘What happens if you get pregnant?’” Lane Fox looks at me, theatrically offended.

“The House of Lords is about 24 per cent female. In the technology sector, it’s 17 per cent. But in engineering the female sector goes down to about four per cent! We are creating things that are less diverse than they could be, because women aren’t embedded in the design process.” 

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Like what? The Baroness of Soho, who at her investiture was given not one but two sets of nipple tassels (one from a mate, the other from the Soho Society), rolls her eyes. “Well, Twitter. Twitter has said if it had had more women on their original design team it would have thought a bit more about the potential for trolling and abuse. The Apple Health Kit [an app that consolidates your health data] has been touted as providing every test about your body that you could possibly want. Blood, sweat, tears. But not your period. Why? Because there was not one woman on the engineering team. Not one.”