Britain's online evangelist does it to spread the joy
Millions of Britons still can't access the internet. Martha Lane Fox tells Ian Burrell about her mission to connect them up
Monday 18 October 2010
By the time you read this, Martha Lane Fox will be on her way to Bridlington. "Bright, breezy and bracing" is the alliterative slogan they give to the Yorkshire coastal town, and it's a description that also fits the diminutive digital tsarina who aims to have the entire British populace online by 2012.
Brid is something of a black spot in her realisation of that ambition, having been identified as one of the most digitally excluded areas in the UK, with many elderly and unemployed residents. The internet made Lane Fox very rich from the 2003 flotation of her internet travel company lastminute.com, and she insists it can bring economic benefit to East Riding.
She promises to paddle in the North Sea and sample the famous fish and chips, which may help convince locals that she is more than a metropolitan millionaire, cajoling them into getting online. She jokes that she will be travelling by train and "not on my broomstick", a piece of self-deprecation which acknowledges that not everyone will immediately comprehend the benefits of her two-day trip to Yorkshire. Will breezy Bridlington see her as an icy blast or a breath of fresh air?
Lane Fox, 37, does not have a broomstick but a black cane, her constant companion since her horrific car crash in Morocco in 2008, in which she suffered a stroke, a shattered pelvis and 28 broken bones. Partaking of the Bridlington surf will do little to ease the pain that she still lives with every day.
"You either choose to lie down, let it wash over you and not do anything or you deny everything and carry on and try to keep going and that's what I've tried to do," she says. "You can't break 28 bones and have a stroke and not live with very serious consequences. Sometimes those things make everything just too difficult and it's unbearable but most of the time it's all right. I'm probably just high on drugs, who knows?"
She does not raise this subject for sympathy and is merely answering a question about her health. The advice she passes on from her dreadful accident is simply this: "Wear a seatbelt". In spite of her dotcom background, her message as the UK's digital champion is not couched in the terminology of the techie and the need for more megabits per second, 4G phones and internet protocol television.
"The most pressing thing is explaining the joys of instant communication, that you can save money and see pictures of your grandchildren, the stuff that we all take completely for granted." She is annoyed by the sight of London buses advertising broadband deals because "that's not going to help anyone that doesn't know what broadband means".
When Lane Fox took up the post in July 2009 there were still 10 million people in the UK who had never engaged with the internet. That figure has fallen to nine million, but she says it's too early for her Race Online 2012 team to take the credit. "Next year will be the big one," she promises. Her intention is to make the UK the most internet-connected country on Earth.
She is overseeing this plan from a building in London's Soho that, at ground floor level, is swarming with traffic wardens bristling with technological gadgetry and anxious to begin a day's ticketing. Four storeys up a dingy stairwell, in a corner of office space borrowed from an advertising agency, Martha Lane Fox is perched on the end of a desk she shares with five colleagues, tapping at her laptop.
On the back of her chair is a scarlet jacket that matches her dress from Marks & Spencer (where she is a non-executive director). It's a very red outfit for someone who has been at Downing Street that day discussing digital strategy, although she appears to get on as easily with the Tories as she did with Gordon Brown's government, which originally appointed her.
Race Online 2012 has no bespoke building and little budget. Lane Fox does not take her £30,000 salary on the grounds that "it strikes me as a bit lame when you've got a lot of money like me to take public money". Her whole strategy is based on coaxing partner organisations, big and small, public and private, to work together for the common cause.
"We are not doing anything particularly clever, apart from putting people in a room together who might not have been put in a room before and trying to raise the ambition, which is what you have to do when you have got no money. You have to piggyback on other people's resources."
Because of her extraordinary energy and consummate networking skills, a vast army is assembling at her disposal. Since April, 750 partner organisations have signed up to the cause, from global organisations such as Google and McDonald's to local libraries and post offices.
Between them, the partners have made commitments to bring a further 1.9 million people online. Some of those partners will be assisting her in Bridlington as part of Get Online Week, which starts today and will coincide with the BBC's First Click media literacy campaign, which even includes an episode of Radio 4's The Archers in which Peggy Archer finally comes face to face with the internet.
Lane Fox has seen enough from these partners to really believe that the UK can be the first country to be fully connected to the web. "My ambition is to have near-on 100 per cent engagement with the web, but that could be through a trusted intermediary," she says. "As an entrepreneur you always set insane targets because if you stretch for something ambitious you are much more likely to get further."
She's doing this not as a wacky challenge – like the time she took part in a 24-hour karaoke session in Tokyo just for the hell of it – nor because she is "some insane cyber-utopian", but because she has talked to enough people whose lives have been transformed, even saved, by the internet.
She respects the fact that there will be "some resisters" who avoid the internet by choice, but wants to make a "level playing field" for those who might welcome some help in getting online. "People training and helping other people is the key to unlocking this."
People like Warda, the Somali refugee in Birmingham who set up an online translation business to capitalise on her knowledge of 17 languages, and Darryl from Leeds, who escaped a cycle of drug addiction only after finding work through an online music project.
"It's a fact that it reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation and helps rebuild your confidence. It is education on your own terms and the potential to maybe have small revenue streams," says Lane Fox, who has become even more dependent on the web since her accident.
She credits her parents for what is clearly a well-defined instinct for making the world a fairer place. She is a patron of the charity Camfed, which helps young women in rural Africa fight poverty and HIV, and of Reprieve, which supports prisoners facing the death penalty. She has set up a foundation, Antigone, to give technological support to UK charities.
And that experience with karaoke led to her becoming co-founder of Lucky Voice, a company dedicated to replicating the authentic Japanese public singing experience in the UK. She now has five bars and a deal with ITV to offer an X Factor Party Box karaoke kit through the website of the hit show.
"I never imagined it would work that well and I actually thought we would have just one small bar," she admits. "It's just fun. I don't like businesses that aren't fun, for gawd's sake."
Not even her pain can deflect that sense of fun. Thus her karaoke song of choice is Elton John's "I'm Still Standing". "Well I am, just about. It's a good song because you can shout it – I really am a bad singer." But she needs to save her larynx for the cajoling, the coaxing and the cheerleading, as she pursues her digital target. Does she really believe it's achievable? "Yes, I absolutely do. Not necessarily the complete population but near as damn it is what I'd say, definitely as much as watches TV."
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