With the recent media furore over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the topic of this year’s Elizabethan Union Dinner Debate held particular resonance.
The Old Elizabethans secured a decisive, although not totally one-sided, victory, as they and a pair of sixth-formers debated the motion: This House believes that in the digital age we should not expect our online activities to remain private.
Pupils Akshat Sharma and Tej Mehta put forward the motion for the 53rd annual debate, which was held on the day of the 445th anniversary of the founding of the School. It was opposed by Jonathan Hollingsworth, who opened, with support from Pravin Swamy (both OEs 2006-2013).
Headmaster Neil Enright said: “The debate itself was a typically lively and good-humoured affair. The whole event serves to help prepare boys for handling similar such formal, but social, occasions as they progress through university, their careers and life more broadly.”
Captain of the School Aashish Khimasia proposed the customary toasts to Her Majesty, the Queen, and The Pious Memory of Queen Elizabeth I, whilst Ross Lima (OE 1995-2002) proposed the toast to The Elizabethan Union.
Ross read Law at Sheffield and now works for Shell as Lead Legal Counsel for the sale of catalysts across large areas of the globe. In his speech, he reminisced about his first day at QE and meeting friends Laurence Burrows and Panicos Petrou, both of whom attended the dinner debate as his guests, along with Ross’s wife, Sarah. He remembered how the then-Headmaster, Eamonn Harris, told them to look around at the prefects: “He told us we were wearing the same blazers, but we hadn’t earned ours yet.” Looking at his Dinner Debate audience, Ross said: “You are now in the same position as those very boys that I looked up to on that day, and through your achievements at this School you have earned the right to wear that blazer.”
He spoke of the challenges the boys have already faced in their School careers and encouraged them to continue to seek out new challenges and opportunities, and to learn to overcome their fears.
The indicative vote at the outset indicated that the floor was leaning against the motion.
The debate began with Akshat putting forward the proposal. He and seconder Tej set out their case that it was, in fact, a reality that our online activities are not private – using state surveillance, as an example. They also argued the importance of being aware of how others use the data they hold, via social media or online gaming. They put forward the view that if people agree to the terms of surveys and ‘apps’ they use, then companies like Cambridge Analytica had, in law, not necessarily done anything wrong.
They also expounded the case for the positives of monitoring online activities, for the purposes of detecting and preventing crime and acts of terror.
The opposition countered these arguments, claiming the price of giving up our online privacy would be to give up part of our humanity, including our freedom of speech. Facebook came in for criticism, and the alumni said that even Mark Zuckerberg has now opined that such companies need regulating. They argued that people would not expect more traditional forms of communication – the Royal Mail or faxes, for example – to be open to others to view, so why should the internet be any different?
They also questioned whether the good citizens represented on the floor should be subjected to privacy breaches by the state in the name of security, advocating a higher threshold. They proposed a series of policy interventions to ensure better data protection online.
The floor debate saw enthusiastic contributions from Year 12 speakers and guests. These ranged from the question of how to monitor and deal with the terrorist threat, through to the different expectations there should be users in terms of the sharing of social media posts and messages between, on the one hand celebrities (and those who court social media attention) and, on the other, ordinary users. They also raised the already-strict financial and criminal penalties that exist for those who breach data laws.
The three-course meal started with leek and potato soup. There was a choice of main course between vegetarian tart and salmon, which was served with crushed new potatoes, green beans and tomato and basil sauce. Dessert was lemon and lime tart.