Martha Lane Fox: Thinking like a champion

The UK's digital champion appears undaunted by the challenge of getting the last 10 million Britons online by 2012 despite having no money

'Someone said to me, 'Oh, I know who you are – you're that dotcom dinosaur'," Martha Lane Fox says. "I thought, 'Oh my God! That's not so good'." The co-founder of has been in the public eye for almost as long as the internet has existed, so it is little wonder that, though aged just 37, she sometimes seems like a throwback to an earlier era. When she started in 1997, Google did not exist and fewer than 5% of the population were online. In internet terms, it was the dark ages.

More than a decade since she became the poster girl for the web, Lane Fox is still the UK's cheerleader for all things digital. David Cameron appointed her as the government's digital champion in June (continuing an existing arrangement put in place by the previous regime, giving her more responsibility but less money).

Her latest project is Race Online 2012, which has just released its Manifesto For A Networked Nation. It aims to get the 10 million Britons who do not use the internet online by the end of 2012, which sounds like a daunting task given that, as Lane Fox concedes, there is "no money" with which to do it. There is something faintly schoolmarmish about her insistence that it can be achieved, however. "We can nail a lot of this," she says. "It is going to be delivered … [if] you can build a business in two years, you can bloody well get on and do this."

You can almost picture Lane Fox arriving at a local library or jobcentre, and haranguing everyone until they agree to log on. "With my stick?" she asks, gesturing towards the walking stick she has used since a car crash in 2004. "No, I don't believe in forcing people." Not forcing, cajoling, I say. "Encouraging," she replies, firmly.

OK then, encouraging: but how is this going to work? South Korea, one of the world's most hi-tech countries, is spending $25bn on a super-speed broadband network. The UK is spending nothing. Cameron is preparing to implement the biggest and most far-reaching public sector cuts for a generation, and a commitment to roll out broadband to rural areas has already been pushed back from 2012 to 2015. Almost everyone agrees that the digital divide should be bridged, but how can that be done without major government intervention – a drive to hand out PCs, perhaps, or a billion or two spent subsidising broadband packages for the less well-off?

Substantial commitments

"There is no money and we don't need it to make a big stride forward," Lane Fox insists. "There is a massive amount you can do. You can make big inroads into that 10 million number without having to spend money." For a start, she says, 500 private companies and publicly-funded organisations have already signed up as partners. "Big organisations like Sky, the BBC, McDonald's, Comet [and] libraries are making very substantial commitments to get people online, which we'll then help manage. By using their networks where we can, we think we can make a big change."

Sainsbury's will hold crash courses in computing in its supermarkets over tea and biscuits. Comet has agreed to host special evenings at stores for "people who are over a certain age" who might otherwise feel too intimidated to visit. There is a commercial imperative for these companies to help usher people online, Lane Fox says. "This is good business. This isn't CSR [corporate social responsibility]. Not all Sky customers take up its broadband, for example, and for Sainsbury's, the more activity they can get going on in their stores the better."

There is also a huge national technological infrastructure that can be utilised. "The government's spent billions on technology – they've spent it in schools, in GP surgeries, in libraries, in community centres. We've got to make it easier for people to find that technology and re-use it and learn about it at a time convenient to them. There are 500,000 computers locked up in schools every night. Wouldn't it be great if they could be opened up at times beyond when the children use them?" So teachers will need to unlock the school gates in the evening? "Or volunteers," Lane Fox retorts. "That's when you start matching organisations we've got working with us with government infrastructure."

It sounds as if she has signed up to Cameron's "big society", although Lane Fox makes a point of saying there is plenty government can do. "I think [the prime minister] understands that government needs to take a lead on this. Frontline workers in many government agencies don't even have access to the internet. They've got to start cleaning up their own patch."

As we talk, some of Lane Fox's internet advocates, members of the public who will be meeting Cameron later that day, start to file through the door. "We're taking 20 people we've met at projects around the country and have had their lives changed by the internet," she says. "This is why I'm working 24/7 for no money – because the people I've met are so inspiring. I'm just delighted they get to go to No 10 and hopefully their stories will inspire the prime minister as well."

Disarmingly, she adds: "It is difficult to talk about it without sounding like a metropolitan arse. I'm not a crazy cyber-utopian but I do absolutely believe that one of the most instant and helpful tools that people can be given is access to and space to use the internet. When people get online, change happens in their lives. It's not a panacea. But read the stories: people who have said 'I'd be dead without the internet', people who have come back out of mental health problems … they've started businesses, brought communities together."

Incredible opportunity

Lane Fox's own life was transformed by the internet, of course. She was in her mid-20s when she and Brent Hoberman left a consultancy to found Lastminute, and when the company floated a few years later she became a multimillionaire. She describes that time as "an incredible opportunity" and is grateful for the experience – "plus, frankly, the money" – but Lastminute already seems a world away. Little that she and Hoberman thought might happen has come to pass, she says.

"There was no Google, there were no social networks when we launched. It's extraordinary the speed at which change happens and some things have happened much more quickly – businesses have appeared from nowhere. Some things have happened more slowly."

It also changed her life a second time, Lane Fox says, after the much-reported car crash during a holiday in Morocco that followed her resignation from Lastminute in 2004. She broke 24 bones and was hospitalised for almost a year. "I was thinking the other day that I'm probably one of the only people to have survived a virtual crash – the stock market – and a real crash with a car," she says. "I nearly died. I crawled back out into life by using the web."

The accident hasn't changed her, she says. "I don't think it's changed my view of life. I think it's just made me more determined because everything's harder." She couldn't run a FTSE company again, she says, because the physical demands would be too great, but "I don't sit here yearning to run another organisation".

I sense she would regard it as self-indulgent to spend too long reflecting on what has already been an eventful life. "Basically it feels like my life was working on till late at night and early in the morning and as soon as I came up for air – splat: that was that. And now I'm just getting on with stuff."

She has two years to persuade, cajole and encourage a good number of those 10 million people to get online and says she will be disappointed if that number "is not significantly lower — at least half, if not smaller" by then. "What's the point of having a plan if it's not ambitious?" Perhaps a more modest number might be more realistic, but it would be churlish not to admire Lane Fox for aiming high.

So what next? "If we can get anywhere near our aim I will be extremely happy and I will worry about 'what next' after that. This is a big enough mission."


James Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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