G8 and the Internet: Sarkozy Messes With a Good Thing

Rather than discussing the constraints that should be put on Internet users in democratic countries, they should focus their energies on how to unconstrain users in non-democracies such as China.
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The irony couldn't be more obvious. After staging a piece of political theater called the E-G8, which French President Nicolas Sarkozy used as a platform to champion the notion of much tougher government control over the Internet, the president today will welcome to the analog G8 meeting in Deauville, representatives from the interim governments of Tunisia and Egypt.

Without the Internet, and social media in particular, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt would simply have never occurred.

Sarkozy's problem is that, like other political leaders, he doesn't like a medium over which the government does not have final authority. With the Internet's arrival, lofty concepts such as freedom of speech and freedom of thought are actually gaining traction. Prior to this, freedom of speech was meaningful only to those who powerful people who could use the printing presses and broadcast media.

Earlier this week in the UK, for example, football star Ryan Giggs filed a lawsuit against Twitter and thousands of Twitter users who ignored a court-ordered injunction that prohibited the media from identifying the celebrities involved in an extramarital affair case in which Giggs is a central figure. The so-called super injunction is truly odious, and prohibits newspapers and other media from even saying the injunction exists. In the old model of centralized, one-to-many mass media, the hiding of inconvenient truths was easily achieved. No longer.

This alarms politicians such as Sarkozy. In his opening address at the E-G8, he told his audience of digital luminaries from around the world that, "The universe you represent is not a parallel universe. Nobody should forget that governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to risk democratic chaos and anarchy."

Sarkozy sounds like a music recording industry executive arguing that MP3s and file-sharing have already created chaos and anarchy in the music world. The music industry has responded to the democratization of music distribution with intransigence and lawsuits. They sought a legal solution to a business model disruption and are now paying the price. For his part, Sarkozy has enshrined in French law that anyone caught downloading copyright-protected music from the Internet without permission more than three times should have their Internet access cut off. I'm not the only one to view this approach as truly asinine. Last week the U.N.'s independent expert on freedom of speech, Frank La Rue, said that politicians promoting this response don't understand that access to the Internet has become a basic human right.

Given his views on the Internet and music, it is not surprising that most Internet-industry delegates at the E-G8 shivered when Sarkozy said that, "We need to hear your aspirations, your needs," but that "You need to hear our limits, our red lines."

During one of the E-G8 panel discussions, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt responded to Sarkozy's attitude by saying, "You want to tread lightly on regulating brand new, innovative industries... Clearly you need some level of regulation for the evil stuff. But I would be careful about overregulating the Internet."

"I cannot imagine any delegate in this conference [who] would want Internet growth to be significantly slowed by a government that slows it down because of some stupid rule that they put in place," he said.

Schmidt has the proper perspective. The appropriate debate is not between Sarkozy's oppressive approach as opposed to no regulation whatsoever. Obviously the rule of rule should prevail in cyberspace just as it does in the bricks-and-mortar world.

But the Internet is changing every institution in society. It enables new approaches to innovation, requiring new thinking about patents and copyright. It renders old institutions naked, requiring more transparency on the part of governments and corporations. It disrupts old models of learning and pedagogy demanding a change a relationship between students and teachers in the learning process. It offers new models of democracy based on a culture of public discourse, in turn compelling old style politicians to engage their citizens. It turns intellectual property into bits, that don't know the old rules that governed atoms of how to behave. It drops the transaction costs of dissent, subjecting dictators and tyrants to the power of mass participation. It breaks down national boundaries and requiring a rethinking of how peoples everywhere can cooperate to solve global problems. And for the first time in history children are an authority on the most important innovation changing every institution in society.

Predictably, old style political leaders comfortable with the industrial age are dazed and confused, and many feel threatened. A new communications medium is causing disruption, dislocation and uncertainty. And leaders of old paradigms with vested interests fear what they do not understand, and react with coolness or even hostility. Rather than innovating and opening up they often hunker down, trying to strengthen old outdated rules and approaches.

Let's hope the representatives from Tunisia and Egypt talk sense into Sarkozy and the other leaders when they meet today. Yes, the Internet should be on the G8 agenda, but not from the perspective that this technology poses some menace to the world's democracies. Rather, G8 leaders should discuss how to champion and promote the growth of the Internet within their own countries and around the world.

Rather than discussing the constraints that should be put on Internet users in democratic countries, they should focus their energies on how to unconstrain users in non-democracies such as China.

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