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At the eG8, 20th century ideas clashed with the 21st century economy

The eG8 shows online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders.

eG8 2011 logoThe scene was set, the players chosen. Amidst the gorgeous environs of the Tuileries Gardens next to the Louvre in Paris, an immense pavilion and grand dais would host a global conversation on the growing role of the Internet as a platform for collective action, economic growth and freedom of expression.

At the the inaugural eG8 Forum, President Nicolas Sarkozy would deliver a grand speech extolling the virtues of the Internet while cautioning against its excesses, making a case to the world that the dynamism of the online world should be civilized to respect privacy, security and intellectual property rights.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would share insight into the future of the social web, perhaps describing TV as the next social media frontier. Following two days of keynote speeches from media magnates like Rupert Murdoch and plenary panels of digital leaders, the eG8′s recommendations for the Internet of the future would be brought to world leaders at the annual G8 forum of industrialized leaders.

In some ways, that script for the eG8 Forum in Paris played out. It was a gathering of international business leaders, media and technologists. President Sarkozy elevated the importance of the Internet to humanity, including its role as an engine for dynamic economic growth and freedom of expression. “You changed the world, just as Columbus and Galileo did,” he said. “You changed the world, just as Newton and Edison did. You changed the world with the imagination of inventors and the audacity of entrepreneurs.”

Sarkozy hailed the importance of the Internet in inspiring revolutions, a phenomenon that the modern state of France retains in its DNA from the 18th century:

In Tunisia and Egypt alike, mere individuals were able to overturn a power that was completely discredited by constituting virtual barracks and very real allies. People in Arab countries thus showed the world that the Internet does not belong to states. The international opinion was able to see that the Internet had become, for freedom of speech, a medium for expressing power that had never been seen before.

The president of France hailed the work of Internet innovators as historic, and noted that the level of responsibility that rests with the leaders of today’s digital companies as “undoubtedly the highest ever given to individuals who do not work in the public sector or in government.”

Sarkozy drew an explicit line between countries that keep the Internet up and those that closed it down, as Egypt did during the critical moments of its revolution this winter. “The free Internet today marks the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy,” said Sarkozy, noting “those who have tried to close the network have sided with the dictatorship.”

To portray Sarkozy’s speech as a glowing endorsement of the Internet’s promise for humanity would be misleading. He asserted a strong role for government, given the power that our connectedness now brings. Sarkozy has referred to the Internet as “a territory to conquer” in the past, a position that Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow made clear he opposed.

“Now that the Internet is an integral part of most people’s live, it would be contradictory to exclude governments from this huge forum,” said Sarkozy. “Nobody could nor should forget that these governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to take the risk of democratic chaos and hence anarchy.”

A substantial portion of Sarkozy’s speech to the eG8 also expressed his concerns about security, protection of children online and, in particular, intellectual property rights, directly connecting protection of books, movies and music with the creations of developers and entrepreneurs. These remarks were made in the context of years of French policy toward the prosecution of intellectual property infringement that is among the most draconian in the world, including a “three strikes” law that would have Internet service providers deny online access to repeat offenders.

“Each of you should be able to be heard because each of you undertake creative work,” Sarkozy said. “It is under this copyright law for creative work that you have been able to found companies that have become empires. These algorithms that constitute your power, this continual innovation that constitutes your strength, this technology that is changing the world, are your property and nobody can contest that. Each of you, each of us, can therefore understand that writers, directors or actors can have the same rights.”

While the HADOPI law was amended after being ruled unconstitutional in a French court, the political force behind it has continued to express itself in France and now, on the world stage.

Defending the Internet

Jérémie Zimmermann
Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, speaks up at the eG8.

In other ways, the eG8 deviated from any pre-scripted consensus around Internet regulation. Over the course of two days, there was indeed both debate and discussion of the importance of the Internet to humanity and industrial economies. In the wake of a report by the New York Times that a communiqué containing recommendations from G-8 leaders had been drafted prior to the end of the eG8 conference, however, the weight of the views offered by the participants was thrown into doubt.

According to the Times report, the draft does not propose any definitive solutions: “We encourage the development of common approaches taking into account national legal frameworks, based on fundamental rights and that protect personal data, whilst allowing the legitimate transfer of data.”

On this count, the concerns of author and blogger Cory Doctorow appear to be at least partially vindicated. Doctorow chose to make a strong statement when he publicly declined the invitation, describing the eG8 as a whitewash, an attempt to get people who care about the Internet to lend credibility to regimes that are in all-out war with the free, open net.” Even calling most of the attendees participants had to be taken with more than few grains of salt, given that the vast majority of the men and women at the eG8 were relegated to the role of largely passive observers to the spectacle of a grand stage populated with suited business leaders.

That said, the choice of several academics, media and technologists to attend mattered, as their voices were heard on the world stage and the counterweight of their arguments offered a reality check to an array of institutional opinions. Notable exceptions were lively panels on intellectual property in which Barlow lit up a debate on copyright and another in which Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig made a strong statement from the eG8 podium:

Over the course of the eG8, a succession of globally recognized authorities in Internet law and economies, including Harvard University professors Yochai Benkler and Lessig, publicly made it clear that there was not a consensus in the recommendations being sent to the G8.

Benkler acknowledged that President Sarkozy spoke eloquently but Benkler expressed concerns about Sarkozy’s emphasis on intellectual property. If one purpose is to come up with an output to the G8, said Benkler, then cutting people off the Net as a remedy for violations is a mistake. Benkler’s comments reflect the concerns of advocates who have emphasized the importance of protecting Internet platforms for expression and innovation.

Benkler highlighted one of the central conflicts of the conference, pitting existing global corporations against the disruptive force of online innovators. The conflict, he said, is between 20th-century content industries that try to capture value by putting it in containers, versus 21st-century companies that focus on capturing the flow.

“You can make the Internet safe for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, or you can make it safe for the next Skype,” said Benkler “You have to choose.” Benkler noted that Skype, founded in Europe and recently acquired for billions of dollars by Microsoft, was a P2P program — a term sometimes associated with piracy.

“Technology will move faster than governments, so don’t legislate before you understand the consequences,” said Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google. “You want to tread lightly in regulating brand new industries. The trend is that incumbents will block new things … nobody who is a delegate here would want Internet growth to be slowed by some stupid rule.”

There are immense questions that will persists about how the Internet should be regulated. Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister (and potential head of the International Monetary Fund), observed that given the amount of e-commerce taking place online, some degree of regulation makes sense.

What was not in question was whether the Internet was a driver of economic activity, whether in autocratic states or market democracies. According to a new study on the Internet’s economic impact released by McKinsey and Company during the eG8, for every job lost from efficiencies and productivity gains caused by the Internet, 2.6 jobs have been created.

Citing Apple’s application store and iOS ecosystem, Schmidt noted “the development of these platforms is the way that great economic wealth is created in the world today.” It’s important for governments to do a hardcore analysis of barriers to entrepreneurship in their countries, he said, including building out broadband access to as many citizens as possible.

The power of online platforms lies in their generative nature, in terms of the innovation that they allow people to create, explained John Donahoe, CEO of eBay. “The real story of the Internet is not what the big platforms are doing — it’s what millions of people are able to do off of them,” he said. “An awful lot of innovation is being driven by young people who don’t know any better.’

Technology does have a bias, according to Schmidt: It empowers individuals. Whether it’s the nations that comprise the G8 or those in the developing world, governments are having trouble with the shift in power. Several attendees, many who had traveled from the United States, strongly questioned whether the Internet should be regulated in the ways that Sarkozy implied. The “value of internet is not just efficiency but also transparency,” tweeted Esther Dyson, “a much better regulator than government could ever be.”

The most public challenge to Sarkozy at the eG8 came when American journalism professor Jeff Jarvis stood up and asked him to take a “Hippocratic oath” for the Internet: first, do no harm. In response, the president of France said “of course,” but couched his reply in terms that address the need to protect security and privacy.

The challenge that reality presents to repressive governments is what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as “the dictator’s dilemma” in her speech on Internet freedom earlier this year: To gain the full economic benefits of the Internet, governments must allow some degree of openness. “Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I have called the freedom to connect,” said Clinton in that earlier speech.

It’s unclear whether these online rights can be asserted over international borders — or whether they’ll be defended by President Barack Obama at the G8 or elsewhere, although the White House international cyberspace policy does support Internet freedom abroad. Leaving realpolitik aside, European support for the position taken by President Sarkozy at the eG8 has not been warm.

Voicing the concerns of civil society

Doctorow was not alone in his concern about the policies that would be recommended by the eG8. Prior to the forum, organizations concerned with human rights, liberties and civil society released a statement to the eG8 and G8 that advocated “expanding internet access for all, combating digital censorship and surveillance, limiting online intermediary liability, and upholding principles of net neutrality.”

In an impromptu press conference held on the ground of the eG8 Forum, Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, Jarvis, Lessig, Benkler, former ICANN board member Susan P. Crawford, and Jean-François Julliard, director of Reporter Sans Frontières, all made it clear that there was not a consensus about the principles or rules of the road for the Internet.

“The open Internet is the basis for democracy flourishing around the world,” said Susan Crawford, an American law professor and former White House official. “Access to the Internet is fundamental. These are the most important policies that government should be embracing. We want to make sure that other voices are heard.”

While Lessig acknowledged that business was an important constituency, he reminded press conference attendees of how the Internet has grown since the ARPANET first connected universities. The people who built the internet “weren’t originally business, it was civil society,” said Lessig. A “huge part of the Internet is not here [at the eG8] and especially the innovating companies that five years from now will think of this equivalent of Twitter, they were not here.”

There is much to cherish and value in that growth over time. “The critical change produced by the digital network environment is the radical decentralization of the capacity to speak, to create, to innovate, to see together, to socialize, the radical distribution of the poor means of production, computations, communications, storage, sensing, capture human sociality that which gets us together inside the experience, being there on the ground,” said Benkler.

What an open Internet allows is the radical decentralization of the means of production, sad Benkler. “That is true for the first time since the industrial revolution, that people can actually, with the things they own, capture the world and do something that is at the very core of the most advanced economies.”

He emphasized the critical importance of preserving a framework that is “open, free-flowing, flexible, adaptive to change, and inviting,” so that one person’s sacrifice in Sidi Bouzid “can be translated throughout the Arab world into a moment of mobilization. That’s new, that’s what is critical.”

Benkler was baffled that opposition to the open model of innovation persists after 15 years, as if “we’ve learned nothing,” calling the assumptions made on the intellectual property panel on the first day of the eG8 laughable. “Whether liberty, equality or fraternity, we all have to be on the same page about retaining an open Net,” he said.

There is reason to both hope and fear for the moment that we’re in. Governments, telecommunications providers and the content distributors of the 21st century are in some alignment. While the “very architecture of the Internet is its best protection,” as Jarvis asserted, he expressed fear about what he’d heard and seen at the eG8. In response, he advocated for an “Internet Bill of Rights” that would push for a right to connect, protection for free speech, and the right to act and assemble.

Those activities matter more than ever, said Jarvis. “While I hesitate to quote Habermas, the counter to the weight of government that he saw in the salons of coffeehouses, I think we have now online.”

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  • http://www.stallman.org/ Richard M Stallman

    Sarkozy’s speech was worse than the article says, because it uses the
    term “intellectual property” as if it were a coherent concept. Really
    that term is just a way to confuse a dozen unrelated laws. See
    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/not-ipr.html.

    He probably really means copyright. If he had said “copyright”, at
    least his speech wou;d have made sense. It would be totally wrong,
    but it would make sense. However, he preferred to confuse the issue
    with a dozen unrelated laws, perhaps to discourage clear thinking by
    others.