e-G8 Wants to Be New Forum on Web Freedom and Governance (5/23)     Print

A special variant of the G-8 – this one to bring together a “summit” of web leaders – is meeting in France ahead of the regular G-8 summit meeting this week in Deauville. In this initiative, President Nicolas Sarkozy is convening key players from the public and private sector including such influential figures as NewsCorp owner Rupert Murdoch, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the French Minister of Finance Christine Lagarde and the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes for a two-day debate (May 24-5) to discuss Internet-related questions -- notably how to ensure its reliability and accessibility while protecting the global system’s security.

A first of its kind at this level, the event has similar aims to the formal inter-governmental G-8 and G-20 sessions – find common purposes and define differences more constructively or at least more clearly. It is no secret that there are some differences in transatlantic views. As French Ambassador Francois Delattre told a recent European Institute audience, France is more inclined than the U.S. to favor a stronger degree of government regulation of aspects of web. In contrast, the Obama administration has put strong emphasis on the role of free social media in promoting democracy. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton often extols the positive impact of the web in helping crystallize the “Arab spring” and urges greater web freedom elsewhere to encourage the growth of democracy.

This political dimension has been the source of some controversy in France: before he resigned as foreign minister in October 2010, Bernard Kouchner had promoted the idea of an international conference focused on internet freedoms, but his idea was modified at the insistence of French presidential aides to move away from political “dissidence” via the web and to put more stress on the need for a “civilized internet” that protects privacy and prevents unregulated web sites, according to a well-sourced article by Frederic Martel, a former French cultural attaché in Boston who now has a media program of his own in France.

The Obama administration has sought to upgrade U.S. ability to use social media to promote U.S. diplomacy, including efforts to back dissidents (notably in countries such as Iran and China) to capitalize on advanced technologies for non-violent organization and mobilization. For example, the U.S. government has appropriated $25 million for R&D projects designed to develop software helping dissidents circumvent electronic barriers set up by authoritarian countries.

When the e-G8 idea was proposed, the White House agreed to attend on condition that it would be confined to a discussion of principles and exclude any negotiations on possible rules aimed at regulating the internet.

--European Affairs