Worldwide Web: Transatlantic Divergences on Its Future (5/31)     Print Email

In an unusual joint public-private initiative, political leaders and major Internet players held a broad open forum on May 24-25 in Paris to discuss the future of the Internet. Held on the sidelines of the G8 summit meeting of Western powers in Deauville, the web forum was called "the e-G8." The outcome was foreseeable -- more divergences than agreement.


The session did not produce any recommendations for a common global (or even common Western) approach to regulation of the worldwide web, including social media. The Obama administration insisted in advance that U.S. officials would only participate on condition that there be no “negotiations” of even advisory recommendations, only discussion. The debates themselves -- involving official, executives and activists -- highlighted major transatlantic differences about the way ahead. Roughly speaking, the U.S. supports continued laissez-faire on the grounds that this approach has served the web well while Europeans are inclined to seek tighter national and international rules and authority to prevent the web from “spiraling out of control” -- “out of the control of who?” is, of course, the core of the dispute.

This so-called “e-G8” did not appear to budge any of the players from their viewpoints on Internet governance. Representing their views alongside Facebook and Google were Maurice Lévy, chief executive of Publicis, Stéphane Richard of France Telecom and Hiroshi Mikitani of Rakuten, Japan's largest on-line retailer. The majority of private-sector participants stressed fears that the economic and social gains of digital innovation could suffer from more regulation. In contrast, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes and French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who has taken a tough stance favoring Internet control -- championed the cause of tighter regulation, arguing that this approach would head off the emergence of “democratic chaos.” This view seems to be spreading among European leaders: British Prime Minister David Cameron said this week that he would ask Parliament to update British privacy laws after Twitter users circumvented court orders aimed at preventing the media from publishing the names of public figures suspected of extramarital affairs. At the e-G8, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg challenged the calls for official controls of the net arguing that technology, rather than regulation, could take care of many of the challenges facing the Internet. “Before we decide if there is a regulatory solution, let’s ask if there’s a technological solution,” Schmidt said. On property rights, for example, he cited Google’s "checksum" algorithm which blocks copyrighted contents from being uploaded on You Tube (which Google owns). Similarly, Zuckerberg voiced concerns about  governments' temptation to "go towards the most extreme [regulatory] option" on security or privacy issues.

The question of on-line protection for intellectual property rights laid bare tensions between U.S. and European high-tech industries. Jean-Bernard Levy, CEO of Vivendi, the French-owned media company that is a world leader in on-line music and video games, echoed French government’s points about the need for strong copyright on the web and defended the “artist’s right to decide how his work is used.” A cultural fault-line surfaced when Schmidt opposed this view on the grounds that “copyright is not an absolute right” in today’s technological situation of communication. “It [copyright] is a shared right. It is, in one form or another, a balance of interests,” he said.

Schmidt’s argument was clearly aimed at France’s HADOPI law – a controversial 2009 statute that stipulates conditions in which “pirates” can be cut off from their Internet access. Vivendi’s Pacal Negre, who directs the company’s Universal Music division, joined French Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand, in highlighting the role of government in ensuring full copyright protection for online products.

Rifts also appeared between tech industries and civil society on the use of the Internet. Media rights advocates and civil society groups – a small, mainly European contingent at the e-G8 -- complained that the forum focused on corporate rights and issues and neglected citizens’ concerns such as freedom of speech and privacy rights. This European advocacy group also opposed governments’ regulatory leanings.

But despite this, they did not appear to favor the U.S. government's approach either. Although the Obama’s administration has identified internet freedom as a top priority, especially in terms of diplomacy, its policy was criticized by Europeans (and others) at the e-G8 as a program trying to “instrumentalize” web freedom as a political tool and not giving enough emphasis to its public and social uses. Significantly in these critics’ view, the “internet freedom policy” espoused under Secretary of State Hilary Clinton concentrates too narrowly on providing tools and other ways for dissidents to circumvent foreign states’ blockages against access to leading U.S.-based websites and social media such as Google, You Tube or Twitter. These critics reiterated in Deauville that the U.S. approach risks neglecting a long-running vision of the political autonomy and economic power that must be based on local digital sites and development.

European criticism of the U.S. “instrumental” approach was also highlighted in an article published in Le Monde newspaper by Olivier Sichel, the ex-head of Wanadoo (a French internet service-provider created in 2000 and bought in 2006 by France Telecom). His article underscores the sense of transatlantic resentment about U.S. dominance on the web, and accuses Google of seeking to keep a monopolistic position (over 90 percent of global research on the internet is done through Google) by using anti-competitive techniques and spreading a misleadingly “condescending” vision of Europe’s web capabilities in order to consolidate Google’s “hegemonistic dominance.”


----- By Thalia Bayle