This year, at the G8 Summit in France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened a special, additional meeting – the eG8. This was an invitation-only two-day meeting that brought together 800 policy makers, scholars (including one of my favorite Internet experts, Lawrence Lessig), government officials, traditional media/communications bigwigs, and, of course, technology entrepreneurs-turned-CEOs-of-giant transnational-corporations (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt of Google). After the meeting, a delegation of participants relayed the eG8’s conclusions to the world leaders gathered in the regular G8 meeting in Deauville, France.
The meeting has attracted a great deal of attention, especially since many interpreted President Sarkozy’s opening statement as a call for increased governmental control of the Internet. Specifically, Sarkozy said that “governments are the legitimate guardians of society” and suggested “a basic minimum of values and rules agreed at the world level.” These opening statements alarmed some who were at the meeting. Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY and eG8 attendee, suggested in a reflective blog post that somebody tell the mid-Eastern protesters (who have famously used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other Internet or web-based applications in their actions) that “governments are the legitimate guardians of society.” Jarvis also stood up at the meeting and publicly asked Sarkozy and others to take a Hippocratic oath for the Internet, concentrating on the “do no harm” principle embodied in the oath (typically sworn by new doctors). (You can hear a short interview with Jarvis from NPR’s On the Media)
Not to be missed in all of this is the fact that Sarkozy’s meeting was held within the context of the G8, a meeting that includes the leaders of the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, and the European Union. That leaves out many significant countries (there is a relatively new G20, which deals primarily with matters of international finances) and to many, smacks of the past cultural, military, and industrial imperialism of these western countries. (Neal Stephenson has written convincingly about the analogy between rubber plantations in the British colonies and the development of the Internet – and the infrastructure needed for the Internet to run). Some have speculated that the conversation about governing the Internet is a question about government sovereignty
Of course, there are already laws in individual countries that determine how we use (or don’t use) the Internet. Facebook is difficult (though not impossible) to use in China, where the Internet is heavily censored. In Germany, there are laws regarding Nazi-related content. France has stricter intellectual property laws than most nations. The European Union in general is more sensitive to and likely to impose regulations around privacy-related issues than the United States. And, in the recent uprisings in Egypt, we saw the government attempt to shut down the infrastructure of the Internet all together (again, at a time when many would have vociferously disagreed that the government in question was the “legitimate guardian of society”). Yet, the Internet remains largely uncontrolled, an aspect of its existence that worries plenty of people who see the Internet dispersing control of culture and commerce away from its traditional loci.
While the eG8 didn’t necessarily get a great deal of mainstream attention, it’s well worth paying attention to the conversation that took place there. The eG8 website has video of all of the talks (see especially the first 15 minutes or so of Plenary V for Lawrence Lessig’s talk).