eG8: Should The Internet Stay Savage?

By May 31, 2011

Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Mason, Rupert Murdoch, Sean Parker, Eric Schmidt and Jimmy Wales—yes, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales—walk into a hornets’ nest of greying politicos…

No, it’s not a joke. This is just a sample of the speakers at the so-called eG8 Forum, held this past week in Paris as a prelude to the G8 Summit in Deauville, which concluded a couple of days ago.

The Forum, hosted by the diminutive French president Nicolas Sarkozy, was intended to be a gathering of technology and web “leaders and stake-holders from around the world”. His goal was to develop a list of policy recommendations and guidelines for the heads of state, and to allow attendees to “voice their vision of the Internet’s importance and impact on society and the economy,” as Sarkozy said in his platitudinous and saccharine speech to attendees and observers. Well, whoop dee doo.

Sarkozy warned the audience: “Don’t let the revolution that you’ve begun threaten everyone’s basic right to a private life and full autonomy. Full transparency sooner or later runs into the very principle of individual freedom.” So does government regulation. Ipso facto.

The French president appealed to the assembled tech titans: “We need to hear your aspirations, your needs… You need to hear our limits, our red lines.” Supposedly, these “red lines” would increase protection for children online, among other “pressing issues”.

This constant refrain, that of “protecting children”, is a useful one for policymakers because few people argue against it. But statistics show that, in the US at least, the average child is first exposed to hardcore pornography when they’re 11 years old. 90% of children between ages 8 and 16 have been exposed to hardcore pornography, mostly while doing homework. So, might it be a little late, Sarko, to start protecting children from online baddies? Yes, but, as usual, the old “we must protect the children” argument may be a straw man for something more dastardly.

Google”s Eric Schmidt suggested that the internet precipitated a “shift in power”, freeing individuals to illegally release secret documents, pirate copyrighted material, and rally against repressive regimes. “My own opinion is that most governments are having trouble with that shift in power. So rather than sort of complaining about it, which is what everybody does, why don’t we see if we can harness it?”

Certain European leaders’ wishes to regulate, or “civilize”, the internet come off as attempts to counterbalance the shift in power. Sarkozy has a track record of limiting internet freedom in France, as well as opening up internet companies based in France to government scrutiny. A controversial law requires French companies to store the personal data of customers and offer it up for government scrutiny if requested.

“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 over-regulating the internet,” said Schmidt. “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.”

Though it shows this correspondent’s ideological leanings (e.g. The University of Chicago’s economics department), a possible alternative to government regulation is continuing response to market demands. Given that almost all of the delegates represented for-profit entities (or, in the case of Wales’s Wikipedia, a robust and receptive internal culture) it is in their interest to self-regulate. Fear of litigation, oftentimes, is its own form of regulation. Corporations have lawyers to fight for their digital rights.

It’s clear that if there’s one thing individuals really want to do, it’s to share. It’s to blur the boundary between self and other. Big internet companies have overstepped consumer privacy rights in the past, and they didn’t need governments to step in to protect them. Consumers vote with their “Submit Comment” buttons, and for now corporations listen.

Holding onto conceptions of privacy and intellectual property from the print era is at best counterproductive and, at worst, dangerous. Fact.

William Burrough’s essay/short story, Immortality, apart from being a depressing allegory for government regulation (or capitalism, depending on how you interpret it) ends with an interesting point. “Immortality is prolonged future, and the future of any artifact lies in the direction of increased flexibility capacity for change and ultimately mutation.” Change or die, dude.

Perhaps Bob Dylan put it more clearly: “Come senators, congressmen // Please heed the call // Don’t stand in the doorway // Don’t block up the hall // For he that gets hurt // Will be he who has stalled // There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ // It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls // For the times they are a-changin’.”

It certainly is a Zucked up world we live in. The joke’s on you, Sarko.