Is France Plotting to Kill the Free Internet?

Sarkozy by guillaume PaumierFrench President Nicolas Sarkozy has a fairly tempestuous relationship with the Internet. He’s the man who backed the controversial ”Hadopi” laws that kick copyright infringers offline — the model for “three strikes” legislation around the planet. He’s proposed taxes on Internet use and has talked regularly about creating a “civilized” Internet. And now he’s taking his campaign global.
Next month Sarkozy plans to bring politicians from around the G8 — the economic forum that France founded in the 1970s which includes the U.S., Japan, Russia, Germany, the U.K., Canada and Italy (and, of course, France itself) — and get them in the same room as some of the technology industry’s most powerful figures. Names on the guest list include Eric Schmidt of Google (s goog), Jack Ma of Alibaba, Jeff Bezos of Amazon (s amzn) and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. They’ll be talking about the future of the Internet, and items up for discussion include copyright, piracy, privacy, security and the cloud.
It’s not obvious whether this gaggle of ministers and moguls will agree on specific policies. There’s almost certainly going to be some tension between Sarkozy’s stance on intellectual property and that of Google, which is regularly accused of aiding and abetting infringement.
But whatever they discuss, perhaps the bigger issue is that they’re discussing it at all.
I can’t help be concerned at what the summit might mean, given it’s essentially a closed shop of governments and corporations discussing how best to carve up the online world for us. Even putting aside Sarkozy’s aggressive attitude towards the online world, these sorts of meetings are not necessarily about the best interests of users. The G8 is the sort of deal-making body that helps create secret laws like ACTA, the international anti-counterfeiting agreement that campaign groups say could impact free speech and erode privacy.
And what about privacy? Among those gathered, there are differences, but essentially, they all want access to personal data — whether it’s the French government wanting access to vast tranches of personal data, or Facebook’s desire to profit from eroding the boundaries of personal privacy, or Alibaba’s capitulation to the demands of the Chinese government.
This all stands at odds with what has made the Internet successful. Its greatest strength has been freedom. It’s designed to do nothing more than connect two dots together: to transmit information from one point to another. That has been crucial in its growth and success. Of course, that lack of boundaries is also a weakness at times because, as critic Evgeny Morozov has suggested, violent and controlling political regimes can easily co-opt the tools for their own purposes.
Still, the belief among many is that the Internet is somehow different from TV, radio and all the other forms of communication, because it’s a network that has freedom designed-in at its core. This may be true, but, as Columbia professor and Net Neutrality campaigner Tim Wu argues in his book The Master Switch, that only remains the case as long as it’s protected from the sort of regulatory and corporate carve-up that happened in other media.
Steve Coll summed up Wu’s case in his recent New York Review of Books piece called The Internet: For Better or Worse.

Wu is concerned that large corporations—ATT, Comcast, Verizon, Apple, and perhaps Google—may be on the verge of carving the Internet into an oligopoly, gradually shutting off equal and free access, much as RCA did to radio and the Bell System did to telephony. By implication, his arguments make plain that if corporations do gradually take control of the American Internet, and use tolls and technical rules to build a new hierarchy of access, then Russia, China, and other authoritarian states wielding even greater relative power within their borders will be sure to follow that model.

It sounds dangerous. And it could be exactly the sort of outcome that the G8 meeting comes to, if it succeeds in achieving what Sarkozy wants.
Still, Europe may not be ready to give up on the free Internet just yet. This week, a preliminary ruling by the European Court of Justice (the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court) suggested it was illegal for anybody to force Internet Service Providers to filter traffic:

“The installation of the filtering and blocking system is a restriction on the right to respect for the privacy of communications and the right to protection of personal data, both of which are rights protected under the Charter of Fundamental Rights,” it said.

This is encouraging for Net Neutrality advocates, but it is, however, just a preliminary ruling. Still, it’s a suggestion that there’s a little hope for the future of the Internet … and that Nicolas Sarkozy doesn’t always get everything he wants.
Photograph used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user Guillaume Paumier