France To Internet: G8 Will Talk To You, For a Price

Nicolas Sarkozy at the World Economic ForumA few weeks ago I questioned whether France’s forthcoming G8 summit on Internet freedoms — organized by French president Nicolas Sarkozy — was actually a scheme to push his agenda on censorship, copyright and privacy. After all, heavy regulation of the Internet is a subject close to Sarkozy’s heart, since he’s the main backer of the controversial Hadopi laws that target alleged illegal file sharers.

My real concern was that by inviting established Web giants with very specific interests — companies such as Google, (s goog) Facebook and Amazon (s amzn) — consumers could end up with a situation where governments and corporate interests had stitched up the future of the Web in plain sight.

It was pleasing, then, to see that a string of influential advocates of a free Internet seemed to be on the roster. American entrepreneur Nova Spivack, who will be attending, published details of his invitation; Geek broadcaster Leo Laporte said he was saying yes; a few other folk — all technologists I respect — also got invitations. The situation seemed to be improving.

Now, however, things may be back to square one after a new report from France. French outlet La Tribune is suggesting that many attendees are being asked to pay up for their chance to speak out. It says the event — which promises to deeply influence government leaders from the world’s most powerful nations — is, in fact, “a very private affair” in which getting a seat at the table is easy — if you can spare several hundred thousand dollars.

One source from an unspecific American e-commerce company says he was pleased to receive an invitation — only to be told later that the company he worked for would be expected to pay at least €100,000 ($148,000) for the privilege of sending a delegate.

It is the president who sends out invitations, but they are paying guests. The Elysee [France’s equivalent of the White House] has limited its own financial contribution to the provision of the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre, putting the load of financing the operation on the private sector. In return, the Elysee will see that those players are given “considerable freedom to organize the subjects” of the conference.

The article also points out that although on the surface it appears to be a government-organized event, this so-called “e-G8” is actually a private affair being put together on Sarkozy’s behalf by Maurice Levy, the media magnate who runs the world’s third-largest advertising group Publicis. Last year, coincidentally, Publicis bought a healthcare agency run by Sarkozy’s younger brother, Francois.

Now, all of these factors themselves in and of themselves may be entirely innocent. Sponsorship of events is nothing new, of course, and even international government boondoggles have to cover their costs somewhere along the line. Nor is it to say that all attendees are having to pay.

Still, it’s worrying. Something painted as an open exchange of ideas on the future of the online world is sounding more and more like a traditional opportunity for lobbying. And the concern I have is that those who are happily playing along are doing so either because they don’t have much knowledge of Sarkozy’s attitude towards the Internet, or because rubbing elbows with power suits their own agendas.

They probably don’t know, for example, that he gave a speech last year in which he suggested it was a “moral imperative” to attack the Web’s “total absence of rules”. They won’t realize that Sarkozy has been saying the same thing for years as part of a long-standing campaign which is overseen by trade minister Frédéric Lefebvre, who many see as his right-hand man.

Nor will they remember that in 2006, just as he was gearing up for his run at the French presidency, Sarkozy elbowed his way in as the surprise guest at the esteemed Le Web conference in Paris, complete with a retinue of media that quickly proclaimed his visit a hit with the entrepreneurs and investors gathered there. It was a controversial moment: organizer Loic Le Meur caught plenty of flack for what some said was a “political ambush” and a ”hijacking”. Many felt as if their attendance at a high profile international technology event had been manipulated to help boost Sarkozy’s claims to be a business-friendly, future-facing president. Sound familiar?

Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but with a track record like Sarkozy’s, I still think it pays to be skeptical — and nothing about today’s revelations have changed that.