IT Industry Sends Mixed Message To The Group Of 8 In Deauville

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It was a mixed message going out from the eG8 Forum – the first “Internet G8 meeting“ – that ended in Paris this week and passed its results to the heads of state of the Group of 8 most industrialised countries meeting now in Deauville, France.

[Update: the final G8 communiqué heavily mentioned intellectual property rights, innovation and the internet. It is available here.]

Some of the messages brought from the eG8 Forum to the governments might not be what French President Nicolas Sarkozy had hoped for when he gathered a Who’s Who of the internet and media industries. On the initiative of the French presidency, the G8 for the first time passed a resolution on the internet and included the internet in its chapter on intellectual property.

At the eG8,which ended on 25 May, Sarkozy tried to promote his vision of global minimum standards that he said governments need to start discussing, because national regulation, he said, does not make a lot of sense.

“National discussions, what impact do they have on a borderless internet?” Sarkozy asked.

He addressed four issues during his opening speech to the eG8 forum, avoiding substantive issues of monopolies, privacy, protecting minors from predatory adults, and protecting intellectual property rights. He said he hoped the e-forum could be made a regular thing at G8 meetings. The Deauville G8 meeting website is here.

But the eG8 participants from major internet and telecommunications companies, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, telecom operators like France Telecom, Orange or Telecom Italia, and some hardware and software vendors like Alcatel-Lucent and Microsoft scratched their heads, and asked themselves in a closing plenary: Do we want governments to regulate with a vision?

That closing plenary was destined to formulate the message to heads of governments in Deauville to be submitted by a small group of “envoyees,” including Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Yuri Milner from Digital Sky Technologies, Stéphane Richard from Orange and Hiroshi Mikitani from Japanese Online-Mall Rakuten.

The CEOs were highly sceptical of whether governments could regulate without falling into the trap of unintended consequences.

Eric Schmidt’s request that governments only consider regulation when there is no solution through technology was silently accepted as one of the core messages. Schmidt told Sarkozy, “We’ll move more quickly than any one of the governments, let alone all the governments.”

But while the large companies who made up the vast majority on the panels were polite and agreed that continuing the eG8 Forum might be a good thing, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig gave an acid speech challenging the ability of governments to address the issues in a way that would foster innovation.

“We get that there are hard policy issues here, issues like privacy, copyright, security, avoiding monopoly. We get it, but we don’t trust the answer that government gives and for good reason,” Lessig said.

“Because issue after issue,” he said, “the answer that modern democratic governments have given is an answer that happens to benefit the incumbent and ignores the answer that might help innovation.“

Lessig, when asked for his recommendation to the G8 heads of state, said they should be suspicious when incumbents would ask for regulation. “Their job is not the same as your job,” Lessig said. He appealed to governments to protect the next Skype developed by “kids” and “outsiders” in an open architecture, instead of making it illegal.

Lessig was the one participant who sat not only on an official panel, but also on a panel of civil society groups. NGOs heavily criticised the organisation of the eG8 Forum for excluding the third partner in what has been developed as multi-stakeholder cooperation in several other platforms. One of those, the European version of the Internet Governance Forum, is starting next week in Belgrade.

Civil society groups not only sent a critical letter to Sarkozy before the meeting to protest their exclusion, they also sent their own proposals to the G8 asking to secure access for citizens, protect net neutrality and basic human rights like freedom of speech on the net.

Representatives of the high-level CEO rounds also were heavily concerned about one thing in particular – that France’s presidency and tabling of a “civilised internet” concept was a stealth promotion of the French model of a graduated response/three-strikes-procedure to copyright infringement. The three-strikes-procedure allows the severing of internet access for copyright infringers based on a decision by a judge after repeated incidences of infringement.

French Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterand said the controversy around copyright protection had calmed down, and the agency in charge, Hadopi, had not yet relied on repression, only on education.

But Mitterand was immediately challenged by the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), John Perry Barlow, and La Quadrature du Net Founder Jeremie Zimmermann. Barlow got a line stating that expression is not property into the summary of the copyright panel session in which there were mostly CEOs of content-holding companies like Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Music and Vivendi.

Despite this concentration of big media, Hadopi was questioned on many occasions, with Harvard law Professor Yochai Benkler getting a promise from the French Minister of Finance that she would be the messenger for his strong appeal to the G8 against systems like Hadopi.

What has reached the G8 leaders from the eG8 Forum is an open question at this point, as is the reaction of the governments.

A spokesperson for the German government confirmed that the internet chapter of the G8 resolution passed “as negotiated,” as has the IPR chapter that, according to the spokesperson, includes internet issues as a “minor aspect.”

So did the eG8 Forum make a change? Raegan MacDonald from Access Now doubts it, remarking: “The G8 papers were all ready before.”

More statements and appeals for the G8 leaders from the technical internet community here and business associations like Digital Europe here.

Monika Ermert may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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