May 25, 2011

Sarkozy Kicks Off ‘E-G8′ Summit

French President Nicolas Sarkozy opened the first ever 'E-G8 Forum' in Paris this week, calling for better regulation of the Internet.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt and News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch are among those in attendance at the two-day event.

Sarkozy, who arranged the summit aimed at parlaying the Internet's growing economic influence into a cohesive message for global leaders, praised the "Internet revolution", but warned that governments must have the tools to prevent "democratic chaos".

Governments need to establish and enforce rules in the digital world, while promoting creativity and economic growth with the Internet, Sarkozy said.

But Schmidt warned policymakers to tread lightly and avoid "stupid" regulations.

Bridging such differences about how the Internet could or should be more regulated is a major topic at the forum, along with how to best protect children from harmful online content, prevent illegal downloading of copyrighted materials and shield Facebook users from unsolicited invitations.

The summit coincides with concerns by some tech leaders over new laws and measures adopted by several European nations that could curb Internet freedoms.

It's not clear whether Sarkozy will win over the digital executives, or whether the G-8 summit will reach a consensus on a single policy.

Countries such as China, a major source of online activity and Internet regulation, are not attending the event.

Sarkozy said he faced mistrust over his push for the "E-G8" amid such ongoing emergencies such as Japan's earthquake, fiscal troubles in Europe, and the Arab world revolutions "“ topics that will likely dominate the event in Deauville on Thursday and Friday.

Conflicting ideas about the Internet and how it should be regulated has put tech giants such as Amazon.com and Google at odds with governments about how to protect privacy and copyrights online.

"We need to hear your aspirations, your needs," Sarkozy told the attendees at Tuileries Gardens in Paris.

"You need to hear our limits, our red lines."

Policymakers say the Internet's skyrocketing growth has often left regulators behind. A "balance" is needed to prevent misuse of the Internet, while simultaneously promoting its potential as an economic driver, Sarkozy said.

While praising the tech executives, he said regulatory curbs are needed.

"Don't let the revolution that you've begun threaten everyone's basic right to a private life and full autonomy," he said.

"Full transparency ... sooner or later runs into the very principle of individual freedom."

Google's Schmidt said technological changes have led to a "shift in power" toward individuals, which includes everything from releasing secret documents and transferring copyrighted material to battling against repressive regimes.

"My own opinion is that most governments are having trouble with that shift in power," he said.

"So rather than sort of complaining about it, which is what everybody does, why don't we see if we can harness it?"

"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 overregulating the Internet," he said during a panel discussion.

"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," he said.

Last week, the U.N.'s independent expert on freedom of speech said governments that curb citizens' Internet access are violating a basic human right "” regardless of their intention.

Last year, Britain joined France in announcing it would shut down Internet access to people who illegally download copyright-protected material.

Privacy concerns have also been an issue in Europe.

In January, Facebook and German officials reached a settlement over unsolicited invitations sent to nonmembers through a "Friend Finder" feature, which allows Facebook to send email invitations to potential users through current members' address books.

The feature came under scrutiny in Germany for violating privacy laws by permitting third parties to obtain unauthorized access to users' information.  Under the agreement, Facebook members are allowed more control over the email addresses they share.

In France, Sarkozy has passed a law under which web users may face prosecution if they illegally download films and music.

During a question and answer session, media commentator Jeff Jarvis challenged President Sarkozy to agree to an oath of "do no harm" to the Internet "“ a suggestion met with some indignation, with Sarkozy saying that controlling illegal activity could never be considered harmful.

But Mr. Jarvis said Sarkozy's comments betrayed the true intent of many world leaders.

"At least Sarkozy acknowledged that he doesn't own the Internet and his government doesn't own the Internet. Nonetheless, he is claiming sovereignty here and so will the G8 and I have fear in that," Mr. Jarvis told BBC afterwards.

"Perhaps out of best intentions they will try to change the architecture of the Internet and how it operates, but we don't even know what it is yet. It is too soon to regulate the beast," he said.


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