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From Paris, the e>G8 Forum on the Internet

May 28th, 2011 |  Published in Government and the Internet  |  2 Comments

28 May 2011 — Courtsey of one of our telecom clients, we had a ring-side seat to the e>G8 Forum on the Internet last week.  And the setting was perfect:  the Tuileries Garden (French: Jardin des Tuileries) which is an enormous public garden located between the Louvre Museum and the Place de la Concorde in the 1st arrondissement of Paris.

Note:  we opened our Paris office last year within a few blocks of the Tuilleries and our staff enjoys it especially in spring and summer.

As you would expect from the French, the event was first-rate both in venue and substance.   You can watch all of the presentations via a video link by clicking here

And the discussions — ok, debates — were spirited.   But  that is no surprise.  As Nicolas Sarkozy said in his opening remarks “the Internet is a multilateral dynamic, a driving role that the private sector and civil society play in its development … a complex ecosystem.  It is a phenomenon that requires a new method of consultation, one that recognizes the legitimacy and the responsibility of the actors concerned“.

Granted, it is complex.  But when we get into a discussion of the Internet and government regulation we get into a minefield of emotions and competing interests.  While most Internet users would prefer to have the Internet be free and unregulated, many politicians, organizations, and even governments are proponents of imposing stricter Internet laws and restrictions.  Government regulation of many facets of IP communications and media likely will increase over the next several years. 

Larry Lessing’s opening presentation addressed all of these issues and it was brilliant:

 

 

The Forum certainly exposed the deep rifts between tech titans, academics and policy makers, even as they tried to agree on a “message” to take to world leaders at the Group of Eight.   Eric Schmidt of Google and Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook had warned governments to “tread lightly” on internet regulation because moves to tame its rough edges risked hurting its virtues.

And that is the issue.  There will always be an inherent difficulty of finding a way to regulate the internet that is acceptable to governments, industry and civil society.  And the business and economic models underpinning the system are always subject to change.  Many current and many future proposals to regulate the network services business operate on the assumption that current revenues and profit margins will always be there. There is a good — perhaps inevitable — chance that neither revenue nor profit margin will remain at current levels.

There was much discussion (most of it off-stage) about the “geographical fault-lines” emerging in the battle over how to divide the spoils of the internet. Telecom operators, which deliver internet content, are eyeing hungrily all the extra traffic running across their networks as smartphones and online videos take off.  They want to make more money from it.  In the UK, incumbent operator BT has created a service that would allow it and other broadband providers to charge content providers such as Google’s Youtube for delivering their videos faster and more smoothly to viewers – a sort of “guaranteed delivery” service for content providers willing to stump up.

This would probably not wash in the US, where regulators have passed “net neutrality” rules to compel network operators to treat all internet traffic equally (albeit with some fudges). European regulators have been more relaxed about net neutrality so far, though BT’s move will probably galvanise content providers and “open internet” activists who would like a tougher regulatory stance.

The operators in Europe, though, can appeal to regional self-interest: while the top five content providers are US companies, the European operators are big local employers.  Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Telecom Italia, Vodafone and Telefónica employ a total of 545,000 people in Europe (a hat tip to colleagues at the Financial Times for providing that information).  On top of that, many states, including France and Germany, still own sizeable stakes in their incumbent operators.

European operators might well hammer that advantage home, at least behind closed doors. They could argue that Google and its peers are taking big slices of the growing internet revenue pie back to the US, leaving European operators with only a sliver. They could even call “net neutrality” a form of disguised US protectionism.

Content providers would call this nonsense. But the idea that neutrality could spark a digital trade war is not so far fetched as it sounds.

On the content/IP side of things, Sarkozy has certainly been characterised as someone who favors the rights of content creators and rights holders over internet users.  France has passed one of the toughest laws to crack down on people who download content without paying for it, with a three-strikes-and-out law for illegal filesharers.  Repeat offenders face a range of punishments, including disconnection from the web.

There was panel dedicated to Intellectual Property (John Barlow, Co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was on it) and on the eve of the event representatives of civil society around the world (including EFF, Open Source Initiative but also Reporters Sans Frontières, La Quadrature du Net) signed a statement to promote Internet freedom, digital rights and open communication.  

Points discussed:

• A healthy and creative digital economy cannot exist without assertive protection of intellectual property rights.

•  Technological innovation should be directed toward the protection of intellectual property.

•  Intellectual property rights promote creativity, but the complexity of the various types of rights can slow down optimal creativity.

•  The Internet is one continuous thing, and if you can control one aspect of it you can control all of it. Expression is not synonymous with property.

But the official press release was wee bit thin as it simply stated the signatory States undertake to protect intellectual property by “firm action”.   (For an excellent summary of the entire event from Le Monde click here). 

Our favorite comments were by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler who made it clear there was not a consensus about the principles or rules of the road for the Internet.   There is much to cherish and value in that growth over time. “The critical change produced by the digital network environment is the radical decentralization of the capacity to speak, to create, to innovate, to see together, to socialize, the radical distribution of the poor means of production, computations, communications, storage, sensing, capture human sociality that which gets us together inside the experience, being there on the ground,” said Benkler.  What an open Internet allows is the radical decentralization of the means of production.  “That is true for the first time since the industrial revolution, that people can actually, with the things they own, capture the world and do something that is at the very core of the most advanced economies.”

He emphasized the critical importance of preserving a framework that is “open, free-flowing, flexible, adaptive to change, and inviting,” so that one person’s sacrifice in Sidi Bouzid “can be translated throughout the Arab world into a moment of mobilization. That’s new, that’s what is critical.”

Benkler was baffled that opposition to the open model of innovation persists after 15 years, as if “we’ve learned nothing,” calling the assumptions made on the intellectual property panel on the first day of the eG8 laughable. “Whether liberty, equality or fraternity, we all have to be on the same page about retaining an open Net,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

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