World leaders and captains of industry are meeting to discuss regulation that could jeopardize the free and open Internet many take for granted.
G8 leaders are discussing the need for such regulation at the so-called EG8 conference in Deauville, France. The goal is to agree on a set of guidelines that will steer governmental policies towards the Internet in G8 countries.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy set the tone for the discussions, implying that government needs to play a greater role to ensure a “civilized Internet” before an audience of technology leaders including top executives from Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
“The universe you represent is not a parallel universe,” said Sarkozy. “Nobody should forget that governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to risk democratic chaos and anarchy.”
Media companies reportedly support proposals in the meeting to tighten copyright enforcement, but technology companies and Internet advocates warn that going about it the wrong way will stifle innovation.
“You can make the Internet safe for Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, or you can make it safe for the next Skype or YouTube,” said Yochai Benkler of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Legislation that limits what information companies can retain about users and how they can use it may be privacy protective, but if implemented poorly could unnecessarily quash new services.
Applying broader government control to legislate what content is appropriate on the Internet is a slippery slope towards government censorship that should be avoided whenever possible (special exceptions might be made for child pornography, for example). The Internet is an unparalleled medium for the free exchange of ideas, but government attempts to “civilise” it almost inevitably threaten that openness.
President Sarkozy’s leadership in the summit is worrying in part because his administration has a history of passing legislation that technologists consider wrong-headed. One law forbids Internet access to people that copyright holders accuse of illegal downloading three times — but leaves the accused with virtually no redress. Another law requiring Internet companies to retain user data, including their passwords in unencrypted form, for a year seems like a particularly bad idea in light of the recent hacks on Sony networks.