PARIS (Reuters) - When the Internet world’s titans alight in Paris next week for a two-day forum hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, two often clashing views on the digital world will be on display.
One, typically espoused by new companies like Google Inc or Amazon.com Inc challenging the status quo, favours a hands-off regulatory approach and favorable tax and labor rules to ensure the Internet remains a key growth engine.
The other, more common in Europe, tends to be more concerned about the excesses of the Internet and has been more willing to impose regulation on everything from privacy to copyright issues to protect entrenched interests.
“The future of the Internet is being decided by businesses that are just trying to protect themselves from the potential of the Internet,” says Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig, a campaigner for less regulation in fields like copyright.
“These tend to be the businesses with the most political influence,” adds Lessig, who will join Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Eric Schmidt, News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch and a host of other technology leaders in Paris.
The United States, with its flourishing Internet hub in Silicon Valley, is the envy of many entrepreneurs in Europe who feel hampered by a lack of angel investors, unhelpful regulation in areas like stock options — and a lack of like-minded people.
And the fact that the event is being hosted by Sarkozy, a figure seen with trepidation by many techies for his strict anti-piracy stance and proposal to tax global Internet companies, is a sign of those divisions.
“Regulating the Internet to correct its excesses and abuses that come about in the total absence of rules — this is a moral imperative!” Sarkozy said in a speech at the Vatican in 2010.
Sarkozy is probably best known in the online world for passing a law that calls for Internet access to be cut off to people caught pirating copyrighted works three times.
He cast this as a necessity to prevent the Internet from killing off traditional artists, authors, and musicians.
“Internet is a new frontier, a territory to conquer. But it cannot be a Wild West, a lawless place, where people are allowed to pillage artistic works with no limits,” he said at the time.
One source close to the French presidency of the G8 said the United States was initially reticent about putting Internet policy on the agenda, fearing it would be a repeat of the fight over banking sector reform that took place among G20 nations after the financial crisis.
At that time, France and Germany argued that financial markets needed stricter oversight, while the United States and United Kingdom resisted some proposals that they felt would crimp growth.
“Nicolas Sarkozy convinced Barack Obama when they met in January in Washington,” said the source, adding that assurances were given that the same approach wouldn’t be taken this time.
Sarkozy’s tone may be tempered now by the powerful role the Internet has since played in the tumultuous changes sweeping the Middle East — a region with which France has a complex relationship because of its colonial past.
Social websites like Facebook and Twitter gained respect in new quarters as they enabled revolutions from Tunisia to Egypt, and their young founders stood up to pressure to turn in details of users to the authorities.
The Obama administration recognized this new reality in its recent “International Strategy for Cyberspace,” an attempt to define the future of the Internet in the face of competing models such as that promoted by China, which practices greater control.
Obama, who has repeatedly underscored the centrality of Internet freedom to U.S. foreign policy, laid out the goal of ensuring that the Internet remains an open global system that both fosters innovation and economic growth while strengthening security and free expression.
The e-G8 talks on May 24-25 will focus on how to harness the economic potential of the Internet and foster innovation, while protecting intellectual property rights online.
Some of the tech heavyweights will present the conclusions of the forum to the world leaders attending the G8 meeting on May 27-28 in the French seaside resort of Deauville.
But many tech types wonder what the purpose of the event really is and worry it will pave the way for more regulation.
Jon von Tetzchner, a co-founder of Norwegian Web browser Opera, said the Internet poses complicated questions on everything from competition law to privacy.
“It’s not just a simple question of just regulating more,” he said in an interview.
Von Teschner, who was invited to the e-G8 but cannot attend, said he hoped the forum would address privacy issues to help people protect their private data and surfing habits, as well as ways to preserve the essentially open nature of the Web.
Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwaayen, who will moderate a panel on the Internet and economic growth featuring Google’s Schmidt and eBay Inc CEO John Donahoe, said he was not sure what the forum would be able to accomplish in two days.
But he told Reuters he relished the chance to tackle an important set of issues, in particular how to build a thriving digital economy in Europe.
“Basically, for me, this is the G8, so it’s not about a bunch of technology people speaking a strange language,” he said. “This is about talking about the importance of building a digital economy.”
Editing by Richard Chang