State merits bigger role in the web, Sarkozy tells forum

 

FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday made a pitch for greater state involvement in the internet, saying governments had a unique legitimacy in helping “civilise” the online world.

Mr Sarkozy, whose desire for more regulation of the net has put him at odds with large web firms, compared the technology to some of the great revolutions and said it had been a force for enormous good in the world.

“Now that the internet is an integral part of most people’s lives, it would be contradictory to exclude governments,” Mr Sarkozy said at a major forum in Paris on the future of the internet.

“Nobody should forget that these 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.”

In his speech to 1,500 delegates at the e-G8 Forum, which is being held before a G8 summit of world leaders this week in the French seaside town of Deauville, Mr Sarkozy said rules were needed to protect copyright, prevent monopolies and keep harmful material out of the hands of children.

The French president has previously challenged the anarchy of the internet with measures such as a law to cut off internet access to copyright pirates and opposition to Google’s book digitalisation project. He has also expressed unease with major online firms not paying taxes in France for revenue gained through their activities there.

Before an audience that included some of the major players in the industry, including Google’s Eric Schmidt, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch, Mr Sarkozy struck a more conciliatory tone yesterday.

His speech avoided the word “regulation” and he stressed the vital role the web had played in the Arab spring.

“You have changed the world . . . it has been a total global revolution. What has been unique in this revolution is that it belongs to nobody; it has no flag, no slogan, it is a common good. What is also unique about this revolution is that it was done without violence. It was not fought on battlefields but on university campuses.”

However, he insisted that ground rules were needed to limit the abuses and excesses of the internet, including terrorism and child abuse.

“We won’t take steps that would damage growth in your industry,” he told executives. “But you can’t escape a minimum set of rules.”

On the vexed issue of piracy, he reminded the industry of its responsibilities, drawing a parallel between the intellectual property on which many web companies are built and the copyright that artists seek to protect. “These algorithms that constitute your power . . . this technology that is changing the world, are your property and nobody can contest that,” he said.

“Writers, directors or actors can have the same rights.”

Mr Sarkozy also warned tech companies about seeking too much market power, urging them not to allow new monopolies take root “where you have overturned seemingly unchallengeable situations”. His comments come as the European Commission begins a formal inquiry into whether Google has a dominant position in online search and advertising, which it may use to tilt its results away from competitors.

The debates at the forum, whose conclusions will be presented to G8 leaders in Deauville later this week, pit passionate advocates of two opposing views of the internet against each other.

During one panel, Google’s Eroc Schmidt dismissed the issue of monopolies: “Winner-takes-all markets are pretty evanescent . . . Nobody would want internet growth to be significantly slowed because of some stupid rule.”

Mr Sarkozy also warned against “total transparency”, a principle that would “sooner or later” come into conflict with that of individual liberty.