|Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg met with Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace following the first “e-G8” summit [AFP]|
Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, warned governments to tread lightly on internet regulation because moves to tame its rough edges risked hurting its virtues.
At the conclusion of a two-day forum in Paris, their comments exposed 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 industrialised nations meeting on Thursday in Deauville, France.
With the forum, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, was seeking to put his stamp on the debate over regulating the internet and encouraging the digital economy during his one-year term as president for the G8.
Despite a glittering guest list, the event dubbed the e-G8 internet forum ended up with few concrete policy recommendations and mostly vague conclusions that the delegation of six technology chief executives, including Schmidt and Zuckerberg, would present to leaders in Deauville on Thursday.
The outcome highlights the difficulty of finding a way to regulate the internet that is acceptable to governments, industry and civil society.
In a speech to the e-G8, Sarkozy stressed the role that the state should play in the context of what he called the “total revolution” of the internet.
“We must participate in a revolution that has been born in the heart of civil society for civil society, yet which has a direct impact on governments. Because if technology is neutral and must remain so, it is clear that this is not the case for the ways in which the internet is used,” the French leader said.
An editorial piece on Rue89, a left-leaning French news website, condemned Sarkozy’s push for internet regulation, and the absence of civil society at the e-G8.
“While the words of freedom, openness, creation and venture should have been expressed in [Sarkozy’s] speech, they were largely absent,” Rue89 writes.
Media rights and civil society groups complained that the forum was giving a voice mainly to big businesses and it boded ill for online freedom.
“President Sarkozy’s disastrous design for the internet has become glaringly apparent,” web freedom group Access Now said in a statement on Wednesday.
“As many nations endeavour to improve basic and universal access, the increase of restrictive policies in both the developed and developing world is a regressive and deeply worrying trend.”
It called on the G8 member states to use the e-G8 meeting to help expand internet access and combat online censorship.
With blogs and Tweets oiling the wheels of revolution in some countries, and scans and downloads sparking trade disputes in others, the stakes are high for leaders seeking to profit from the web but also to rein in online crime.
Zuckerberg, the 27-year-old entrepreneur who created the social network with 500 million users around the world, was greeted like a rock star during a question-and-answer session on Wednesday and praised for creating a tool that helped touch off democracy movements in the Arab world.
“People tell me on the one hand ‘it’s great you played such a big role in the Arab spring, but it’s also kind of scary because you enable all this sharing and collect information on people’,” Zuckerberg, who was clad in a T-shirt and jeans, said.
“But it’s hard to have one without the other … You can’t isolate some things you like about the internet and control other things that you don’t.”
Zuckerberg denied on Wednesday that his global social networking site was to thank for enabling the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt through protesters coordinating online.
“Facebook was neither necessary nor sufficient for any of those things to happen,” the 27-year-old New Yorker told the “e-G8” gathering of Internet bosses in Paris.
“It would be extremely arrogant for any specific technology company to claim credit” for protest movements in the Arab world such as those that ousted long-term rulers in Tunisia and Egypt this year, he added.
“People are now having the opportunity to communicate” more widely than ever before, he said, adding: “That’s not a Facebook thing. That’s an internet thing.”
Twitter’s Tony Wang, meanwhile, told the e-G8 attendees that his company would share user information with authorities should they be “legally required” to do so, in reference to a debate in Britain over the website’s defiance of a super injunction.
“Platforms have a responsibility, not to defend that user but to protect that user’s right to defend him or herself,” Wang said.
“If we’re legally required to turn over user information, to the extent that we can, we want to notify the user involved, let them know and let them exercise their rights under their own jurisdiction.”