Last week, French president Nicholas Sarkozy invited a group of world leaders and technology executives to the first ever eG8, a forum to discuss the future of the internet and global public policy. It was an invitation-only summit that included Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. City University of New York Professor Jeff Jarvis, who attended the conference, says governments should not be trying to control the future of the internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited a group of world leaders and technology executives to the first ever eG8, a forum to discuss the future of the Internet and global public policy. It was an invitation-only summit that included Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But some invitees refused to attend, in protest of the forum.
Jeff Jarvis is the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York. He also was invited to the eG8 and, though suspicious of the French President’s intentions, decided to check it out, despite the reservations of some of his colleagues who worried:
JEFF JARVIS: That we would all be a smokescreen for Sarkozy’s attempt to govern the Internet. I decided to go see the devil first out and see if I could get my say in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You didn't prejudge this by assuming he'd be the devil?
JEFF JARVIS: Oh, I think that all of us net people think that government attempts to regulate us are devilish attempts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] What were the policies being pushed by the forum?
JEFF JARVIS: Sarkozy wants to regulate the Internet. He has said in the past that he wants to “civilize” the Internet. And he thinks about this as a way to bring law and order to this strange new world.
What gives the net its own sovereignty is that no one has sovereignty over it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You believe that governments have no sovereignty on the net because there is no consent of the governed, because there’s no governed there.
JEFF JARVIS: We are first already governed in real life by whatever lands we live in. It is already illegal to put out child pornography. Do you need new laws just for the Internet to deal with that? I, I, I don't think so.
If we allow any government to come in and take control of the Internet, we allow every government to do so. If France claims the right to have authority over the Internet then China will claim the same right, and we end up with the worst of all the regulation possible in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the fundamental principle, that governments should have a say, you object to.
JEFF JARVIS: I stood up to Sarkozy and suggested myself that he take a Hippocratic Oath for the Internet, that is, first, do no harm. And he mocked that at first, in a wonderfully Gaelic way, and he said, is it harm for us to protect your children from pornography, is it harm for us to protect you from terrorism, is it harm for us to protect your intellectual property? I don't think so. And he said, I'll take your oath. That’s no problem.
But then he finally turned around and did acknowledge that this Internet is new. I liken the Internet to the Guttenberg press, and the power and impact on society, while I think will be at least as great, but it took 50 years for the book to come into its own form, 100 years before it affected society in ways we can recognize.
By that reckoning, we are now at the year 1467 in the life of the Internet. We don't know what it is yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is the eG8’s proposed Internet policy? Does it have one, or did it simply assert at this meeting that it ought to have one?
JEFF JARVIS: Sarkozy wanted to put the Internet onto the agenda of the G8, to say that governments have a role in the Internet, that government, in his view, is the only legitimate representative of the people in a democracy, to which I say, say that to the people of Tahrir Square – that no, governments are not necessarily our spokesmen. Governments do not necessarily have this authority. This is a future to be invented.
That scares governments because if governments become less important, nations become less important. And Sarkozy, whether he knows it or not, I think sees that danger.
I don't think that it’s wrong for governments to talk about this and to have a voice in this, same with corporations, same with civic organizations. The problem was this meeting was held at government’s table. Better if netizens got together and had a meeting and invited the government and these corporations to their table, and it’s our loss that we didn't.
It was good to go, because one wants to face one’s fears. I came away from the eG8 afraid of the people who are afraid of the Internet. They want to stop it. They want to change it. It’s not even fully birthed yet, and we have to let the baby grow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say the whole thing was a great pity that this meeting was called and that netizens have only themselves to blame. They are absent.
JEFF JARVIS: Well, they were absent from the eG8 because Sarkozy didn't invite them and because, as Lawrence Lessig said, they didn't know how to get invited. And as Susan Crawford, a law professor here in New York, said, the important thing about being there was to demonstrate that there is not consensus, Monsieur le President, that we don't agree with what you say, and you can't just go and act as if you pulled together the Internet and got 'em all to agree that you’re welcome here.
They were trying to negotiate with the future of the Internet, but the Internet wasn't there. The people who are really the future of the Internet are not Google and Facebook but some kid out there who’s going to disrupt them all. And the Internet allows them to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
JEFF JARVIS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Jarvis is the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York.