May 26th, 2011

An Outsider at the e-G8

The internet isn’t broken, but there are cracks and a sledgehammer rests in the hands of the heads of the G8.

I started formulating this post last week as I finished the final session of the e-G8 Forum in Paris. The Forum was a platform to formulate advice to the G8 conference held directly afterwards. I found myself invited to the event as a Japanese based entrepreneur, a rather surprising honor, but I was happy to make the trip.

I am not a political person, I do not campaign for things, but I do act in favor of things I believe in. So this Forum was a real eye opener in how political lobbying finds it’s way into the edges of society.

In participating I have been able to interact and rub shoulders with some of the top Internet entrepreneurs, journalists and VCs in the world, and I am sure I wasn’t supposed to be there… but I was. We should take these opportunities without looking the gift horse in the mouth. And with this opportunity I felt I also have an obligation to share what I learned and try to make sure that the fates of our internet future don’t remain too much of a mystery to those without access.

So, what happened at this beast of a conference?

The keynote was by President Sarkozy himself, lots of security, not enough translation headsets, and a lot of smug comments about the future of the Internet like he had used email and knew what the tubes are all about. I didn’t follow everything, but the message was clearly to big business and how “they” can benefit from the next generation of internet evolution.

After this a number of panels were held on a number of very broad topics, such as Future Net : What’s Next? or The Internet & Society. A few people were invited to discuss each topic from their supposedly knowledgeable point of view and then the panel was opened for questions. In reality the panels were made of a few politicians and leaders of large companies and too often the conversation was centered around how the big businesses were going to get their money.

Interspersed were a few talks such as Rupert Murdoch talking about his pet project, the evolution of education. Less a discussion aimed at some new insight from the combined wealth of knowledge in the room than a diatribe, but at least it was for a worthy goal, to progress education so that all children can benefit from the best teaching for them no matter where they come from or where they live.

The panel discussions formed the bulk of the action though and we were treated to quick some names and a who’s who of internet business along the way.

Following each session a few statements were made as recommendations for the G8. Many of these were heavily influenced by the personal bias of the moderators and on a couple of occasions recommendations were clear misrepresentations of the opinions of the room.

My new hero is John Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who stood alone on the panel about intellectual property rights as a voice of reason and interestingly the only actual creator of the content that this discussion centered around. He sat on a panel with a bunch of dinosaurs discussing how to stop people copying things on the internet and how to punish those who do, and gave out an intelligent and reasoned argument about why the creators of content will thrive under a system that takes a more legal view of copying and sharing content. The audience was largely in support of Barlow but a biased moderator and too many words from those who are looking to lock everything down seemed to slant the end result of the panel against him.

Another favorite was Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, who I have always had a lot of respect for. He gave a short talk about the way that governments protect the incumbents in industry versus progress. I won’t try to paraphrase, but instead, just include his talk here.

Also of interest to me was the end of the process whereby all the points from all the panels were collected and summarized in what further diluted any truly progressive recommendations and seemed to filter down to a pre-programmed agenda.

Thankfully a number of leaders including Lessig, Jeff Jarvis (Professor in Journalism at City University New York), Susan P. Crawford (former ICANN member), Jean-François Julliard (Director of Reporter Sans Frontières), Yochai Benkler (co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet) and led by Jérémie Zimmermann (porte-parole de La Quadrature du Net) held an impromptu press conference to discuss what they felt wasn’t being discussed at the e-G8 that should have been. Check it out below.

[EN] La société civile s’en va t’en guerre à l’ e-G8 from OWNI on Vimeo.

Overall, I think I learned a lot about the political ramblings that have the potential to bring down the internet as we know it. I learned a lot about the people who like to pretend listen and be open but don’t do either. But I also learned a lot about where efforts are being made to counter those dinosaurs and protect the future.

Of all the key messages that were collected for the G8, the one of true value that at least seemed to get through was the constantly repeated one, “don’t touch” – “don’t make legislation around the internet”, “don’t block any part of the internet”, “don’t try to fix the internet” and “don’t tell people how to use the internet”. I hope the message made it all the way and sticks in the ears of those considering change.

And… yes, Paris is a beautiful city.

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