At the eG8, 20th century ideas clashed with the 21st century economy. The inaugural eG8 forum, held in Paris before the G-8 summit of global leaders, showed that online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders. As Nancy Scola reported at techPresident, at the eG8, civil society groups re-staked their claim to the 'Net.
Prior to the forum, organizations concerned with human rights, liberties and civil society released a statement to the eG8 and G8 that advocated "expanding Internet access for all, combating digital censorship and surveillance, limiting online intermediary liability, and upholding principles of net neutrality."
In an impromptu press conference held on the grounds of the eG8 Forum, Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, former ICANN board member Susan P. Crawford, Jean-François Julliard, director of Reporter Sans Frontiéres, and Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler all made it clear that there was not a consensus about the principles or rules of the road for the Internet.
After the press conference, I talked further with Benkler about the eG8 forum and what the ideas and policies discussed there could mean for citizens. What's at stake for the open Internet today?
It's "what's been at stake for over 15 years: the possibility that a coalition of forces who are afraid of the internet will shut it down," said Benkler. "There is still a very powerful counter argument, one that says both for innovation and for freedom, we need an open Net. Both for growth and welfare, and for democracy and participation, we need to make sure that the Internet remains an open Internet, remains a commons we all share, remains neutral at all layers, the physical layer, at the logical layer, at the data layer, at the content layer - at all of these layers, we must have an open Internet.
"That's still very strong, but it seems more threatened today than it has been for five or six years. We seem to be closer to the risk we were at in the late 90s, than the risk we were at five years ago."
To what extent do politicians need to understand the relationship of politics and an open Internet? "The primary reason we need to support the Net is because it is a foundational part of how we have our democracy," he said.
What's changed? Why is this conversation happening in Paris? "The first critical thing is the shift to mobile broadband and the possibility that in that shift the primary way we will use the net will be one that comes from the tradition of controlled networks," he said. Benkler offers much more reflection in the video embedded below, and comments further on the Arab Spring, Wikileaks and open speech, the threat of cyber security and the forces that are influencing the discussion around Internet policy.
How have economic models shifted from 20th century approaches to capturing value from content to 21st century frameworks? Below is Benkler's answer from the eG8 press conference. For much more, read his seminal book, "Wealth of Networks."
"The critical change produced by the digital network environment is the radical decentralization of the capacity to speak, to create, to innovate, to see together, to socialize, the radical distribution of the poor means of production, computations, communications, storage, sensing, capture human sociality that which gets us together inside the experience, being there on the ground.
"That is true for the first time since the industrial revolution, that people can actually, with the things they own, capture the world and do something that is at the very core of the most advanced economies. Preserving that framework, preserving a framework that is open, free-flowing, flexible, adaptive to change and inviting so that one person's sacrifice in Sidi Bouzid can then be translated throughout the Arab world into a moment of mobilization. That's new, that's what is critical. For over fifteen years now, we have seen two opposing camps around the question of internet policy.
"One camp is the camp of the 20th century incumbents, who are afraid that something will change, who are afraid of the people rising to participate, afraid of the outsiders innovating, and coming from the edges, who aren't authorized by the incumbents to innovate, who don't have to come and say:?'Will you please implement this for me on your network?."
"These are all the companies that we see now as great fifteen years ago, were from the outside. That's where the source of innovation is. And the other model has been?'Let's keep things open, let's keep things flexible, let's keep things flow.' And this opposition between those who say "It's going too fast, slow it down, make it manageable, make it safe' and those who say "It's extraordinary, it's creative, let's open this up, because we're in a process of continuous experimentation, and adaptation, and learning."
"This is an enormous learning moment. That opposition has been there for fifteen years, and occasionally we've seen periods such as in the United States twelve years ago where the approach of shutting things down, making Internet Service Providers have to look upon of what it is that the content of their producers, regulating on software, regulating new services to make sure that they don't make too much of a threat to the incumbent industries win.
"Then there was a long period of lolling in between where we understood the centrality of the commons, where we understood the centrality of what's open, and now what is baffling about this two days is the seeming resurgence of what we saw ten, twelve, fifteen years ago as though we had learned nothing.
"When people yesterday on the panel on IP were talking about if we don't have strong intellectual property the Internet will be just an empty set of tubes and boxes, I heard that fifteen years ago, and maybe, maybe then it was a plausible assumption. Today, it is laughable, except that it seems to have the ear of power. So, I think that what's critical here, is to understand is that there are pathways, like the Hargreaves Report from last week shows a pathway that says: No! I don't have to lock things down, I have to be very careful about locking things down for IP; instead I need to explore ways to open and allow flows. That's the critical opposition.
"Achieving socially desirable and acceptable and legitimate goals while retaining an open fluid free Internet. Versus, being so scared of the new, that you are willing to lock it down, or to try to lock it down and to distort it. That's the opposition on which we all have to be - whether it's about business, and innovation, about social equality and access, or about democracy and participation, whether it's about liberty, equality or fraternity - we all have to be on the same side of the path of retaining an open net."
At the end of the day, did the eG8 matter?
"This conference could matter if the message continues to be as tightly scripted as the organizers seem to make it, and that gets converted into an alignment between the G8, between the various players who are afraid of different kinds of threats from an open Internet," he said.
"My intuition is, my hope, is that there's been enough of a voicing of an opposition, that that core claim that there's consensus, that we need to civilize or slow down or calm the Net, or make it more compliant, that that is very far from the consensus, and if that comes out of this conference, and if that influences that actual debate that says, you know what, the political risk of going to a closed Internet is too great, then it shall have been a useful conference. Otherwise, it's a really threatening one."
Photo by mikiane