Original version of this opinion piece published in French on 28 May 2011 on Slate
The organizers of last week’s G8 summit in Deauville made our mouths water with their superlatives about a preceding e-G8 forum in Paris: “This is the first time that Internet issues are on the G8 agenda (...) This is the first forum devoted to the digital economy (...) The world’s most important Internet players will be taking part.” It was great PR.
But Internet users and bloggers were suspicious from the outset. It was hard to forget that this G8 was being hosted by France, the county that gave us the HADOPI graduated response to illegal downloading (which can lead to loss of an Internet connection) and the LOPPSI internal security law’s Internet content filtering. Because of these two initiatives, France was added to the list of countries “under surveillance” in this year’s Reporters Without Borders survey of “Enemies of the Internet.”
These are serious black marks in the eyes of those who campaign for Internet freedom and Net neutrality and their fears were confirmed when French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a show of “responsibility” in his opening address to the e-G8’s participants. “Don’t let the technology you created be used to attack children (…) spread evil, undermine security (…) and intellectual property rights,” he said.
So the e-G8 did not get off to the most auspicious start
Convened to make recommendations to the G8 summit, the forum’s agenda approached the Internet from the business angle and gave pride of place to Web entrepreneurs and copyright holders whose priority is defending intellectual property rights. During two days of debate about the Internet, only one hour was assigned to the subject of online free expression.
Of the dozens of NGOs that defend Internet free expression and privacy, representatives of only two were invited to address the e-G8, John Perry Barlow, the vice-president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (an American NGO), whose contribution prompted a lot of comment, and Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard.
So civil society “hacked” the official e-G8 programme, improvising a news conference in the Tuileries Garden in Paris that got a great deal of media attention. They used it to ask the G8 governments to defend Internet freedom before thinking of regulating online content.
On the eve of the forum, 36 NGOs including Access Now, Attac, La Quadrature Du Net and Reporters Without Borders issued a joint appeal to the e-G8 participants and the G8 member states “to publicly commit to expanding Internet access for all, combating digital censorship and surveillance, limiting online intermediary liability, and upholding principles of Net neutrality.”
But the G8’s final declaration was in line with the tone set by the e-G8 and confirmed the fears of free speech activists.
On the face of it, the 19 points concerning the Internet seem reasonable enough. They affirm the Internet’s essential role, the need to promote human rights and democracy, the need for access and so on. But it remains at the level of vague statements of principle. There is nothing concrete.
Intellectual property before Net neutrality
No precise reference is made to the importance of Net neutrality or how it should be defined. The dangers of censorship by privately-owned Internet companies is not mentioned. And the G8 missed the boat on government censorship. As the NGO Article 19 commented, the final declaration’s criticism of “arbitrary or indiscriminate” censorship fell far short of what is needed and will do nothing to deter a country such as China from continuing its censorship.
According to international human rights standards, any restriction of freedom of expression, including online freedom of expression, should be exceptional and limited. Any restriction must be legally justified, must have a legitimate purpose and must be necessary and proportionate.
The declaration’s most detailed point about the Internet (point 15) concerns intellectual property rights. Its wording is very similar to that of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and seems to justify allowing Internet filtering by privately-owned companies and stripping illegal downloaders of their Internet connection. It bears the imprint of the Elysée Palace’s most influential lobbyists.
Jérémie Zimmerman, the spokesman of the French NGO La Quadrature du Net, put it like this: “After inviting the biggest Internet corporations to a ridiculous exercise in non-communication, the G8 leaders are now acting as the mouthpieces of their demands. The final declaration confirms that citizens should be alarmed by this unholy alliance between governments and Internet big business and must take action to block it. The Internet belongs to us!”
The G8 governments have missed a chance to align themselves with the Internet-using public and to establish concrete policies that would protect Internet freedom and accessibility for all.
Even more seriously, our planet’s most powerful leaders chose to say nothing about the fate of the 125 Netizens who are currently in prison for providing their fellow citizens and the rest of the world with news and information.
A word of support for the young Syrian blogger Tal al Mallouhi, China’s famous human rights activist and Nobel peace laureate Hu Jia, the Vietnamese activist Nguyen Tien Trung or the Iranian blogger MohammadPour Abdullah could have had an immediate impact on their chances of being freed.
By refusing to confront censorship and clearly recognize Internet access as a fundamental right, the G8 governments are disappointing all those who continue to risk their freedom in order to defend the Internet’s potential.
We must remain vigilant and confront them with their contradictions when their actions violate the fine principles in the final declaration.
As the US journalist and Web guru Jeff Jarvis said during the e-G8: We should be “scared by those who are scared of the Internet.”
eG8: Civil society speaks out, condemns attempts to regulate Internet 25 May 2011
Civil society representatives gave an unofficial news conference this morning in one of the conference rooms of the “e-G8” forum on Internet issues in Paris, voicing their opposition to attempts to regulate the Internet and criticizing the lack of representativeness of most of those who were invited by the French government to take part in the forum.
Participants in the news conference – improvised at the last minute and not part of the forum’s official programme – included Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard, Jérémie Zimmerman of the French NGO Quadrature du Net, former ICANN board member Susan Crawford, US journalist Jeff Jarvis and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, a specialist in copyright.
Jarvis said he was “scared by those who are scared of the Internet.” Julliard said he was “extremely disappointed” by the course taken by discussions during the e-G8 forum, including the lack of a strongly-worded message to governments that target journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents.
“The free Internet must be defended before thought is given to regulating content,” Julliard said. “The priority for G8 governments should be defending the Internet.”
Julliard made similar comments when he took part in a panel discussion today on “Electronic Liberty: New Tools for Freedom,” an official part of the forum’s programme. Other participants included Google representatives, Alec Ross of the US State Department, and journalists and activists from the Arab world.
“The G8 should say clearly that Internet access is a fundamental human right, before discussing anything else, whether economic development or copyright issues,” Julliard said.
He also accused certain democracies of saying one thing and doing another. He cited the US administration’s actions as regards WikiLeaks but said other democracies did not lag far behind. “It is easy to defend freedom of speech in Syria, but we should defend it in Italy, Australia and France as well.”
Joint appeal to e-G8 participants by more than 30 NGOs
25 May 2011
Reporters Without Borders is one of the signatories of the attached letter to the organizers and participants of the two-day “e-G8” forum on Internet issues which the French government began hosting in Paris yesterday ahead of the G8 summit that will begin in Deauville tomorrow.
The letter calls for issues involving online freedom of expression to be on the G8 summit agenda. Only two NGOs were invited to take part in the e-G8 forum: Reporters Without Borders and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Reporters Without Borders is due to participate in a workshop at 11:30 a.m. today on “Electronic Liberty: New Tools for Freedom.”
The letter, whose 36 signatories also include Access Now, Attac and La Quadrature Du Net, asks the e-G8 participants and the G8 member states “to publicly commit to expanding internet access for all, combating digital censorship and surveillance, limiting online intermediary liability, and upholding principles of net neutrality.”
A press Conference is to be held at 11:00am on Wednesday 25 May at the e-G8 Networking Space (outside) with the participation of Jean Francois Julliard, Secretary-General, Reporters Without Borders, Jeremie Zimmerman, spokesperson, La Quadrature du Net, Susan Crawford, member of ICANN board of directors (2005-2008), to rally against calls for Internet regulation.
After French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered his opening address to the forum yesterday, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard was able to put a question to him about jailed bloggers and cyber-dissidents, especially in the Arab world. Julliard deplored the lack of support from France for these detainees and asked whether the democracies could not do something to help them.
President Sarkozy said in his reply that “all those who have tried to shut down the Internet in their country have put themselves in the camp of the dictators.” He added that “the Internet has become the watershed” between democracies and dictatorships.
In his speech, Sarkozy recognized the role that the Internet plays in “reinforcing democracy and social dialogue” but stressed that it has to accept “minimum values, and minimum rules.” He added: “Your actions must be part of the logic of civilization.”
Reiterating arguments used during the debates in France on the LOPPSI law (which introduced Internet content filtering as a way to combat online porn and paedophilia) and the HADOPI law (under which illegal downloaders can be deprived of an Internet connection), Sarkozy also called for “responsibility” from the forum’s participants.
“Don’t let the technology you created be used to attack children (…) spread evil, undermine security (…) and intellectual property rights,” he said.
France was added to the list of “countries under surveillance” in the report on “Enemies of the Internet” that Reporters Without Borders released on 11 March.