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Summary:

Later this month France is hosting a summit of political leaders and Internet thinkers. But now it seems that senior industry leaders are being asked to pay up for their chance to dictate the conversation and swap numbers with powerful governments.

Nicolas Sarkozy at the World Economic Forum

Nicolas Sarkozy at the World Economic ForumA few weeks ago I questioned whether France’s forthcoming G8 summit on Internet freedoms — organized by French president Nicolas Sarkozy — was actually a scheme to push his agenda on censorship, copyright and privacy. After all, heavy regulation of the Internet is a subject close to Sarkozy’s heart, since he’s the main backer of the controversial Hadopi laws that target alleged illegal file sharers.

My real concern was that by inviting established Web giants with very specific interests — companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon — consumers could end up with a situation where governments and corporate interests had stitched up the future of the Web in plain sight.

It was pleasing, then, to see that a string of influential advocates of a free Internet seemed to be on the roster. American entrepreneur Nova Spivack, who will be attending, published details of his invitation; Geek broadcaster Leo Laporte said he was saying yes; a few other folk — all technologists I respect — also got invitations. The situation seemed to be improving.

Now, however, things may be back to square one after a new report from France. French outlet La Tribune is suggesting that many attendees are being asked to pay up for their chance to speak out. It says the event — which promises to deeply influence government leaders from the world’s most powerful nations — is, in fact, “a very private affair” in which getting a seat at the table is easy — if you can spare several hundred thousand dollars.

One source from an unspecific American e-commerce company says he was pleased to receive an invitation — only to be told later that the company he worked for would be expected to pay at least €100,000 ($148,000) for the privilege of sending a delegate.

It is the president who sends out invitations, but they are paying guests. The Elysee [France's equivalent of the White House] has limited its own financial contribution to the provision of the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre, putting the load of financing the operation on the private sector. In return, the Elysee will see that those players are given “considerable freedom to organize the subjects” of the conference.

The article also points out that although on the surface it appears to be a government-organized event, this so-called “e-G8” is actually a private affair being put together on Sarkozy’s behalf by Maurice Levy, the media magnate who runs the world’s third-largest advertising group Publicis. Last year, coincidentally, Publicis bought a healthcare agency run by Sarkozy’s younger brother, Francois.

Now, all of these factors themselves in and of themselves may be entirely innocent. Sponsorship of events is nothing new, of course, and even international government boondoggles have to cover their costs somewhere along the line. Nor is it to say that all attendees are having to pay.

Still, it’s worrying. Something painted as an open exchange of ideas on the future of the online world is sounding more and more like a traditional opportunity for lobbying. And the concern I have is that those who are happily playing along are doing so either because they don’t have much knowledge of Sarkozy’s attitude towards the Internet, or because rubbing elbows with power suits their own agendas.

They probably don’t know, for example, that he gave a speech last year in which he suggested it was a “moral imperative” to attack the Web’s “total absence of rules”. They won’t realize that Sarkozy has been saying the same thing for years as part of a long-standing campaign which is overseen by trade minister Frédéric Lefebvre, who many see as his right-hand man.

Nor will they remember that in 2006, just as he was gearing up for his run at the French presidency, Sarkozy elbowed his way in as the surprise guest at the esteemed Le Web conference in Paris, complete with a retinue of media that quickly proclaimed his visit a hit with the entrepreneurs and investors gathered there. It was a controversial moment: organizer Loic Le Meur caught plenty of flack for what some said was a “political ambush” and a ”hijacking”. Many felt as if their attendance at a high profile international technology event had been manipulated to help boost Sarkozy’s claims to be a business-friendly, future-facing president. Sound familiar?

Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but with a track record like Sarkozy’s, I still think it pays to be skeptical — and nothing about today’s revelations have changed that.

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  1. >Something painted as an open exchange of ideas on the future of the online world is sounding more and more like a traditional opportunity for lobbying

    You call it lobbying, I call it bribery.

    1. He called it lobbying, you called it bribery, I call it extortion. You want a chance to have the appearance of participation in your own future you have to pay – the fact that the agenda and announcements will have been pre-written and released has nothing to do with it.

  2. Olivier Fleurot Tuesday, May 3, 2011

    As one of the organizers of the e-G8 Forum, I would like to make a few comments regarding the points you raised.

    > “Many attendees are being asked to pay up for their chance to speak out” ?

    One should make a clear difference between speakers and sponsors. Speakers are invited individually as experts to take part in one of e-G8 Forum plenaries or workshop discussions. Just like at the World Economic Forum or similar high-level conferences, there is no direct link between a possible sponsorship and speaking opportunities. Speakers are being chosen based on criteria of quality and competence. These include CEOs of global technology corporations, executives in the media, advertising, music and entertainment industries; technology pioneers, investors, young entrepreneurs, bloggers, and thought leaders, researchers, academics and journalists who will moderate panels or cover the event extensively. The e-G8 forum is financed by private companies and gets no funding from any government.

    > Do e-G8 Forum sponsors automatically get access to the G8 Heads of State and government summit in Deauville?

    To be sure, being a sponsor does not imply in any way being a member of the delegation of CEOs that will go to the G8 Heads of State and government summit in Deauville. Nothing has been decided regarding the way e-G8 representatives will convey the Forum’s outcome to the Deauville G8 Heads of State and government meeting. And this will obviously not be decided by us.

    > Why has Publicis been asked to organize the e-G8 Forum?

    Maurice Lévy, as a recognized communication expert, as CEO of a global company that has heavily invested in digital marketing and communication, was asked by President Sarkozy to organize this forum. Publicis Groupe is renowned for producing global events such as the World Economic Forum sessions in Davos, China, India, Latin America, Africa and the Middle east, or for creating and organizing events like the Monaco Media Forum. the Abu Dhabi Media Summit and many more.

    Best regards,

    Olivier Fleurot
    CEO, MSLGroup, a Publicis Groupe company

  3. Kris Tuttle Monday, May 23, 2011

    The strange thing about events like this is that senior officials in the government have long had access to smart and successful people who know quite a bit about this topic. They are “outsiders” though so the government fails to get their input. This event is an attempt to mix together some ideas but it’s short (two days) and the structure of the “exchange” and follow up is yet to be seen. FWIW I’m an independent technology analyst and writer (on GigaOM Pro) going to the event and plan to ask questions and get an accurate view of what transpires. Hopefully with pictures and video to go along with it.

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