David Cameron is to resist calls for international regulation of the web by Nicolas Sarkozy at the G8 summit. The French president will table proposals for controls on the internet on the first day of the conference of world leaders in Deauville, Normandy.
Cameron’s officials stressed they believed there were many hurdles and mechanisms before anyone could regulate the net internationally. “We will not be regulating the internet any time soon,” said a Downing Street official.
Sarkozy convened a conference in Paris attended by 1,000 digital executives. He warned them against monopoly control, copyright breaches and intrusions into personal privacy.
Referring to the British case in which Ryan Giggs was named on Twitter in defiance of a high court injunction, the French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, admitted the difficulties involved in striking a balance between freedom and regulation. She said: “We are exploring, we are stumbling, we are trying to identify what will be the right tools [and] legal principles.”
Nick Clegg criticised the Liberal Democrat MP who named Giggs in the commons, making clear he did not support John Hemming’s action: “I do not think that anyone should be above the rule of law. If we do not like the law in this place, we should act as legislators to change the law, not flout it.”
Lord Carlile, the Lib Dem peer, suggested those journalists who had broken the injunctions by naming Giggs on Twitter “can and possibly should” be brought before a court for contempt while human rights lawyer Lord Lester suggested MPs had now become “part of the crisis”.
Sarkozy stressed that “if technology is neutral and should remain so, the uses are not,” pointing out that the protection of children and respect for privacy were universal principles. “Do not let the revolution you started undermine basic rights of individuals to privacy and to full autonomy,” he warned.
Five of the participants at Sarkozy’s eG8 meeting in Paris are due to deliver a report to the G8 world leaders. But judging by Cameron’s officials’ response, Sarkozy’s efforts will struggle to gain traction with world leaders.
Sarkozy described the internet as the third globalisation and praised it for creating tens of thousands of jobs, but also called for greater social responsibility.
He warned: “Your work can be considered historic and impacts on civilisation. With this in mind, your level of responsibility is undoubtedly the highest ever given to individuals who do not work in the public sector or as state representatives.
“Now that the internet is an integral part of most people’s lives, it would be contradictory to exclude governments from this huge forum,” said Sarkozy.
“Nobody could, nor should, forget that these governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies,” he added.
“To forget this is to take the risk of democratic chaos and hence anarchy.”
He reminded the industry of its responsibilities in the fields of piracy, drawing a parallel between intellectual property on which many web companies are built and the copyright that artists seek to protect.
“These algorithms that constitute your power … this technology that is changing the world, are your property and nobody can contest that,” he said. “Writers, directors or actors can have the same rights.”
The eG8 guests included the executive chairman of Google (NSDQ: GOOG), Eric Schmidt, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, the News International chairman, Rupert Murdoch, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.
Cameron, whose aides are close to Google, support what they see as the beneficial impact of the web on growth, society and government.
They are suspicious of international regulation. But Cameron is under pressure from social conservatives to do more to control the effect of the web on children.
Cameron’s officials tried to play down Sarkozy’s move, saying they intended to make sure nothing newsworthy emerged from the G8 over the initiative. They also stressed that they saw the internet as beneficial and said the discussion at the G8 should be forward-looking.
Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer, said regulation of the web was currently internationally difficult. He pointed out that the US president, Barack Obama, had signed a law last year which prevents English judgments relating to defamation being enforceable in the States..
Sarkozy’s effort to look at the governance of the web is also being resisted by digital executives. Schmidt asked governments to look first at technological solutions before legislating.
He said governments were struggling to understand the way the internet was empowering individuals. “We will move faster than the public sector,” said Schmidt. He urged governments to “tread lightly”, saying “Clearly you need some level of regulation for the evil stuff. But I would be careful about over-regulating.”
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.