Paris power play feels like deja vu all over again

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Groundhog DayJust over a month ago, the great and the good were gathering in Paris to discuss the future of the Internet at a closed meeting of powerful international interests. This week, senior officials from around the world are gathering again, in the same city. And the subject up for debate? The future of the Internet.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

On the surface, these two events — one organized alongside the G8 summit on behalf of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the other put together by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — look very similar. But the OECD has been trying desperately to put daylight between them, not least because Sarkozy’s event was roundly criticized (including by me) as a stitch-up between governments and corporate interests.

As a result, the OECD has been trying to put distance between its event and its predecessor: promoting the idea that its discussions are something more loose, broader and with less of a controlling agenda. Just the other day, it got the message across in a New York Times story (s nyt) where OECD official Sam Paltridge explained what the point of the debate was.

“We’re trying to get the message across that if you hamper the flow of information, you are shooting yourself in the foot in terms of the economic benefits of the Internet. If someone comes along and threatens that openness, that’s a real problem for economic growth.”

It’s a fair point — and one worth making. After all, the system is coming under pressure from all directions. Dictatorships want their own levels of control. Businesses have a profit-based agenda. Developing nations don’t want to be at the mercy of their larger cousins. And many countries, notably Russia, are lobbying for greater centralized powers to control the network through “establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisor capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union.”

(There’s a deep irony in the fact that Russia, which harbors a vast industry of online criminals and rarely helps international investigators track down fraudsters within its borders, is doing this, of course — but the point is simple: if control is centralized, they can use soft power and indirect pressure more effectively than with a fragmented system of governance spread across ICANN, service providers, national courts and companies like Google (s goog).)

The trouble with the OECD’s attempt to paint its event as a friendly, broad consensual approach to the future of the ‘Net is that it’s still largely invitation-only. Even those “civil” groups who were part of the talks — including established names such as the Internet Society and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — have poured water on it, announcing yesterday that they were withdrawing their support for the event’s draft proposals.

CSISAC, the OECD’s advisory group representing civil society organizations, says it cannot agree with the general tone of the communique put forward by the event’s organizers:

“CSISAC believes that the Communiqué which was presented today at the OECD’s High Level Meeting on the Internet Economy in Paris, could undermine online freedom of expression, freedom of information, the right to privacy, and innovation across the world,” it said. But it “was not able to accept the final draft’s over-emphasis on intellectual property enforcement at the expense of fundamental freedoms.”

It’s great that somebody is standing up here. After all, there are so few bodies out there that get a chance to represent the most important group that has a stake in the future of the network — the users.

As I’ve argued before, most of the decisions are left to unaccountable bodies who do not necessarily have your best interests at heart: governments, corporations, technology platforms, international bodies and powerful individuals. They are all subject to lobbying and vested interests, and they all have reasons for wanting to stop the Internet from growing unfettered.

The real problem is that, as the events in Paris over the last month show, all of this gets us nowhere. We’re stuck in the same arguments, again and again, going nowhere.

There’s so much going on in the online world, yet discussions about the future of the Internet come down to an ever-tightening, ever-more-shrill argument about copyright. One side says greater controls are needed to keep the creative economy afloat; the other side says it’s a Trojan horse. Let them monitor what you do in the name of protecting copyright, and soon they’ll monitor your every move. Whether either of those positions are accurate is up for debate, but the truth is that real users are simply left to be kicked around between opposing poles like a ball.

I don’t know whether we’ll ever get past this, but here’s a suggestion: The next time the great and the good gather in Paris, I think they should simply put aside the question of copyright and focus on what they can do to enhance the way that people — real people — use and access the Internet. Maybe then we’ll see a real consensus, rather than being stuck in our own version of Groundhog Day.

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Richard Bennett

The Internet Society (ISOC) was there, and they supported the Communiqué. There is no more important “civil society” group on these issues than ISOC. Their support raises the question of how legitimate the opposition of the advocacy groups really is.

Are they genuinely concerned about the Internet, or are they trying to fire up their base for their own purposes?

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