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At E-G8, Civil Society Groups Restake Their Claim on the 'Net

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, May 26 2011

One way to very quickly sketch out the history of business on the Internet is like this: after some debate over whether commerce should even be allowed online, in the mid-1990s Internet stakeholders -- including those in the Clinton administration -- took steps to make this burgeoning global network of networks a safe place for people to do business. Commerce, the thinking went in those days, was one more thing that this Internet thing could be good for. Indeed, it proved to be quite good for it.

Okay, now fast forward ahead to yesterday, Paris, the site of the E-G8 summit, and we have Internet advocates, activists and people involved in the Internet's formative stages saying, 'Hey, wait a minute! Big business isn't the only thing the Internet's about.'

From the start E-G8, pulled together by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to be held on the eve of the E-G8 summit, was criticized before it began by civil society groups. Executives from big Internet companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon were invited to the event, but reps from many of those groups weren't. Dozens of such groups signed a concerned letter. The worry was that Sarkozy was trying to advance a heavy-handed approach to governing the Internet, and using the the imprimatur of "the Internet" -- and its supposed proxies from Google et al -- to ease his path.

That worry wasn't much assuaged by a report in the New York Times Tuesday morning that detailed a communiqué  to be sent from the E-G8 to the full G8 summit. That document, reported the Times' Eric Pfanner, would "urge the adoption of measures to protect children from online predators, to strengthen privacy rights and to crack down on digital copyright piracy."

And so, yesterday, in Paris, civil society threw together an impromptu press conference, featuring Harvard's Larry Lessig, La Quadrature du Net's Jérémie Zimmermann, CUNY's Jeff Jarvis, former ICANN board member/former White House advisor Susan Crawford, Reporters Without Borders' Jean-François Julliard, and Harvard's Yochai Benkler. The spirt of the event was captured by Lessig. Business is important, the professor argued. But there are more than the interests of just business at stake when it comes to the future of the global network.

"There's also the people who built the Internet," Lessig went on. And, "they just aren't here."

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