The angry chatroom that is the e-G8 forum
- 25 May 2011
- From the section Technology
If the intention of the French in setting-up the e-G8 forum was to replicate some of the frisson of its big brother, the G8 summit, then they succeeded.
The factions and fissures of the technology world are well known - as they are in grown-up politics - but rarely do they face off in the real world.
What is going on in Paris right now is like the physical manifestation of an angry internet chat room.
Imagine if the Pirate Bay came face-to-face with Sony BMG, or a teenage downloader was confronted by a major movie distributer.
So it was when a panel of internet luminaries took to the stage to debate intellectual property (IP).
Former Grateful Dead lyricist, and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow squared-up to the boss of Universal Music France, the chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment and the country's culture minister.
The bearded and cantankerous Mr Barlow - who looks exactly as you would imagine a former "Dead Head" to look - at one point declared that he felt as if he came from a "different planet" to his fellow speakers.
Dismissing the notion of intellectual property, he said: "I don't regard my expression as a form of property. Property is something that can be taken from me."
And so ensued a live, for the cameras, version of the well-worn debate between one side which believes the creative industries could survive and even prosper under a hitherto unspecified model of liberal online distribution, and the market-driven, rights-restricted way of selling and controlling music, movies, books, games, pictures and anything else that can be made and consumed.
Much of the discussion was in French. But the fiery looks on both sides needed no translation.
Many delegates became similarly animated, with the loudest applause directed towards Mr Barlow. In return, he declared the audience's leanings to be not quite what he expected.
Afterwards, both sides stepped into the warm Parisian sunshine and attempted to deliver their verdict in more measured tones.
"The vast majority of younger people do not share the opinions that were being voiced on that panel," complained Mr Barlow.
"But I was honoured they allowed me to participate at all. I thought it was so stacked in the beginning that my view was simply not going to be heard," he added.
And it is this observation that points to the real bone of contention surrounding the e-G8 - the belief among some parties that the dice was loaded from the start.
There are those who think that the French government, under President Nicolas Sarkozy has designed the e-G8 as a marketing tool to flog the virtues of IP protection, copyright controls and tighter state regulation of the internet.
Such is the degree of suspicion, that New York academic and proponent of the open web, Jeff Jarvis admitted that he contemplated not attending after colleagues accused him as acting as the "lipstick on the pig" and dignifying it with his presence.
For the conspiracy theorists, the e-G8 is the technological equivalent of the Bilderberg group - with the secret leaders of the world, including governments and big business, conspiring to protect and promote their own interests.
And their argument is not entirely baseless.
Kicking off the event, French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke at length about the importance of protecting copyright and putting rules in place to guard against online criminality.
His suggestion that governments around the world were now subservient to a rolling information revolution, was tempered by the assertion that someone also needs to call the shots in the ongoing skirmish.
"Juxtaposed individual wishes have never constituted the will of the people.
"A social contract cannot be drawn up by simply lumping together individual aspirations," the President told delegates.
Most of those listening would have been well aware that this was the same French President who introduced the three-strikes rule to cut off illegal downloaders. They could read the coded language.
Their fears were further stoked when Google's Eric Schmidt gleefully imagined a future where automated "bots" would trawl the internet for copyright infringing material and boot it offline forever.
Yet there were also more moderate voices, who suggested that that the e-G8 was anything but a stitch-up.
Fox Filmed Entertainment's James Gianopulos said the desire to assist rights holders did not mean that France was about to drag the rest of the Western world on a net suppressing crusade.
"Extremes and absolutes are often the refuge of weak arguments," he told BBC News.
"This notion that controlling access to pirated content is the equivalent of creating an Orwellian police state is simply an illogical and unsustainable argument."
And as if to illustrate the conciliatory spirit, there was much post-debate bonhomie between Mr Barlow, Geonopolis and, bizarrely, the French movie director Luc Besson.
So were there more subtle battle lines being drawn elsewhere?
Rather than a war between web fascists and web anarchists, perhaps the next great battle will be between west and further west.
President Sarkozy's desire for a well policed internet appeared to find a more favourable reception among the European audience than their American counterparts.
Both groups seemed able to reconcile their capitalist drive to innovate and build new markets with the need for online social responsibility.
But while the Americans tended to see that as the need for fewer rules and regulations, the Europeans - with a stronger tradition of turning to government - appeared ready to make concessions to legislation.
"The premier of China could probably say the same thing, right?" said Brad Burnham of New York-based Union Square Ventures.
"I believe [Sarkozy] is perhaps too protective of existing intellectual property owners and the existing institutions whether they be telecoms companies or media companies.
"We have a different culture with regard to regulation," countered Vincent Viteau from French internet startup Labgency.
"My company makes a living from the internet and we want things to expand. Having said that, I think there is still a need to make the internet a pleasant, safe place to be.
"I think the government has a role to play."
Whether the war will ultimately prove to be trans-national, trans-generational or even fought out between our future robot overlords is hard to tell at this stage.
But the likelihood that the showdown will continue in one form or another, perhaps for years to come, guarantees that this will not be the last e-G8.