Two days before the G8 summit in northern France, Paris will host the 'eG8' with tech leaders. French President Nicolas Sarkozy sees it as an economic boost, while online activists aren't so sure.
Nicolas Sarkozy will open the eG8 on Tuesday
On Thursday, the leaders of the G8 bloc of industrial nations convene in Deauville in northern France for their annual summit, with Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, presiding.
But on Tuesday, in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, Sarkozy will host a kind of meeting that doesn't happen every year.
Internet business leaders, entrepreneurs and technologists have been invited to discuss the future of the Internet, in a two-day round of conferences, briefings and meeting-and-greeting, known formally as the eG8 Forum, "The Internet: accelerating economic growth."
The conference is being organized at President Sarkozy's request by Publicis, France's biggest advertising company, and has invited a whole host of well-known tech entrepreneurs from companies like Ali Baba, Meetic, Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, representing Europe, China, the United States, and other countries.
At the end of the summit, the forum's organizers say they'll be sending a delegation to Deauville to brief G8 leaders on its conclusions.
Internet activists not so thrilled
Activists are worried that filtering, surveillance and censorship will get worse online
But not everyone shares their enthusiasm for this project, and none has been louder than Jeremie Zimmerman, the spokesperson from La Quadrature du Net, a French Internet advocacy organization.
"The eG8 forum in my view is a smokescreen," he told Deutsche Welle.
La Quadrature and other like-minded groups say that this conference allows Sarkozy to pay lip-service to online issues like freedom of speech, while at the same time pushing world leaders to support further censorship of the web.
"There is no chance that those two days of entertainment will give any useful input or conclusion to the world leaders, because what the world leaders will discuss is already on track," Zimmerman added. "The diplomatic sherpas are already negotiating."
Of course, the forum's organizers say that it's much more than a get-together for the digerati.
The eG8's organizer, Publicis, says it's the first time that such a diverse range of Internet people are meeting around a table, and that the forum is as much as anything, meant to be an economic endeavor.
"It makes sense for someone who chairs both the G8 and the G20 to try to raise as much attention as possible," said Phillippe Le Corre, a partner with Publicis. "The West is kind of struggling economically, and the Internet is one of those sectors that can bring more revenue and help the economy to grow."
French government's history of Internet restrictions
But many Internet watchers around Europe say this forum is intended to distract attention from what they claim are Sarkozy's real purposes.
Two years ago the French president introduced the controversial three-strikes Hadopi law, which set up a body that could collect IP addresses and disconnect citizens if they were caught illegally filesharing three times. It caused a firestorm of protest from people who said that governments should not be able to monitor individual web use or censor online content.
France has been very concerned with film and music piracy
Jeremie Zimmerman, from La Quadrature du Net, adds that hosting a forum to celebrate digital concerns is actually about boosting Sarkozy's reputation on the issue ahead of next year's French elections.
"It's a kind of big entertainment show to make everyone look at how great is the Internet, how Sarkozy's changed and now knows what the internet is about - which is a very important local political stake for him I think," he said.
But copyright law is not the only concern. For some time now, Sarkozy has been talking up the idea of a "civilized internet" - a term he's used to attack several different aspects of web use, from cyberterrorism to illegal downloading to the Wikileaks diplomatic cable scandal. In January 2011, he promised that this concept would be one of the things he brought to the table as president of the G8.
Now, some are concerned that he's going to use the Deauville summit to suggest that world governments take sterner control of the internet - by cracking down at the source on what content is allowed to appear.
"Making world leaders agree that some content should be ruled out of the Internet, and therefore that maybe governments could have an influence on which content could and could not be accessible from the Internet," Zimmerman added. "[That] would be a step he would like to take - which obviously would be extremely dangerous for the whole balance of the Internet and for freedom of expression, freedom of communication and privacy online."
Author: Tim Martin / cjf
Editor: Andreas Illmer