Creeping censorship? Despite tech giants' calls not to regulate, France bleeps out Facebook and Twitter on the airwaves.

The dust has settled after the world's first e-G8, the Paris-based forum convened by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to kickstart dialogue between policy-makers and the wizards of the tech world. A high-level delegation from the two-day event - including Google's Eric Schmidt and Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg - then went on to present the "findings" of the e-G8 at its big brother, the Group of 8 summit in Deauville.

A vast array of web-related topics were bandied about in Paris's lush Jardin des Tuileries, many of which we touched upon in Tech 24: copyright, privacy, the internet's economic potential, creativity and terrorism. One of the biggies was regulation. Is it possible to realise Nicolas Sarkozy's vision of an "internet civilisé", a "civilised internet" (the term is borrowed from the Chinese government), while still maintaining its freedoms? Given that the web is, by its very nature, borderless and infinitely adaptable, is there even any point in implementing restrictions when tomorrow someone will find a way around them? Questions that hung heavy in the air. The summit could muster few concrete answers, and divisions ran deep.


Amongst web users, Sarkozy has become notorious for his hard-line approach to controlling the web. "Those who feared that this first e-G8 had been organized exclusively in order to regulate or restrict the Net have been disproven," said the event's Chairman, Maurice Lévy, at the G8 summit. OK, so it certainly wasn't the only reason why Sarkozy summoned 800 digital luminaries to Paris, but the French President doesn't like the thought of a medium that governments can't ultimately control. On the one hand, he praised the liberating role of the internet in bringing about revolution in Egypt and Tunisia and then launched an appeal to rein it in. Web libertarians like John Perry Barlow poured scorn on that paradox: "You cannot own free speech," he countered. For their part, business leaders fretted that regulation will end up damaging growth.

Sarkozy is afraid that governments' tech policy is in danger of splintering along domestic lines, with each country looking after its own backyard. He's also worried that tech giants, ISPs, search engines et al are languishing in their own irresponsibility. “The world you represent is not a parallel universe where legal rules and generally all the basic principles, which govern society in democratic countries do not apply,” he warned. Sarko wants to draft in the big boys in to protect the interests of the entertainment industry and copyright holders, to weed out child pornography, fake goods and sites inciting terrorism.

While he calls it a "moral imperative" that the web should be regulated, tech firms say state intervention means meddling in affairs that are beyond governments' jurisdiction, and that they often don't understand. Eric Schmidt, Google's Executive Chairman, warned that Sarkozy's old-style "red lines" simply won't work when it comes to the web: "Governments should not try to regulate on privacy and copyright issues, because technology changes too fast and will resolve these problems itself." Zuckerberg called for the integrity of the net to be respected: "“You can't isolate some things you like about the Internet and control other things that you don't."


Analysts have speculated that, even if there was a global consensus amongst interested parties that the web should be regulated - which is very unlikely with the US and Germany in particular pulling in an opposite direction from France - it would be nigh on possible to enforce. At home, the French government has already put certain wheels in motion with moves slammed as draconian by web freedom activists. Last year it set up an independent commission to crack down on web piracy, adopting the Hadopi law that cuts off a web user's internet connection after three offences. That has stirred the debate here in France about whether the internet is a basic human right. The Loppsi law - set up to filter out websites displaying child pornography - has proved controversial, with critics concerned that it lays the foundations for a kind of ad hoc content blocking by the powers-that-be that could easily outgrow its original purpose.

Sarkozy's grand plan to box in the web might not have met with much agreement at the e-G8, but that doesn't mean he won't continue to pursue an aggressive internet control policy. Just this week, the CSA, the body here in France charged with regulating electronic media, issued a new ruling on social media largely perceived as asinine. From now on, citing the names of Twitter and Facebook on the airwaves is outlawed. Why? Because it constitutes a kind of "hidden advertising," a subliminal promotion of these social networking tools, banned in a 1992 decree. Never mind the fact there are few viable alternatives. What if we slipped in LinkedIn and FriendFace - oh sorry, that's a fictional incarnation of Zuckerberg's baby (see British comedy show, The IT Crowd). Why have Twitter and Facebook been singled out here? What about Franco sites like Mediapart and Rue89? Or what about Wikileaks? If I had a euro for every time we've given Assange a free plug...but it's in the public interest to have done so.

Not only does the ruling get under the skin of all the TV and radio journalists in France who are no longer supposed to say "follow us on Twitter @ xyz" (we're allowed a generic "follow us on social networks" - Zuckerberg wouldn't like that), it is a form of censorship. A creeping, insidious form. Getting your viewers to a given place to tell them more about your programme is not advertising for the conduit. It transcends any brand. Plus, the reason why we use these platforms (Twitter and FB) is because they are the best-connected, with the greatest reach, and that's because they're the best at what they do (without needing our help!). As we've discussed at length on Tech 24, traditional media now relies on social media. Twitter and Facebook these days are news-makers - look at the microblogging site's role in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case! And they deserve to be credited as such. Facebook has the clout it does is precisely because the world's third largest "population" is using it to share information, exchange ideas, and build an almighty conversation. If we were all using multiple and isolated services, connected up in small pockets as opposed to globally, then these platforms for change would not be anywhere near as effective. Back to the Sarkozy paradox. Let's celebrate the web's power to reform and transform through just such mega-communities, while slamming on the breaks to bring it back under our control.

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I think that it is duplicitous of Facebook and Google to come out slamming restrictions when in fact their technology is creating restrictions that people are unaware of. Both Google and Facebook employ algorithms to personalise what is being shown to people. This type of relativism unwittingly restricts people from taking part in a bigger world outside of their narrow range of preferences. For instance Danni in Ecuador could type 'Syria' into Google and get completely different results from Michael in London. One might search might not even show that there is rioting happening there. The locus of control is being removed from people and being replaced by an algorithm that places personal relativism ahead of all other possibilities. Facebook does the exact same. It shows you which feeds that it thinks you will find relative to the exclusion of others. There is a well-known TED talk that covers this much better than I have here. To say that the Internet is currently restriction-free simply isn't true.
Very good report, very tech savy, keep up the good work France24 Tech24 and Ms Rebecca Bowring :o)

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