The internet natives are revolting

Loz Kaye responds to President Sarkozy's proposal of a 'civilised internet'

Image: CC-AT-NC Flickr: Esthr

The day was clearly ill-starred. It was as if we knew some change in the wind would bring no good. Sure enough something appeared over the horizon - we did not know enough to call it a sail or ship at that time. We gathered on the dazzling white beach of the internets and a figure waded up through the azure waters of livestreaming to say: "Bonjour. I bring you the gift of the civilised internet".

I think it is probably fair to say that few of us held out much hope for the eG8 summit, a kind of electronic mini-me to the talking shop of the G8 economic big boys club. Nevertheless, President Sarkozy's opening speech laid out an agenda more worrying in tone than anything we have heard from any major leader to date. The core message was that global state driven internet regulation is not only desirable, it is necessary.

Perhaps the most striking, if not bizarre, aspect of the speech was the rhetoric that he chose to express himself in. He appealed for a 'civilised internet', with the obvious implication that it is currently uncivilised. Actually it was more than implied, for example he warned against the web's potential to create 'democratic chaos, and so anarchy'. The whole language was that of colonialism- you are a savage, if well meaning, country to be tamed.

If you think I am pushing the point, the speech was full of references to Christopher Columbus, Magellan and "the discovery of the New World". I had sincerely hoped that this narrative had been left behind in the 20th century, but clearly not. It is also not a one off flight of fancy, but a consistent discourse from the French president. Last year in a speech he said:  "The internet is the new frontier, a territory to conquer. But it cannot be a Wild West. It cannot be a lawless place..."

Now the question is whether this should matter to all of us who care about the web, or if we can just dismiss it with a Gallic shrug as political bluster. Why it is significant, is that it is a clearly ideological position- what Edward Said calls in his classic text 'Orientalism' on colonial attitudes "positional superiority".

It is the concept that the established powers, such as our G8 Leaders, are inherently wiser and more enlightened. Sarkozy's speech is full of this attitude– he invokes 'the Rights of Man (sic) and the Citizen' as if he were bringing bright new baubles that we have never seen before. Seldom has the media invention of the concept of 'net natives' seemed so apposite.

This is how you get populations to accept the idea of something like global state driven internet regulation. You take a familiar story- the Wild West to be civilised, and the rest falls in to place, the Cowboys and Indians are cast. Colonialist ideology has two abiding fictions- that of the virgin territory to be exploited, and the hostile territory that will be saved through conquering and civilisation. Despite invoking history throughout the speech, Sarkozy seems unaware that he is indeed repeating it, with potentially disastrous results.

The 'virgin territory' myth is about opening up new areas for economic exploitation. Here we can see that where the whole approach articulated at the eG8 summit goes wider than Deauville. This is one of the key arguments used for the abandoning of net neutrality so that corporations can operate to maximise profit, without regard to a wider social responsibility.

Also it turns the online community in to a potential mine for that most diffuse of economic concepts – 'growth', without heed to talking up yet another financial bubble. Perhaps the most preposterous example of this overvaluing of the next gold rush – intellectual property- was the suit against LimeWire for more than last year's GDP of the entire earth...

Any economic exploitation has its losers, and there is a new level of poverty developing, that of digital exclusion. Lack of participation in the online community will only go to reinforce bad education outcomes for the poorest, cement lack of democratic participation, and disadvantage those who are already struggling. The eG8 were all too silent about how to help these people. In the UK, despite warm words from everyone from the Conservatives to the SNP, rural communities will continue to lag behind in broadband provision- trapped in online "reservations" if you will.

The other myth is one that we are all too familiar with- that internet users are in various ways barbaric threats to order, economic stability and security. All of these were referred to by the President. We have seen the consequences of this idea in proposals for web blocking, 3 strikes legislation, the mooted 'Great European Firewall', takedowns of domain names, targeting of vulnerable people by rights holders, pressures on ISPs to become copyright police and moral guardians.

This is all facilitated by casting the natives as thieves, delinquents, pornographers, antisocial, vandals and security risks. And the favourite insult of all: 'pirate', a term which I take great pleasure in subverting. The inevitable conclusion that Sarkozy makes is that regulation is necessary- no doubt made by the good folks in the hall, rather than the rest of us in the eG7 billion odd outside.

Notably, it was copyright that he chose as the flag to plant in the territory. He did not name it explicitly, but a good deal of his speech was devoted to how creative spirits could be ruined, the fruits of their labours despoiled, and their liberty threatened. It is clear that he had file-sharing in mind, and internet exclusion as solution, but lacked the courage in the company to say so. It seemed to confirm what we in the Pirate Party have been saying for some time now, that crackdowns on file-sharing will lead to a more general restrictive regulation of the internet, but he was too slippery to be able to pin down.

There was a glaring inconsistency at the heart of the speech. Invoking the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt he said how 'the peoples of Arab countries have shown that the internet doesn't belong to States'. But at same time he went on to ask how the internet can help the functioning of the state, to essentially claim that the political system is the only legitimate representative of the general will and how internet big hitters need "to be responsible and help governments create global governance".

Perhaps this idea that the Middle East is where the web is benign and the West is where online interaction is malign will raise a smile with Edward Said. But this prospect of 'global governance', however vague, is a real worry and to my mind the opposite of democratic accountability.

Then what should be the response of us natives? Perhaps not surprisingly the reaction has been to take up the rhetoric of violent confrontation in response to the notional invasion or colonisation. This has been across the spectrum of opinion- @Glinner tweeted about the 'war on the web' to get people to join ORG, Anonymous refer to their lasers and cannons, Pirate Parties talk about the internet being under siege.

I am as guilty of using this vocabulary as anyone. But to do so is to fall in to the same trap as Mr. Sarkozy, to take a pre-prepared script which makes real progress all the more difficult. To cast ourselves as freedom fighters is at best hopelessly romantic, at worst, an insult to people who really do risk their lives whether as protestors in the Middle East or as members of the armed services.

Rather we should show that the fundamental principles that are at the heart of the conception of the internet are indeed civilising ones that can benefit all of society. In response to the eG8 summit Jeff Jarvis put it: 'The internet was born open, free and distributed. As conceived and built, all bits are created equal and must remain that way.'

It's not a blank territory, or a collection of tubes, it is a true community. Instead of narrow exploitation, the web emphasises cooperation and sharing for mutual cultural and economic benefit. Instead of isolationism and xenophobia, the web encourages free communication across borders. Instead of staid hierarchies, the web allows us all the opportunity to be active rather than passive participants in the world around us. But this can only remain the case if the internet is allowed to continue without undue interference and fettering.

After all these are values worth fighting for. If I absolutely have to put it that way.

The vessel disappeared behind the horizon once more. All was calm, and the LOLcats frolicked by the beach. But we wondered, when will the ships return? And how many?


Loz Kaye, Leader – Pirate Party UK

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Comments (2)

  1. Simon Hopkins:
    Jun 01, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    President Sarkozy apparently fails to recognise the existence of the sensible majority and perhaps gives an insight into the "French Elite's" concern about what a fairer more equal society might cost them.

    History shows us time and time again that it's often the sensible majority that prevails and provides the ultimate security, freedom to communicate and associate helps ensure this (think of the war time spirit in the UK).

  2. Jim Killock:
    Jun 01, 2011 at 02:05 PM

    Violent language does tend to be the language of conflict and campaigning, from whichever side. Equally, the language of justice and injustice can be invoked. Meanwhile, the key conflicts are often between governments and commercial actors. Placing society and democratic values back into the debate can be hard, but I think Lessig and La Quadrature among others did a pretty good job during this eG8.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Loz Kaye on May 31, 2011

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