e-G8: A discussion about sovereignty

I’m coming to see last week’s e-G8 meeting in Paris as a negotiation over the sovereignty and future not only of the net but of government itself.

The e-G8 was government’s opening volley against the internet as its agent of disruption. Oh, yes, the gathering was positioned as exactly the opposite: We come in peace, said Nicolas Sarkozy. After hearing him speak to the thousand net, corporate, technology, and government machers he’d assembled in Tuileries tents, I tweeted that I felt like a native of the Americas or Africa watching colonists’ ships sail in, thinking, this can’t end well.

I rewatched Sarkozy’s welcoming address and heard him alternately begging to be invited to the cool kids’ party–and warning them of trouble if he isn’t. “As long as the internet is part and parcel of the daily lives of our citizens, it would be a contradiction to leave government out of this massive discussion,” he said.

Then he asserted: “No one should forget that governments in our democracies are the only legitimate representatives of their citizens.” Really, Mr. President? Tell that to the people of Tahrir Square. The citizens of Egypt found their true voice apart from the government of their so-called democracy. Spring is not only overtaking the Middle East. In Spain, too, citizens are speaking for themselves, because they can. Where else will it spread?

This was actually a discussion about sovereignty: governments’ and the net’s. “We want to tell you that the universe that you represent is not a parallel universe that is free from the rules of law, or the ethics or any of the fundamental principles that must govern the social lives our democratic states,” Sarkozy told the tent. But is he right? Sarkozy acted as if he were planting his flag in the soil of this new land. A few minutes later (see transcript below) I called the net the eighth continent, an image I heard from Peter Levin, CTO of the Department of Veterans Affairs — and a phrase the President liked.

The eighth continent metaphor is confusing, though, since everyone is a citizen of some land but now anyone can also be a citizen of the net. It’s not as if we’re all taking off for Plymouth Rock, leaving our native lands behind. We do still live each in our own nation under its laws — you’re right about that, Mr. President. Abusing children or stealing money is a crime everywhere, no matter whether it occurs online.

But many of us — net people — have a new loyalty that inevitably undercuts old, national authority. Before I’m accused of being a net exceptionalist, let me quickly say that the net is hardly the only factor in this modern disruption of authority. Globalization may be the more powerful force: The interconnected economy is still unravelling like a cheap sweater; terrorism works precisely because it has no nation; environmental issues cut across borders as easily as pollution and radioactivity do; culture seeps across cultures. The net is simply an agent and accelerant of this change.

But then again, the net is also a new society. That idea is confounding to nations of laws because the net’s own sovereignty depends upon no one having sovereignty over it. That is how it was designed. That is its core principle. So it doesn’t behave like a new land that, in Sarkozy’s view, needs civilizing. That is why net people acted like antigens at the e-G8, rejecting its authority here. John Perry Barlow said he came to Paris to stop Sarkozy from civilizing the net. Susan Crawford said we were there to make it clear that he did not hold consensus. Lawrence Lessig said that the real net people were not there. So Sarkozy thought he was negotiating a treaty with the net but he couldn’t, because he hadn’t invited the net.

If Sarkozy can be credited with foresight it is with the vision that trouble lies ahead for governments and their control. Just as music, news, media, retail, travel, soon the academe, and so much more have been disrupted by the net and the next waves of modernization, so will government. He is trying to reserve himself a spot in that future.

Sarkozy like many others — I include myself — tie ourselves in knots when we try to define the new world in the terms of the old. He is trying to put the net under some new form of international governance among those he anoints as the good guys, our benevolent new overloads. When I call it the eighth continent, I treat it as a new land to be conquered. Let me try another way.

I believe the net could at last realize the vision of Jürgen Habermas for the creation of a public sphere to act as a counterweight to the power and authority of government. Habermas believes that in a brief shining moment, we had that counterweight in the rational, critical debate that occurred in the coffee houses and salons of England and Europe in the 18th century.

Whether that moment really occurred is up for considerable debate. Nonetheless Habermas helpfully sets the terms of the discussion; he defines an ideal. He also argues that as soon as the public sphere formed, it was corrupted by mass media as an agent of power. In Public Parts I also quote Jay Rosen on James Carey saying that the press’ proper role in a democracy is not to speak to the public — to inform the public — but to be informed by the public.

Now, with the net, we have the opportunity at last to right both these wrongs: to become the counterweight to government and media. So the net is not a subset of lands we now know. It is not a a new land. It is the public sphere. Or it can be. It is up to us to protect it from conquest by government and media. It is up to us to learn how to use it — like the people of Tahrir Square — to find our true voice.

The only way that can happen is if the net remains independent and free of those it would help check or disrupt — in short, all the people Sarkozy called to the Tuileries tents. That is why I asked them to take the Hippocratic oath of the net, to first, do no harm.

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Here is the transcript of the simultaneous translation of my encounter with Sarkozy. He begins by mocking the question; that is evident in his tone. But note that by the end he starts to understand what I’m asking. He at least acknowledges the fragility of what is being created. Oh, he still went to the G8 to stick his flag in it; that, for him, is a matter of self-preservation. But at the e-G8, thanks to the likes of Lessig, Crawford, Jérémie Zimmermann, Yochai Benkler, I began to learn the terms of this debate, this struggle over nothing less than the platform for the public sphere.

Q: Monsieur le President, je m’appelle Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York. You acknowledge that government does not own the internet. Yet we see governments trying to claim sovereignty there. A U.S. official calls the internet an eighth continent; it is a new land. What makes it free and open is its very structure of being distributed and open. So as you go to the G8, I have one small request. I think this discussion is wonderful. I think this discussion about principles and the internet and shared understanding is what we need. But I want to ask of government to take a Hippocratic oath for the internet and that is: First, do no harm.

A: Well honestly it’s not difficult to answer that question. Do no harm. Absolutely. I mean why should you think we would harm you? You’ve got tremendous potential for growth and knowledge. It’s extraordinary. I like the expression the eighth continent.

But what do you mean by harm? I will certainly pay very close attention to this. Now do you mean that bringing up the matter of security from terrorism is a question of harm. Is that harmful. Or if we say you are creative people and what you created has to be protected, respected and we have to also respect and protect other creative people. Is that harmful to you? If we said you wanted an eight continent to be the continent of freedom and openness and we say that we mustn’t give rise to new monopolies, is that harmful? We can say there are sacred, universal values such as protecting a child from the predatory nature of some adults. Is that harmful to you? I do not think so.

I think what would be harmful to you would be not to recognize that you are responsible, competent people, good citizens—good global citizens shouldering their responsibilities. What would be harmful to you would be to not even bring up the issue, being afraid you would not understand it. You know the future so well you are certainly capable of understanding this matter.

So if I am to do a Hippocratic oath of doing no harm, yes, I will take that oath. I will even say that I like you. I’d rather the sun shine than the rain fall; I’d rather businesses making money than losing money. It’s great being here. But ask for stronger commitments on my part.

I can say to you and I’m convinced that for my colleagues as the heads of state of government the same holds true: We’re fully aware of the power of the internet and at the same time the fragility of the overall internet ecosystem. We mustn’t enact any measures that would complicate the development of this system. I agree with you fully, yes indeed. And I think with the best intentions we could make for problems if we’re not careful. So in this market you’re creating which hasn’t yet stabilized we have to be very careful before making a decision. The idea of regulating once and for all is ill-suited to your economy. We have to very pragmatic moving forward: evolve, use our experience, learn from it.

We must decide to do nothing than rather than do the wrong thing. Better to hold back in a sector of growth and instability. So that’s my oath that I would certainly adhere to.

Let me say that for so many of you to come is a good sign. Because if you felt it weren’t meaningful you wouldn’t have come. I really do believe it is extremely important for us to continue this dialogue in mutual respect.

Believe me, what we want as heads of state in government is to make no mistake in your area, your economy, which is a work in progress, which is very fragile, which is very powerful at the same time. We do not want to create any instability.