So as Europe teeters on the brink of another financial crisis, and the US economy struggles to recover amid staggering levels of government debt, what is Nicolas Sarkozy’s priority for the G8 meeting in Deauville?

Regulating the internet.

He’s summoned an “e-G8” (nice to see a revival of the ’90s habit of slapping an “e-” in front of everything) of the biggest net-based companies to lecture them about the “moral imperative” needed to “correct the excesses and abuses that arise from the total absence of rules”. The dinosaurs of the global copyright industry — one of the most vicious, intrusive and anti-competitive sectors on the planet outside the drug trade — were there to nod approvingly. The voices of those who use the internet — for mundane tasks like shopping through to the revolutionary task of overthrowing dictators — were entirely absent from Sarkozy’s cosy gathering.

You’d have thought from the sclerotic French economy — the unemployment rate is just under 10% — not to mention the travails of the French government’s own Hadopi internet censorship regime that Sarkozy — notionally a liberal by French economic standards — would have resisted the Gallic instinct to punitively regulate first and worry about the consequences later.

Not that he’s alone. Despite the virtually ceaseless rhetoric from the Obama administration about net freedom, it is actively engaged in online censorship and attacks on online activists, while Congress puts together a draconian plan to impose an internet filter on Americans, dictated by the copyright industry. Other nations, like the Brown government in the UK and the current conservative New Zealand government, have imposed similarly draconian laws. And let’s not forget Labor’s appalling internet filter proposal is still only on hold here pending other reviews.

Sarkozy’s e-moralising appears to be only the latest example of a concerted attack by governments of all stripes on a medium that automatically threatens their instinct for control — an instinct they share with large corporations that profit from regulating how all of us receive and use information. Having failed so miserably at the basics of economic management, the G8 may well botch any campaign to censor the internet, but that shouldn’t be relied on by its users, whether you value the freedom to shop online, or the freedom to use content in ways convenient to you, or the freedom to say what you want about a government.

Peter Fray

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