French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Internet leaders gathered in Paris on Tuesday to work with governments and share fairly the benefits of a revolution he compared to the discoveries of Columbus, Galileo and Newton.
Opening a forum at which Google's Eric Schmidt and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg will be among the speakers, Sarkozy heaped praise on an industry that has democratized information and helped enable the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
Sarkozy, widely mistrusted in the online world for measures such as a law that calls for copyright pirates to be cut off from the Internet, struck a more conciliatory tone than in the past by urging caution in regulating the digital economy.
But he maintained governments have a role in setting ground rules to limit the abuses and excesses of the Internet, citing in particular privacy and intellectual property, as well as voicing a concern over monopolies forming online.
We don't want to make mistakes in regulating this powerful yet fragile ecosystem, he said in response to a question from journalism professor Jeff Jarvis. We have to act with pragmatism. It is better to do nothing than to do harm.
Soon after the niceties of Sarkozy's opening speech, however, the deep rifts between policymakers and techies in attendance burst into view with few signs of how they would be resolved in the two-day forum in the Tuileries Gardens of Paris.
One of the biggest splits exists over the issue of piracy.
Sarkozy reminded the industry of its responsibilities in the fields of piracy, drawing a parallel between the intellectual property on which many Web companies are built and the copyright that artists seek to protect.
These algorithms that constitute your power ... this technology that is changing the world, are your property and nobody can contest that, he said. Writers, directors or actors can have the same rights.
Yochi Benkler, a Harvard University professor known for championing open source ideas, voiced the opposite view after the opening panel featuring Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwaayen, Bharti Airtel CEO Sunil Mittal and Google's Schmidt.
Benkler slammed France's anti-piracy law for cutting off people from their fundamental right to the Internet.
You can make the Internet safe for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, or you can make it safe for the next Skype, Benkler said, referring to two pop music stars and the wildly successful start-up Internet telephony service. You have to choose.
The debates at the forum, whose conclusions will be presented to G8 leaders in the French seaside resort of Deauville later this week, pit passionate advocates of two opposing views of the Internet against each other.
One, espoused by Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Twitter as well as many academics, favors a hands-off approach to allow innovation and freedom of information.
The other, embraced by many established media companies, privacy advocates and governments in Europe, favors more regulation to cope with the broad changes to business and society brought on by the web.
The debate has been thrown into the spotlight in Britain this week as Twitter users in their thousands made a mockery of injunctions obtained by the rich and famous to hush up scandals, by publishing names and details.
The affair has highlighted the near impossibility of imposing national law on the Internet as well as cultural differences between Europe and the United States.
News Corp, whose Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch is among the speakers at the forum, has led a movement to stem the flood of free information online by charging readers and viewers for content on the Web.
John Perry Barlow, a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which campaigns for Internet civil rights, said: It's about the revenge of the mass media.
We've been trying to civilize cyberspace for 22 years, he told Reuters when asked why he was attending the forum. It's a good idea to be present when movement is afoot to take away some of the values that you cherish.
Sarkozy hit on another sensitive point in his speech when he warned tech companies about seeking too much market power.
Do not allow new monopolies to take root where you are have overturned seemingly unchangeable situations, he said.
Such comments come as the European Commission has begun a formal inquiry into whether Google has a dominant position in online search and advertising, which it may use to tilt its results away from competitors.
During a panel, Google's Schmidt dismissed the issue of monopolies: Winner-takes-all markets are pretty evanescent... Nobody would want Internet growth to be significantly slowed because of some stupid rule.
(Editing by David Hulmes)