eG8: The Internet Wars

Paris—The eG8 Internet conference hosted by French President Sarkozy today and tomorrow—a prelude to the G8 conference later this week—and bringing together the cream of Internet money and status isn't really an Internet conference.

The digital world is organized by conferences—every week a conference somewhere. These represent the social and business structures that, in less than two decades, have built one of the great global businesses.

But this conference in the Tuileries Gardens is quite different. First, there are the suits. That is, everybody's wearing one—a dark one. In France this signifies not so much business but bureaucracy. This is the political-regulatory class. Then there is this taking over of the Tuileries Gardens themselves—a conference that came together in less than a month—by presidential fiat. And the command performance (for no clear reason other than the powerful calling the powerful) of the most significant figures in the business: Eric Schmidt, Andrew Mason, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Jimmy Wales, Yuri Milner, and Rupert Murdoch, hardly an Internet figure, but a figure nonetheless. And then the chatter about how the panels themselves came together—the careful parsing of message, of who was invited and who was excluded.

This is, in other words, the old establishment trying, abruptly, to exert its prerogatives over the new establishment, wanting to more or less gently, but firmly, remind the new that regulation is rational and inevitable.

It is too the new establishment delighted to sit beside the old—to see themselves as its equal (rich guys, no matter how much they resist regulation, actually love government—indeed, believe themselves to be the ruling class).

This is a clash of fairly serious titans. Government, being slow to understand, has let the technology and culture develop without much interference. The technology produced enormous wealth and dependence, becoming in its own way, a separate sort of government (much discussion here about the metaphors that define the Internet as a separate land or nation).

The governmental view is obviously a logical one—the digital infrastructure is a utility that needs oversight and regulation. As obviously, almost no one in government has the natural ability or, if you will, art, to do this—as might have been claimed about all regulators of all utilities that have ever been regulated. The opposite view on the part of successful entrepreneurs, technologists, and industry gadflies, is a pure and pugnacious one, based largely now on wealth: we are, individually, rich enough to stymie regulation (which is why, in fact, you've invited us to the Tuileries Gardens), and, as an industry growing fast enough, that you risk slowing economic expansion if you dare to regulate us.

This is a very polite and, in a European way, formal meeting, with most points of controversy meticulously removed from the agenda. And yet this may be one of the first events to dramatize capitalism's next great war: between the instincts of bureaucratic liberal government and the heretofore rebellious and innovative technologists who have become the ultimate defenders of free enterprise.

Winner uncertain.