Nicolas Sarkozy is all too familiar with the pitfalls of the Internet. It wasn't long ago that the French president became the victim of an online attack himself, when unknown hackers hijacked his Facebook account and, in his name, circulated the false report that he would not be running for another term in office.
Sarkozy reacted with surprising equanimity to the hacker attack, poking fun at the many spelling errors in his adversaries' message.
But, since Monday, Sarkozy has been having a chance to discuss the attack in front of some very important people. He has invited three of the world's most powerful Internet luminaries to a forum in Paris: Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, the world's largest search engine; Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and head of Facebook, the world's largest social-networking site, with more than 650 million users; and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, the world's largest online retailer.
This is a rare gathering of such important figures. And the fact that Sarkozy, who is no stranger to the limelight, will actually be the one basking in the glow of great names is a particularly striking sign of the true importance of these online demigods. Indeed, people might not be able to point Paris out on the map, but they do know where the virtual realm of Facebook is: everywhere.
To make sure that the two-day G-8 summit starting Thursday in the coastal resort town of Deauville isn't just another routine meeting about the global policy agenda, Sarkozy chose to have this special "eG8" summit focused on the Internet before the main meeting.
The event, which is sponsored by major corporations and is being held under giant tents in Paris' Tuileries Garden, will see thousands of top industry executives and leading academics sharing their visions over two days. Anyone who was looking to hold the title of "co-chairman" of the event only had to fork over 250,000 ($350,000) for the privilege.
Sarkozy's War on the Web
Sarkozy has big plans. A joint resolution would essentially embrace the digital vision of Deauville, which the Elysée Palace refers to as a "thematic premier, that -- curiously enough -- has never been jointly addressed by the leaders of the industrialized nations."
The Frenchman has never shied away from theatrics and lofty words. And there's no denying that the major online companies -- which are mostly American -- and the world's top politicians -- and particularly the European ones -- either don't know much about or are suspicious of each other.
There are many topics to be discussed, including data protection, fighting terrorism, hacker attacks and, most recently, the seemingly manic desire of Apple and similar companies to hoard user location data.
Still, the Internet community views Sarkozy's effort to make "the Internet" the central topic of a G-8 summit with a great deal of suspicion. And perhaps with good reason: More than three years ago, Sarkozy declared war on the Web. At the time, he referred to it as a "Wild West" and characterized it as an "extralegal zone." In the style of an Internet Napoleon, he announced his intention to "civilize the Internet." Since then, he has pursued regulation with nothing short of missionary zeal.
Civilizing the Virtual 'Wild West'
In 2008, Frédéric Lefebvre, a member of parliament for the UMP, the conservative governing party, raged that, without strict controls, the Internet would remain a hotbed of "psychopaths, rapists, racists and thieves." After a recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, Sarkozy added: "Regulating the Internet to correct its excesses and abuses that come about in the total absence of rules -- this is a moral imperative!"
For some time, there has been a storm of new Internet-related laws and regulations designed to protect authors, copyright and internal security as well as to block certain websites. Sarkozy has aimed to "regulate," "cleanse" or at least "civilize" the same media sector that has often embarrassed him by publishing revealing quotes, photos and videos.
In 2010, France introduced a rigid three-step model for copyright violations and created a new regulatory agency called HADOPI. Under the legislation, anyone caught illegally copying music receives two warnings, the first by e-mail and the second by registered mail. At third violation brings anything ranging from monetary fines to an Internet ban. For the law's many critics, being blocked by one's Internet service provider is tantamount to a "digital death penalty."
The Sarkozy administration also turned its attention to unpopular content. A package of laws on internal security adopted in February includes the possibility of blocking certain websites, such as those displaying child pornography.
An Issue of Civilization or Control?
Sarkozy apparently wanted to leave nothing to chance for his big "Net G-8" appearance. Last fall, when then-Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was planning to host a conference on freedom of expression, Sarkozy sent him a letter warning him not to forget about his own goal of fostering a civilized Internet and reminding Kouchner that he, le président, had chosen this as a central issue of the France's G-8 presidency. As a result, the conference was promptly cancelled.
This track record has only fueled the current fears of online activists. The summit is "a farce," says Jérémie Zimmermann, the cofounder and spokesman of the advocacy group "La Quadrature du Net," noting that Sarkozy has made it clear that he wants to impose his authoritarian ideas about regulation on his G-8 colleagues.
La Quadrature du Net, together with other Net activists and initiatives, already called for protests in advance of the summit. Under the slogan "G-8 vs. Internet," the group argues that the world's governments are "uniting to control and censor the Internet."
It's always possible that Sarkozy will garner some support for his initiatives from his Internet celebrity guests in Paris. But, while in London last week, Google's Schmidt said that efforts to block domain names and Internet censorship could have devastating consequences for free speech. "I would be very, very careful about that stuff," Schmidt said.