Today's date:
Summer 2011

The State and the Internet: A Call for Collective Responsibility

Nicolas Sarkozy is the president of France and the 2011 chairman of both the G-8 and the G-20. The following is adapted from his opening remarks to the e-G-8 Summit held in Paris on May 24-25.

Paris—Our world has already experienced two different globalizations.

From the first one, that of great discoveries, we inherited a complete world, a world which Magellan could circumnavigate, a world that could be explored and charted.

From the second one, that of industrial revolution, we inherited a space that was not only complete but also domesticated and at times subjugated.

With the third globalization now taking place, the innovators of the new information technologies are changing the way the world sees itself.

You have changed the notion of space because the Internet not only got rid of the distance separating people but also opened up a virtual world that is, by definition, limitless. A world in which everyone can make contact with everyone else. A world in which people can create their own territory, their own community, even their own society.

You have changed the notion of time, getting rid of the very concept of something happening over a period of time, making everything immediate, giving everyone the possibility of reaching others and accessing information instantly, and in short making anything possible.

You have even changed how we see history because transparency, even if at times it can be contested, both in its method and its effects, has imposed itself on countries. You have changed our relationship with things and objects with the single phenomenon of “dematerialization.” You have changed the very notion of knowledge and have made it possible for everyone to access all knowledge, not only to access but also to contribute to this knowledge. The dream of a universal library that would include knowledge from all over the world, a dream as old as time itself, has now become a reality for millions of Internet users.

In just a few years, you have rocked the very foundations of the world economy in which you now play a major role.

You have changed the world, just as Columbus and Galileo did. You have changed the world, just as Newton and Edison did. You have changed the world with the imagination of inventors and the boldness of entrepreneurs.

Unique in history, this total revolution has been immediately and irrevocably global. Unique in history, this revolution does not belong to anybody, it does not have a flag, it does not have a slogan: This revolution is a common good. Unique in history, this revolution has occurred without violence. The discovery of the New World brought about the total destruction of American Indian civilizations. The global revolution that you incarnate is a peaceful one. It did not emerge on battlefields but on university campuses.

It arose from the miraculous combination of science and culture and the determination to acquire knowledge and the determination to transmit it.

With regard to the origins of your sector, legend has it that Google was created in a garage: The thing I remember most is that Google was born in a university library. The imaginary world of Hollywood wanted Facebook to be seen as the result of a failed love affair: We’d like to see many more like that. The thing I remember most is that Facebook was created at a top-ranking university campus.

This revolution that went so far as to change our perception of time and space has played a decisive role in other revolutions. In Tunisia and Egypt alike, mere individuals were able to overturn a power that was completely discredited by building virtual barricades and organizing very real rallies. People in Arab countries thus showed the world that the Internet does not belong to states. International opinion was able to see that the Internet had become, for freedom of speech, a medium for expressing unprecedented power.

Like any revolution, the technological and cultural revolution you began holds promise. Huge promise. Promise that is commensurate with the considerable progress you incarnate.

Now that this revolution has reached the first stage in its maturity, it should not forget the promise of its origins.

If you have designed tools that are now your own, it is because you dreamed of a world that would be more open.

If you have built social networks that currently connect millions of men and women, it is because you dreamed of a world that would be more socially minded.

If you have given utopia concrete expression, it is because you have faith in humankind and its future.

If you have achieved worldwide success so swiftly, it is because this promise reflects universal values.

Your work should thus be considered historic and help drive civilization. And that is the importance of your responsibility, because you do have a responsibility. Our responsibility, as heads of state and government, is no less important. We must support a revolution that was born at the heart of civil society for civil society and that has a direct impact on the life of states. Because if technology is neutral and must remain so, we have clearly seen that the ways the Internet is used are not.

Today, discussing and shaping the Internet is a real historic responsibility and this responsibility can only be shared, by you and us.

The G-8 states, which include some of the most powerful countries in the world, should recognize the role that is now yours in the course of history. We would like to hear about your expertise, because we have things to learn. We have things to understand. Just like individuals and companies, states do not want to miss an opportunity for progress that you have created and that you incarnate. How can we use the Internet to bolster democracy, social dialogue and solidarity? How can we use the Internet to improve the way states function? How can we inject this spirit of innovation and enterprise which is characteristic of your sector into states?

The states we represent need to make it known that the world you represent is not a parallel universe, free of legal and moral rules and more generally all the basic principles that govern society in democratic countries. Now that the Internet is an integral part of most people’s lives, it would be contradictory to exclude governments from this huge forum. Nobody could or should forget that these governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to run the risk of democratic chaos and hence anarchy. To forget this would be to confuse populism with democracy of opinion. Juxtaposed individual wishes have never constituted the will of the people. A social contract cannot be drawn up by simply lumping together individual aspirations.

States and governments have also learned from history, and I am speaking to you on behalf of the country that drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Information technology innovators such as yourselves need to be loyal to the promise of the revolution that you began, as France has sought to be loyal to hers for over two centuries. I know that the market has its own regulatory mechanisms, but trade is never truly free if the terms of this trade are unfair.

Do not allow new barriers to be built where you have toppled the longstanding walls of the old world. Do not allow new monopolies to take root where you have overturned long-established situations that seemed unshakeable.

In giving all individuals, regardless of where they live or from where they speak, the possibility to be heard by everyone everywhere, you have provided all citizens of the world with a freedom of speech that is unprecedented in history. This outstanding leap in individual freedoms cannot be taken at the expense of the rights of others.

Do not allow the revolution you began to violate people’s fundamental right to privacy and to be fully autonomous. Complete transparency, which never allows a person to rest, will sooner or later come up against the very principle of individual freedom.

Let us not forget that behind an anonymous Internet user, there is a real citizen who is evolving in a society, a culture and an organized nation to which he belongs and with laws he must abide by.

Do not forget that the sincerity of your promise will be assessed in the commitment of your companies to contribute fairly to national ecosystems.

Do not allow the revolution you began to violate the basic right of children to lives that are protected from the moral turpitude of certain adults.

Do not allow the revolution you began to be a vehicle for maliciousness, unobstructed and unrestricted. Do not allow this revolution become an instrument in the hands of those who wish to jeopardize our security and, in doing so, our freedom and our integrity.

You have allowed everyone, with the mere magic of the Web, to access all the cultural treasures of the world in a simple click. It would be something of a paradox if the Web contributed to draining them over time.

The immense cultural wealth that provides our civilizations with such beauty is a product of the creative forces of our artists, authors and thinkers. Basically, it is the product of all those who work on enchanting the world.

Yet these creative forces are fragile because when creative minds are deprived of the fruit of their talents, they are not just ruined, what’s worse, they lose their independence, they will be required to pawn their freedom.