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[avignon] What I learned at Avignon about the Internet

So what did I learn at the Forum d’Avignon about the fate of the Internet in Europe?

It’s of course impossible to distill the entire conference, especially since much of the benefit was getting to meet some fascinating people. And, it’s impossible to feel confident about these lessons because the event consisted of 450 invited guests, so my sample was skewed, even though there was an attempt to achieve balance across cultures, beliefs, and genders. (Fully half of the attendees were women.) Nevertheless, …

Within this set of policy makers and large industry players, there is a conviction that the Internet is primarily a threat that has put all of culture and creativity at risk.

Why do they see it that way? Many of them are content publishers. To them, the Net looks like a competitive publishing medium that connects cultural content to consumers via search engines. Although the conference puts this concern in terms of the failure of the Net to connect consumers to worthy objects of culture, virtually all the public discussion was about the economic threat the current purveyors of mass culture feel. They believe that without the strictest enforcement of copyright, creators won’t be able to earn a living, and thus the Net will kill culture. The idea that the Net is actually the greatest engine of culture in history was expressed only three times, each time by Americans. [The next day: That last sentence is an overstatement. Americans expressed this idea the most directly and forcefully, it seems to me, but not solely.]

Authors rights were taken at the Forum as an economic imperative and as a moral imperative. There is no sense at all that those rights might be usefully balanced with the rights of “consumers” and makers. None. Zilch. Fair Use — granted, an American concept — was raised once in passing. (Victoria Espinel, Obama’s IP Czar, mentioned it, very positively.) The attendees were so convinced that authors’ rights are supreme that they left the conference convinced that there is consensus on the topic. Indeed, the conference ended with a summary of the ministerial summit on culture that was held in parallel with the first day of the conference: All the stakeholders agree on the supreme importance of fighting piracy. Of course, that ministerial meeting [Later: it was called the Cultural Summit, I have learned] included no users at all. So much for “all the stakeholders.” (I pointed this out to the person who convened the meeting (which I was not at, of course), and he said that the government representatives were there to represent users.)

Because of their view of the Net as a publishing medium, and because of the abundance of content on the Net, the dominant paradigm of the Forum views Google as the center of the Net. The participants thus wondered what sort of legislation is required to enforce “search neutrality” against Google. Now, there is no denying that Google is a center of the Net, and its algorithms have a great deal of effect on which pages are seen. But the participants at the Forum had what seemed to me to be a monomaniacal focus on Google, which makes sense if you’re thinking of the Net as a pile of content mediated by an index. They seemed to have no sense that there are living networks of people recommending and linking outside of Google’s search box. And for many of us, the transformative effect of the Net has been as a social place, not as an information medium.

Based on random interactions, it seems to me that at this meeting the small coalition that supported users’ rights as well as authors’ rights consisted of Americans, librarians, and students. Had there been more hackers here, I suspect they’d join our little band, but engineers, geeks and techies were woefully under-represented.

Overall, quite depressing, with the most profound anti-Internet sentiment coming from President Sarkozy in an 1.5 talk and discussion he favored us with.

Vive l’internet ouvert!

[All errors in French due to Google Translate.]


It is true that European Commissioner Neelie Kroes attacked the focus on copyright as misguided. Many in the media seem to have heard this as a call for copyright reform. (Here’s my live-blogging of her remarks.) I did not. I thought she was fully backing the rights of authors and strong copyright protection, but saying that we need to do more to create business models that create more money for creators. I did not hear Neelie suggesting copyright reform. I hope I’m wrong.

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