Egged on by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the leaders of the Group of 8 nations announced Friday that the Internet was too important for governments to leave ungoverned. Cyberspace needs a legal framework that promotes human rights, the rule of law, privacy, security and the protection of intellectual property, they declared, and they pledged to work on one.
Good luck with that.
The declaration reflects the wrongheaded wish of many foreign leaders to tame the Net, particularly freewheeling Web-based businesses and online speech. Evolving technologies and online services have disrupted not just established industries but governments' ability to bring transgressors to heel. Rather than letting the public, entrepreneurs and the courts respond to problems as they arise, these officials want to impose their own brand of discipline. As Sarkozy put it, lawmakers and regulators should wield more control over the Internet because "governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies."
What that "will" is, however, depends on which people you ask. The Internet isn't some magical environment that makes all the differences between national governments disappear. Instead, it's a place where the European notion of privacy clashes head-on with U.S. advertising networks' voracious appetite for personal data, and where a French court's view of hate speech conflicts with an American website's hands-off approach to online auctions. It's the venue where a British gag order barring the publication of an allegedly womanizing soccer star's name is gleefully violated by Twitter users around the world.