MT Special: What we learned from this week's eG8

How can the internet best support economic growth? Housetrip CEO and co-founder Arnaud Bertrand reports for MT on the conclusions reached at the eG8 in Paris.

by Arnaud Bertrand
Last Updated: 26 May 2011
I accepted the invitation to the eG8 this week in Paris for a very simple reason: if you’re the founder of an internet start-up (housetrip.com), and Nicolas Sarkozy invites you to a discussion alongside the likes of Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg and Rupert Murdoch, you just go – no questions asked. By virtue of the fact that it gathered most of Internet’s key players, this forum was historic; everyone wanted to be a part of it.

The forum had two ambitions. It wanted to gather the industry’s (and civil society’s) view on the regulation of particular online issues: individual privacy, intellectual property and the creation and distribution of cultural and artistic content. And it also wanted to look at how the internet can spur economic growth.

Like many people, I have a natural aversion to governments stepping in and regulating the internet – it goes against the basic principles of the web. For instance, the French law "HADOPI", that penalises individual users for the illegal download of online music or movies is, in my opinion, an absurdity because it slows down innovation – it is the massive take-up of free illegal content that has forced the music and movie industries to reinvent themselves, and to come up with such fantastic services like Spotify, Hulu or even iTunes. If nobody had ever been allowed to download free music on the internet, music companies would still be making most of their income from £10 CDs. So a lack of regulation disrupted entire industries, and led to a better world with better user experiences.

Andrew Mason, the founder & CEO of Groupon, summarised this mentality perfectly. When asked by a member of the audience if he was worried about Facebook’s move in his industry, he replied: if Facebook demolishes Groupon, it will mean that Facebook has a better user experience, and that would be for the greater good.

The forum was also a clear signal that governments are aware of the economic importance of the internet. McKinsey presented findings that the internet already accounts for 3.4% of GDP in the world’s 13 largest economies, and a whopping 21% of GDP growth in the G8 countries. Governments acknowledging the power and importance of the e-economy can only be good news, surely?

During President Sarkozy’s speech, Jeff Jarvis (a journalist and one of the very few representatives of ‘civil society’ present) stood up and asked him to take the Hippocratic Oath – ‘Do no harm’. I think it was a rather appropriate sentence (although in the context it could take quite a few different meanings). It’s normal that governments try and regulate the "8th continent" – but that shouldn’t be to the detriment of innovation, economic dynamism and freedom of speech.

I don’t believe the two aims are contradictory. To his credit, Sarkozy cleverly replied: "Why would I do harm? You represent a fantastic growth potential. But is trying to fight terrorism doing harm? Is saying that authorship must be respected doing harm?" It might do harm, it might not; it depends on the measures that come out of the G8 summit, and how they are applied.

Overall, I think that the forum will have several consequences for the online economy. Good ones, if governments put in place smart measures to further encourage online innovation, entrepreneurship and employment. Bad ones, if governments put in place measures that might appear to make sense (i.e. who would argue that a creator can’t claim ownership of his creation?), but which may turn out to be short-sighted, and compromise the growth of the online economy in the long run.

I’ll conclude with the words of Joe Schoendorf, a partner at Accel Ventures, who addressed the audience at the closing plenary: ‘Governments at the G8 ought to have one core thing in mind when deciding on what measures to take for the internet: more jobs’. Coupled with Jarvis’s exhortation to ‘do no harm’, I think the feedback from e-G8 participants was pretty clear: the ball is in the governments’ court.

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