Fast Company

France's Odd Internet Laws Explained: Fairness Vs. Innovation

There's a method to the madness of France's curious Internet bans--an underlying philosophy that's causing conflict with companies around the world.

Sarkozy

The world stared in befuddled amusement as France banned the words "Twitter" and "Facebook" from TV. Slammed throughout the media as regulatory lunacy and ridiculous, the decree has appeared to many as a Luddite goverment's ham-fisted attempt to control a new technology it doesn't fully understand. From the French perspective, these measures are mere extensions of a deeply entrenched legal tradition of prioritizing fairness over competition, believing that the Internet's love affair with a marketplace of ideas can become little more than unregulated "anarchy."

The kid-glove fight between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Google's Eric Schmidt over the issue of privacy illustrates the clash of digital philosophies perfectly.

"Don't let the revolution that you've begun threaten everyone's basic right to a private life and full autonomy," said Sarkozy at last month's eG8 gathering of tech elites. "Full transparency...sooner or later runs into the very principle of individual freedom."

Only a few days later, Schmidt responded with exactly the opposite sentiment. Answering a question about privacy worries, he said, "The ultimate answer is transparency," continuing, "We tell people what we know and we tell them how to delete it."

France has little sympathy for the philosophy that more information is better. For instance, French presidential campaigns adhere to rigorous rules, which begin at a legally mandated two weeks before the election, place caps on total campaign expenditures, and the state reserves deep publicly funding coffers to help equalize the playing field.

So, when it came to the application of a 1992 French law banning the use of "surreptitious advertising," or mentions of business products not explicitly labeled as an advertisement or news story, the French authorities decided frequent mentions of Twitter and Facebook were unfair to competitor social media platforms.

"Why give preference to Facebook, which is worth billions of dollars, when there are many other social networks that are struggling for recognition," explained Christine Kelly, a spokesman for the French regulatory agency. "This would be a distortion of competition. If we allow Facebook and Twitter to be cited on air, it's opening a Pandora's Box--other social networks will complain to us saying, 'why not us?'"

Authorities recommend substituting the much more generic and egalitarian phrase, "social network" (maybe that's what MySpace needs).

A Growing Battle

France is no lone vigilante championing the fight for fairness. When two transportation technology firms attempted to edge in on the tightly regulated taxi market by allowing individuals to perform ad-hoc pay-for-ride services, they were hit hard by state agencies and unions.

The established taxi authorities worried that victims of unlicensed drivers would be unable to seek justice and a flood of unregulated prices might depress income. When the legal dust settled, Ubercab was forced to truncate its name to Uber and it continues to dodge threats from city and state officials. "I think I’ve got 20,000 years of jail time in front of me," CEO Travis Kalanick joked.

Innovators who threaten to disrupt cushy markets with more choices and cheaper prices will continue to butt heads with state agencies who are more concerned with fair wages than technological advancements (watch your back, Airbnb).

Not Big Vs. Little Government

Before social media enthusiasts organize a tweetup with the Tea Party to go hurl copies of Atlas Shrugged at the local French embassy, it might be mistaken to characterize French laws as some sort of big government versus free market struggle.

Sarkozy has been an ardent defender of intellectual property (a pillar of libertarianism) against the onslaught of online piracy, comparing it to shoplifting from a supermarket. "It is under this copyright law for creative work that you have been able to found companies that have become empires." Sarkozy told the eG8 audience, "Each of you, each of us, can therefore understand that writers, directors or actors can have the same rights."

Schmidt, in characteristic form, shot back at Sarkozy in his speech, arguing that the dispute between content owners and producers, between individual rights and the masses, was merely an engineering problem,"Before we decide that we need a regulatory solution to these problems, let's ask, 'Is there a technological solution that can scale, that can work globally, and move very quickly?'"

For example, Schmidt said, in a keynote at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that the "extremist" view that intellectual property is simply about protection from theft ignores the need for formats to adapt to multiple devices and also ignores the opportunity to profit from many more people purchasing content at lower prices.

"A classic example here would be iTunes. The record industry, and the previous generation of leaders in the record industry (all of whom are essentially gone), fought to the death against Napster and so forth and so on. When, the most obvious thing is that people actually were willing to pay a moderate amount for a song. And, iTunes cleverly figured out a way to do that."

Innovation has its own philosophy: the solution to problems is more choice, more ideas, and more users. The battle over innovation, however, ultimately creates winners and losers, a troubling notion for governments more concerned with fairness than the advancement of ideas.

Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter. Also, follow Fast Company on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user World Economic Forum]

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