Inside the enterprise: eG8 - did you come here for an argument?

Stephen Pritchard

To borrow a line from the old Monty Python sketch, it does rather seem as if France's President Sarkozy came to the eG8 event this week in search of a row. And delegates a list of the great and good of the online world did not disappoint.

In particular, Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, responded firmly to accusations about privacy breaches, and the suggestion by Sarkozy that executives of online firms live in a "parallel universe, where legal and moral rules and, more generally, all the basic principles that govern society in democratic countries do not apply."

Schmidt, for his part, told the audience regulators would always be playing catch up with technology and the online industry should be given the time to solve security and privacy problems itself.

The argument illustrates two quite different views of how the online world should develop. France, for example, has a different approach to privacy than the US or the UK.

Successive French governments have criticised the internet for its Anglo-Saxon bias. Back in 2005, the then French president Jacques Chirac tried to push for a European alternative to Google, called Quaero. Despite receiving Government funding, much of it from France, the project failed to offer a real challenge to Google or even Bing, and is now largely focused on academic research.

So it is no surprise an e-society event in Paris would see Google and the French Government take largely opposing views.

But scepticism about the value and power of the internet is by no means the preserve of French senior politicians or senior public figures. Commenting on the repeated breach of super injunctions on the internet, and by Twitter users in particular, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Judge, described modern technology as "totally out of control."

The uncontrolled growth of the internet certainly raises some important issues around privacy, confidentiality and even security.

The challenge for law makers and regulators is to frame legislation broad enough to allow for technology change but drawn tightly enough so it does not stifle innovation, lead to laws being applied in ways that were never intended or even used to suppress individual or commercial freedom.

Google's Schmidt is also right to point out law makers will always be on the back foot when it comes to controlling technology. However, his argument for self regulation rests on the industry doing more to earn the public's trust. Google's own record on that score is by no means spotless.

Both companies that run internet services, such as Google and Facebook, and those enterprises making use of them, need to have a higher regard for privacy, security and the proper use of our data. If they do not, regulation will surely follow.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

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