Mission: Non-Commercial Internet, Secret Weapon: Solidarity

By Meryem Marzouki, 10 April 2000
Image: Photo © 1999 Terry Divyak

Iris chairwoman, Meryem Marzouki, explains the trail blazing attempts in France to regulate Internet commercialisation.

On November 27th, 1999, representatives from French non-profit organisations and trade unions met for the second time to plan for an "Internet promoting non-commercial interests and actions showing solidarity".

Both 1998 and 1999 meetings were initiated by Iris — a French NGO whose objectives are to promote civil liberties on the Internet, to act in favour of public service access to the network, and to promote a non-commercial use of the Internet — and co-organised by two non-commercial ISPs, Globenet (whose members are mainly concerned with co-development projects) and R@s (which is mainly staffed by activists and trade unions).

The objective of this annual meeting is to show that a different Internet exists and is alive. This non-commercial Internet is used by activists as a tool for promoting political alternatives to ultra-liberalism and its social consequences. While the Internet seems based on individualism and private commercial interests, our ambition is to promote the general interest, providing documents, analyses and alternative proposals to public policies. Iris’s primary role has been to explain and disseminate what is at stake in the development of the information society, especially considering that trade unions and activists are not necessarily informed about what the consequences might be.

This year, the meeting was devoted to a public discussion of the French government’s draft bill for "a legislative framework for the information society". A draft statement, in response, was discussed by the participants which resulted in a number of recommendations aimed at the bill. These centred on the rights and responsibilities of on-line users, democratisation of Internet access, consumer protection and privacy, and personal data protection. The statement also added recommendations not even touched upon in the government draft, such as extending trade unions’ and workers’ rights and counter measures to commercialisation, all formulated on the very day of important anti-WTO demonstrations across France. In the evening, a panel session took place between the participants and three members of the French parliament who were invited to an open exchange with non-profit organisations and trade unions.

One can but speculate over the impact of such activities, when big commercial interests are lobbying the government day after day at both national, European and international levels. Our task is difficult indeed, but who would have foreseen that the MAI could be killed off, thanks to citizen mobilisation? Who would have said that the opening of the Millenium Round of the WTO in Seattle would be opposed by so many people from around the world?

In France, the draft law on the information society is the latest manifestation of a four year campaign to impose a repressive legislative framework on the Internet, especially with regard to free speech. But now the situation has changed, and more and more people are becoming aware of what such legislation means. It is interesting to note that, at the very beginning, the justification for this kind of law was the protection of minors and human dignity. Now the claim for limiting free expression is increasingly the protection of copyright, with the active support of big, transnational, motion picture and recording companies. In fact it is the content industries, together with the e-commerce companies, who want a ‘clean’ Internet in order to ‘ensure consumer trust’, and make profit from this enormous potential market of not-yet-connected families. This is clearly the ambition of mega-groups such as the new AOL-Time Warner-EMI alliance. The only way we have to fight this is to raise public awareness of its dangers. The objective of the ‘Non-Commercial Internet’ annual meeting is to get other groups and trade unions to relay our actions. Hey, this strategy seems to work! Let’s keep it up!

Meryem Marzouki