BBC news ran a piece on France’s approach to digital life.
The following seem like take aways to me.
First, that different countries approach the same technologies differently. Frequently, when we read about the power of the Internet and so forth it is as if it is a technology that spans national boundaries, a truly global phenomenon. And of course it is. But simultaneously it is also a technology that is worked into the laws and rules of each land it touches. China and Singapore’s filtering and barring of certain content are two well-known examples. And while we can spend some time arguing whether that is “right” or “wrong” (or perhaps good vs. bad), many of those arguments turn on our own values about things like, for example, the freedom of information, the right to free speech and so forth.
France is deciding whether internet firms such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook should pay a tax on their online ad revenues. What they make, in the sale of their online space, France views as taxable revenue and tax law is as idiosyncratic as the country from which it comes (I think wikipedia does a nice job of pointing out some of the more bizarre features of U.S. tax law). Interestingly Google’s response is one that turns on innovation. Google might be right, but I can’t help thinking that innovation, particularly the importance of technological innovation is a very American response. I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve never lived in a society that values technology, seems so culturally aligned with technology, as much as the United States. I think David Nye would agree, although he puts it so much better than I, perhaps especially in American Technological Sublime.
The fact that France has decided, as a State, to go head to head with Google to digitize books also seems very French. When I think of large state projects I think of France’s nuclear power program, of its high speed trains, of the launch and rapid uptake of the Minitel. So, apparently many people think that the Internet was the first network that connected a “network nation” together. Actually it was Minitel, and it connected France together by the mid 1980s, when the French were already doing online banking, stock purchases, and making reservations. Yes, the WWW, which made its appearance in the early 1990s, despite allowing a lot of people to conduct business online was not the first… So, instead the French are going to create their own digital library, and pay £700m to do it.
And finally, I found the law which would allow net users to have old data about themselves deleted fascinating. Recently I blogged about the ongoing tensions between the personal and professional. But they do not just play out in the now, in the real-time, but also over the course of a history of network use. For example, if you type my name into Google along with the words hot tub, you used to land on a picture and explanation of an event at a conference. Initially, I was not too excited about the picture, particularly when I was recruiting for jobs (which I have done rather more often than some of my colleagues…) but then I think I decided that taking the picture away was some how worse, since it wasn’t entirely clear that I was not in the hot tub (some who were were naked if I recall correctly). ANyway, so it goes on. There’s also the brief experiment I had with feminism, which I am not personally embarrassed by (not really sure I’m embarrassed by the hot tub either, just wouldn’t be my first choice)… but I am convinced that some of the ideas I left on the net would be better refined with my increased readings. Perhaps not, but we can hope. But, there are digital traces of me, a digital legacy, which is now something that others can explore and potentially make decisions about (not just the content but also me), but I don’t have a way to remove it. If I was French I might though. ANd can you imagine what this is going to mean, if a French person can ask, under the auspices of this law, to have something removed. The web has always struck me as a place where people create but far less frequently remove. The web is not tidy like that.
My bigger point here was that this news item reminded me that the network is not a global phenomenon, it is actually a more complicated experiment in marrying a technology that does not readily or always recognise international boundaries, with nation states that can and do recognise their own sovereignty and their ability to enact laws that reflect their own values and beliefs about digital life.