DIGITALEUROPE

“Liberty, how many crimes are perpetrated in your name!” History tells that these were the last words uttered by Manon Roland before being beheaded by guillotine in 1793. She was not afforded much time to elaborate, but considering the context (she was executed by the very same people whose cause – the French revolution – she had embraced and evangelized with unparalleled fervour), she probably meant this: a monopoly on liberty is a sure prescription to kill liberty.

The end of cultural hegemony
In the same vein, a monopoly on culture will leave the cultural vanguard out in the cold because bureaucracy rhymes with conservatism, creativity with new experiments: those mix as surely as chalk and cheese would. Therefore we can take the liberty – precisely – to thus paraphrase Manon Roland’s ultimate legacy: “Culture, how many crimes are perpetrated in your name!”

More critically, these could be the last words of many a French creative mind should the government appropriate the thrust of recommendations towards “cultural exception Act 2” or “digital sovereignty” to be found in reports authored by Lescure or Collin & Colin. Punitive levies on access to online content will scare off potential customers, thereby wiping out the Internet’s key bounty, i.e. affordable content anytime anywhere. In one of the many paradoxes served by history, the French who complained so loud and so long about their movies being ostracized by US theater owners are spearheading the battle to control and monetize access to their own nationals.

Nations enjoying enduring dominance based on a strong, tightly knit cultural establishment may not like it but digital technology spells the end for cultural hegemonies. Digital technology ushers in an era of true cultural diversity: it bodes well for this sea change that a lesser genre, comic books, shares a bit of Cannes’ 66th Palme d’Or, the ultimate prerogative of the 7th art. Let’s celebrate the dawn of a more inclusive, collaborative creativity while some circles mourn the demise of the very chic, exclusive exception.

You can’t have it both ways
Either culture is no ordinary good: then the State should legitimately control supply and demand for the sake of the nation’s general interest. Or culture is made up of tradable products and services: there is no reason then why the State’s visible hand would work better than the market’s invisible hand to tell quality material from sub-optimal production.

Of course the State knows the answer. The glittering stars walking along “La Croisette” are intended to feed a “Marché du Film” so successful that it has long spilled over from the Palais des Festivals on to Cannes’ main hotels. The layman too knows the answer: just ask the digital natives!

So everybody knows that the “cultural exception”, an industrial policy in disguise, is purely market-driven. But it is a Malthusian approach to culture. However weird, stifling culture may be acceptable by fair economic weather. When the riding gets tough though, it is no less than a crime to deprive a nation’s economy of one of its most potent drivers of growth.

Insisting on having it both ways will kill
Unemployment across Europe hits the youth – this season in life when creativity is at its peak by human nature’s design – at a rate that exceeds 60% in some Member States. On drawing dangerously close to 25%, the EU average tells of a major, unacceptable waste of resources. Vice President Kroes rightly warned against a “potentially lost generation”. At such a critical juncture, it amounts to no less than a crime to enforce policies that put a lid on our home-grown talent or that send them free-of-charge (except for the cost of their educating!) to other regions of the world.

Yet, this is what EU governments have been doing in a vain attempt to shoehorn the digital cornucopia into a framework designed to keep past scarcity in check. The French government’s present consideration of a construct as smart as the cultural exception to exact a toll at the online gate may be time wasted looking in the rear-mirror for inspiration. It may also be immaterial that this exercise runs contrary to their proclaimed support to the Digital Single Market. What matters immensely is the full-size crime thus committed against the future of Europe as a leading world economy and as a society whose culture used to cast its light over the whole world at a time when the cultural exception was yet to be invented and implemented by armies of bureaucrats with guaranteed jobs.

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