The Leader?

A few weeks ago I dubbed Esther Dyson “Queen of the World,” due to her work at ICANN, which has the power to name (and unname) Internet domains.

She declined the crown. She was most gracious about it. While I know she has critics (even among ClickZ readers) I still believe her rule would have been a gentle one, based upon compromise and inclusion. Oh, well.

But power abhors a vacuum. Thomas Middelhoff has rushed to fill the power vacuum Dyson’s reticence has left open. Herr Middelhoff heads Bertelsmann AG, a $16.8 billion private company based in Gutersloh, Germany.

Bertelsmann owns Doubleday, it owns Bantam, it owns Dell Books, and it owns Random House, which means it also owns Knopf, Fodor’s, and Ballantine. Bertelsmann owns BMG Entertainment, including its music club, as well as the RCA and Arista record labels, and half of Barnes & Noble.com.

Bertelsmann, in other words, is one of the largest content owners in the world, if not the largest, and is bidding to become its largest retailer of content.

You may have heard of Herr Middelhoff, if you’ve heard of him at all, through his recent pulling of “Mein Kampf” from Europe’s online shelves. Nazi works are defined as hate literature under German law, but Middelhoff also pulled it from readers in France and the UK, where the book is not illegal. (Amazon.com pulled its German editions of the book, but continues to sell it in English.)

Bertelsmann also said it would use a list from the Simon Wiesenthal Center as its guide in banning other books.

In addition to his work banning books, Herr Middelhoff is acting chairman of the Global Business Dialogue on Electronic Commerce, which is working on what would be global rules for handling privacy disputes. Through the Bertelsmann Foundation, he has recommended ratings on all Internet content, with “international hotlines and ‘credible self-regulatory institutions'” to resolve user complaints.

Herr Middelhoff’s principles can be stated simply, and I hope I’m not misrepresenting them in any way here. Protect content, protect people from any content they want protection from, follow all government laws, and create international law to control the new international medium.

In pursuing these efforts. Herr Middelhoff is pursuing the business interests of his company. Big companies can deal with big government. Taxes and regulation are barriers to competition. Close cooperation between big business and big government can keep the actions of individuals, small businesses, and pressure groups within strict boundaries, resulting in order and progress.

The question is, of course, whether you want decisions on what you can read and write, and how you can buy, made by the leader of a huge German conglomerate, based on the values of German law and the self-interest of German content providers. I’m half German myself, but I’m all-American, and our values are somewhat different from those of Herr Middelhoff.

But in the absence of anyone else with the credibility and desire to act, e-commerce will have Herr Middelhoff (his assigns, his allies, and his designated institutions) to guide it. I think the English poet Townsend put it best. “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

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