If Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has blown a wind of modernity over France — the decriminalization of abortion, the reimbursement of the pill or even divorce by mutual consent are part of his many progressive reforms —, on the other hand, there is an area in which it has been lagging behind: the Internet. During his mandate, from 1974 to 1981, France very nearly invented the Internet before the Americans. But a decision by the former head of state, who died on Wednesday December 2, 2020, changed the course of web history. While a French engineer had built an operational computer network, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing cut off his funds and preferred… the Minitel.
The anecdote goes back to the very beginning of the 1970s. American researchers are working on ARPANET — the first packet transfer network, ancestor of the Internet — and the Délégation générale à l’informatique, created in 1966 under the presidency of de Gaulle, decides to develop a rival network in France. The French engineer Louis Pouzin, who invented the datagram, is appointed head of the project. Called “Cyclades”, it benefits from a sizeable budget and the support of CNET, the National Center for Telecommunications Studies.
Then in 1974, three events followed one another: the Cyclades network was operational, Georges Pompidou, then president, died, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was elected to succeed him.
The election of the latter will lead to a revision of the IT policy in France: “The IT delegation was abolished, the CYCLADES credits also”, will tell the engineer Louis Pouzin in an interview for the Revue de l’electricity and electronics.
Lobbyists lobby for Minitel
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, known to be rather modernist, was he resistant to the Internet? Not really. His decision to abandon the Cyclades project was mainly due to pressure from lobbyists. In the mid-1970s, two major electronics industrial groups, Compagnie Générale d’Electricité (CGE) and Thomson, fought over the market for telephone switches.
Thomson was the main shareholder of the International Company for Computing (CII), which financed the Cyclades project. Sensing that Thomson was taking more and more space in the telephone market, the former president of the CGE, Ambroise Roux, decided to whisper in the President’s ear.
He suggests to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to drop the Cyclades network and the research of Louis Pouzin around the datagram, and to focus instead on the X. 25 network of Transpac, which will later become the Télétel network of the famous Minitel.
And France did not invent the Internet
In 1978, the French government cut off the last funding for Cyclades, and the following is historic: the Americans Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf will use the datagram – Louis Pouzin’s invention which he had shared with international scientists – to develop internet point as we know it today.
Without industrial pressures and political decisions, the Internet could therefore have been French, and the Minitel never existed.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, precursor of the protection of our online data
If he missed the boat of the Internet, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was however one of the precursors of the protection of our data online. It was under his presidency that the law relating to data processing, files and freedoms was passed on January 6, 1978, and with it the creation of the National Commission for Data Processing and Freedoms (CNIL).
In April 1981, the former president had also delivered a speech which is still relevant today: “France must take particular care to provide for and, if necessary, to limit some of the impacts of on the intimate and deep life of society. Our fundamental values of freedom and humanism must be reaffirmed and respected here.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider France
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France could have invented the Internet but Valéry Giscard d’Estaing preferred to finance the Minitel
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