The boss of Google warned Tuesday against moves to step up regulation of the Internet after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said governments must have a hand in setting the rules to avoid anarchy.
Addressing bosses from the world's biggest online firms at the first "e-G8" summit, Sarkozy hailed their "Internet revolution", but warned that governments must have the tools to prevent what he called "democratic chaos".
He hailed the role of the Internet in recent uprisings such as the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, but insisted online activity must be governed by rules, notably to protect copyright material from online piracy.
Democratic governments "are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people," he said. "To forget this is to take the risk of democratic chaos and hence anarchy."
But Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of the world's biggest search engine Google, responded in a subsequent debate by warning leaders against undue regulation of new industries for fear of choking them off.
"Clearly we want some regulation for the evil stuff, but I would be careful about regulating the Internet," he said.
The e-G8 aims to draw up a declaration for the Group of Eight Leaders who meet in Deauville, northwestern France, on Thursday and Friday, with discussions covering sensitive issues such as online copyright and censorship.
Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire head of the News Corporation empire and arguably the world's most powerful media mogul, backed Sarkozy's stance on copyright, calling for the G8 to protect intellectual property.
"We hope that the G8 will strongly affirm that the property rights of artists and creators are more than just a matter of protecting cultures," Murdoch told the e-G8 gathering.
"In this new century, they are essential requirements for a dynamic economy and the digital future."
The open-Internet campaigner and former lyricist for rock group the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow, hit back at the French stance in a later debate.
"What this forum has been about is imposing the structure of business practices and institutional power that come from another era," he said.
"You cannot own free speech," he added, sitting alongside Sarkozy's Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand.
"I absolutely do not share this apocalyptic vision," Mitterrand retorted, adding that as a writer, the intellectual property system "allowed me to live off my artistic work."
Top executives from online giants including Microsoft, Facebook, eBay and Amazon attended the gathering to tout the economic potential of the Internet, which Sarkozy has put on the agenda of the G8 summit he will host this week.
Other e-G8 guests include the the founder of the vast social networking site Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, who is due to speak at the close of the forum on Wednesday.
With blogs and Tweets oiling the wheels of revolution in some countries and scans and downloads sparking trade disputes in others, the stakes are high for leaders seeking to profit from the web but also to rein in online crime.
Google has clashed with authorities and major publishers in France over its book-scanning activities for its online library.
Sarkozy meanwhile has passed a law that makes web users liable to prosecution if they illegally download films and music.
For some observers, including countless voices online, the split in interests between web users, governments and big businesses threatened to render the e-G8 useless.
"The way it's going, e-G8 probably won't change a thing!" wrote user "iTibz" on Twitter. "Governments want one thing, users want another! No one listens."