In October 2012 I took part in the Conference on Cyberspace, an event put together by the Hungarian government on behalf of the international community. The conference hall was packed with ministers, dignitaries, and ambassadors, as well as a few business people like myself. My pitch was about the importance of the digital economy, and I learned that approaches can differ greatly depending on countries.
The conference title is eye opening. I hadn’t heard the term “cyberspace” since the beginning of the 1990s. Today, 81 percent of the UK population is using the Internet; we all spend our days in cyberspace, so it doesn’t need to be called that anymore. My hunch is that governments still perceive the digital economy as something on the side that they need to embrace — maybe reluctantly. I also know of too many businesses that still see the Internet in that manner. They are the ones that won’t be there in a few years.
[the digital economy and the public sector are, sometimes, worlds apart]
Developing markets are where things will happen and are already happening. Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, India, and even Albania are among those showing the most progress. The effort Albania is putting into digitizing schools and government institutions and procedures is amazing. The country went from nothing in 2005 to a situation where “all possible government services are pushed online” in the words of Genc Pollo, its innovation and ICT minister.
Similarly, India’s conference representative showed determination and poise. In India, information technology and the Internet are clearly seen as big opportunities, not just for business, but also for national development. Yet I couldn’t get the same feeling of passion from the more developed countries’ presentations. Western economies have a lot to worry about at a time when industrialization is faltering and the digital economy already weighs so much.
My peers on the panel about the digital economy and growth agreed with me that there is a serious disconnect between politicians and business people. This is not a matter of scorn or disregard. What it means is that we are not on the same wavelength. Most policy makers wish to foster growth and seduce innovators and entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the language they use is often incomprehensible to the business community.
Living and breathing open data
Governments speak of open data as a goal, but we have lived and breathed open data for years (more than a decade, in fact, for many of us on that panel). Sharing information has always been a staple of Internet marketing. Our Websites must contain what Vincent Flanders calls “addictive content.”
The European journal ePractice said in a 2011 report that governments are coming to grips with this, but too often the rubber doesn’t meet the road, due to “the closed culture within government, which is caused by a general fear of the disclosure of government failures.” Not only can citizens benefit from open data, but businesses can, too, by proposing services and applications based on such data.
Control and ownership is probably one of the most difficult issues for government authorities. All governments want to embrace the openness of the Web and its promise of a porous global economy. At the same time, an unfiltered democracy in which all expressions are allowed is a serious challenge. There was a precedent for that debate with the eG8 forum that took place in Paris in 2011.
It’s hard to tell whether the Conference on Cyberspace will change the way governments and their citizens use the Internet or if our efforts to promote the digital economy will prove successful. It also seems that the Web grew organically from day one. Then citizens, governments, and businessmen embraced it and broke a few laws en passant. Then regulations were put in place, and all moved to the next thing. This chaotic yet pragmatic way of enforcing innovation has proven very efficient. I’m certain it will remain the case.