A man uses his smartphone to take a picture of a person wearing a mask of former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden during a protest in Berlin, July 4, 2013.
As the year comes to a close, we need to reflect on what are the most important things that have affected our lives in 2013.
The Internet continues to transform our world. The most significant Internet event in 2013 was not the listing of Facebook, which priced the company at $104 billion (almost Bt3.4 trillion), but Edward Snowden's July revelations of Internet surveillance, which revealed that Big Brother, friend or foe, is really watching. Since my smartphone is smart enough to track me even in the toilet, there is really no privacy left in this world.
On the plus side, Singles Day - November 11 - garnered 35 billion yuan (Bt187 billion) in online sales on one day in China. Since China already accounts for one-third of the smartphones in the world, and they can make and sell smartphones at one-third the price of Apple or Samsung, it is not surprising that e-commerce in the Middle Kingdom is set to overtake even the US in volume next year.
Online business is here to stay.
What the combination of the Internet and smartphone means is that a person in the remotest part of Indonesia can sell his or her product to buyers worldwide, and collect over the smartphone, which was impossible to imagine even 20 years ago.
Amazing also are the apps downloaded in their millions to maximise personal efficiency. Ease of personal communication, meanwhile, has been taken to a new level with apps like WeChat. Such free Internet services are rising so fast that even revenue from SMS text messages is slowing down.
On the other side, after Snowden, what must consider the proper role of the government in the Internet and how it should behave to encourage Web innovation and growth?
Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz was one of the first to tackle the subject, in "The Role of Government in a Digital Age" (2000), with Peter and Jonathan Orzag. Their report recommended 12 principles. The first three cover the state's proper role in the affairs of the Internet:
1. Provide public data and information.
2. Improve efficient government services.
3. Support basic research.
The next six principles are areas where the government should exercise caution. These include:
4. Adding specialised value to public data and information.
5. Providing private goods only under limited circumstances.
6. Providing services online where private services are more efficient.
7. Ensuring that mechanisms exist to protect privacy, security, and consumer protection online.
8. Promoting network externalities only with great deliberation and care.
9. Maintaining proprietary information or exercising rights under patents or copyright.
The report also signalled "red light" areas of state intervention in the Internet:
10. Governments should exercise substantial caution in entering markets in which private sector firms are active
11. Governments (including government corporations) should generally not aim to maximise net revenues or take action that would reduce competition.
12. Government should only be allowed to provide goods or services for which appropriate privacy and conflict-of-interest protections have been erected.
The Stiglitz-Orzag report was written for the US market, but the general principles are useful guides for all states. The trouble is that Snowden showed that the US government might have failed to follow some of these guidelines. We do know that governments are becoming increasingly intrusive on the Internet, and that such intrusion inhibits competition and innovation.
Because the Internet is evolving very fast, the role of government in Web affairs also needs to evolve. Businesses are becoming even more service and information-oriented, with increasing numbers going digital and in the "Cloud". This means that governments are struggling with three major issues: protecting private privacy, ensuring a level playing field in competition, and taxing online activities.
Governments must also sort out jurisdictional duties and powers, because the Cloud is global, and taxation and regulation is not only national, but departmental. It is as if each small part of the bureaucracy is trying to regulate the whole Cloud. We can all touch and feel its power, but there is no overall central authority that can control the Cloud.
An island nation in the Pacific might pass a law on the Cloud, but could it enforce it?
Individual privacy is being threatened by the practice of hacking, and the biggest hackers are not bedroom-bound nerds, but governments everywhere.
The second problem of a level playing field is a serious one. If Google has maps and can monitor everything I do through my smartphone, does that information belong to Google or to me? If it belongs to the large platforms, does that not confer a huge informational advantage on them? How can governments ensure that there is a level playing field between these massive online platforms and the small businesses that have no such information or may have to pay the platform for it?
The third area is taxation. Online commerce has escaped the tax radar because it is new. In contrast, bricks-and-mortar shops have rents, create jobs and pay value-added taxes. If everything moves online, the government loses the ability to tax, and bricks-and-mortar retail shops will complain they are losing out to larger and larger platforms. Bookshops around the world are closing in droves now that everyone can order through Amazon.
There are no easy answers to these tough questions. The interdependent and interconnected nature of the Internet means that regulatory or government action in one part may affect the system as a whole. In other words, government action or non-action creates a shadow system - the business moves offline, offshore or into cyberspace.
What we need is better transparency, better education, wider access and also some key principles of fair competition that should be enforced for online business to innovate.
Finally, a year-end reminder: use your smartphone in the toilet, and someone (not Snowden) can hear you flush. Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to all.
Contributed by Andrew Sheng, President of the Fung Global Institute.
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