Concerns and insights from the e-G8 Forum

The e-G8 Forum was held from 24 to 25 May in Paris and preceded the meeting of Heads of State and Government of the G8 countries, which was held in Deauville, France. This post highlights some of the key concerns and insights that emerged from that Forum, and then briefly discusses those outcomes from a Caribbean perspective.

The e-G8 Forum was the first of its kind and comprised leading members of the private sector and civil society who specialise in the Internet, software applications and ICTs. It was convened to inform the G8’s discussions on the Internet. Key figures from the Forum would be invited to the meeting of Heads of State and Government “to report on the ideas expressed at the Forum and to take part in the design of a shared vision of the future of the Internet in our countries”.

Forum participants engaged in lively debate on a broad range of issues related to technology and the Internet. Outlined below are a few of the common themes than ran through much of the discussions.

Light-handed Internet regulation needed

In his opening address at the e-G8 Forum, French President Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged how integral the Internet has been in fostering greater connectedness. However, as an key instrument of modern society, to which considerable parts of the population are connected, he indicated that it is critical for governments, which represent the will of the people, to become more involved in managing the Internet.

This sentiment, which is not new from governments, was one  key point of concern throughout the forum: world governments are keen to introduce “order” to the Internet. However, many attendees were of the view that excessive regulation could undermine the potential and continued development of the Internet. For example, Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, when part of a panel discussing the Internet and economic growth, stated

Technology will move faster than governments, so don’t legislate before you understand the consequences…

You want to tread lightly in regulating brand new industries. The trend is that incumbents will block new things … nobody who is a delegate here would want Internet growth to be slowed by some stupid rule…

While Government intervention is welcomed to address some of the dangers of the Internet, such as cyber-crimes, malicious attacks, security and the protection of children, there is also a recognition among participants that the status quo, depending on the situation, might have to change. Additionally, there was general agreement that existing frameworks for certain issues, for example intellectual property, might no longer be appropriate for today’s environment.

Governments do not fully appreciate how the Internet operates

This theme was, to some degree, tied to the hope for light-handed Internet regulation by governments and policy makers. However, it also included the view of Danny Hillis, Co-Chairman of Applied Minds, who noted that governments have not recognised how integrated the Internet has already become into everyday life and operations:

We will become dependent on this thing, which very, very few people will understand how it actually works. So if I were the G8, I would not be asking ‘what can I do for the Internet?’, or ‘what can I do to the Internet?’, I’d be asking ‘what is the Internet going to do to me?’, because I think it will fundamentally change the relationship of the nation state to its citizens.

When the nation state can no longer comprehend how its basic services are provided, then its ability to regulate those, control those, become worse than irrelevant. It actually becomes at odds with the goals of the citizen…

Governments cannot be trusted to foster innovation

To launch the panel discussion on fostering innovation, Professor Lawrence Lessing of the Harvard Law School, gave an insightful presentation that invariably captured one of the main concerns of the Internet and technology industry. In summary, he was of the view that industry does not trust the answers that governments provide as it pertains to technology, since generally, they are operating in the interest of incumbents, which are keen to maintain the status quo, rather than encourage innovation.

Insights for the Caribbean

The concerns of participants at the e-G8 Forum were for the most part expressed from the perspective of developed countries. It might not be a priority in the region for governments to play a leading role in managing the Internet, but we are affected by decisions made and actions taken at those Heads of State and Government meetings, whether we like it or not.

Although Caribbean governments might not be focussed on managing the Internet, little attention has been given to protecting it and society from many of the pervasive dangers that exist. We have not had sufficient dialogue, nor have we made comprehensive efforts to implement policies and structures that at the very least, would ensure that the region is not a haven for persons committing such threats.

Additionally, and as reflected in the e-G8 discussions, the role that governments can play, even in developing countries, with regard to innovation is to facilitate the enabling environment. Consistent with our previous article on ICT readiness, and the work done by the World Economic Forum and INSEAD, panellists acknowledged that there are a broad range of factors that directly and indirectly foster innovation. They include supporting research and development, encouraging venture capital, improving education, and eliminating barriers to entry into commercial markets. In our own way, these are elements that we can work on in the region to improve our standing in global markets and our international competitiveness.