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Issues for the Region ICT4D in Asia Pacific: An overview of emerging issues

Article Index
Issues for the Region ICT4D in Asia Pacific: An overview of emerging issues
Technological developments
Electronic waste and environmental impacts
ICTs and economic inequality
Culture and local content issues
E-government and regulatory issues
Education for the information society

E-government and regulatory issues

Range of regulatory and policy focus in Asia Pacific

Perhaps the most important point about ICT regulation in Asia Pacific is this: Each country needs to develop its own set of culturally sensitive and consistent national priority policies. There is no 'best' approach to policy formulation and neither are there 'best' types of policies for dealing with specific aspects of ICT. Indeed, most developing Asia Pacific countries are striving to evolve their own set of policies and implementation methods, each using their own discernibly unique methods of consultation, policy formulation and execution/implementation. The differences in regulatory approaches in Asia Pacific are based largely on cultural as well as economic issues, such as the level of development of a country's ICT infrastructure, the penetration rates of different forms of ICTs, the emphasis people place on culturally unique content, the willingness to invest, and of course, two factors that greatly influences all of the above—per capita income and the level of education.

In terms of ICT market maturity, countries in the region can be classified as either 'Developed ICT Market Countries' or 'Developing ICT Market Countries'. 'Developed ICT Market Countries' refers to countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, where ICT markets are relatively mature, where current generation infrastructure is in place and there are definite plans (some already in the execution phase) to install next generation infrastructure, where there are multiple competitors in a market and where the market demand for services and products is healthy enough to encourage innovation. 'Developing ICT Market Countries' refers to two types of countries: (a) countries where ICT markets are rapidly growing due to economic prosperity and large populations capable of sustaining such growth, but where this has been a recent phenomenon (for example, China and India) and (b) countries whose economies and ICT take-up is not expanding at a rapid pace, either due to their small population and market sizes, geographic locations or economic size.

In economically developed countries with relatively mature ICT markets, such as Singapore, South Korea and Japan, infrastructure is a given and the build-out of future-proofed cutting-edge infrastructure and upgrading also tends to be a given. This is because the relatively high per capita income and critical mass of educated population able to use and fully benefit from ICTs tend to make new build-outs and massive capital commitments viable over a medium term for private operators. In such countries, market forces and dynamics make it viable for private operators to consider build-outs without too much assistance from government, although public–private partnerships (PPPs) are being seen as a mutually advantageous option for infrastructure build-outs.2 Here, monopolies in mainstream broadcasting, telecommunications and Web access have ceased and the regulators and policymakers have accepted the technology neutrality argument and have enacted (mostly) technology-neutral laws and regulations to regulate and enable convergence-driven technologies. The focus of policy and regulators in these countries tends to be less on the penetration rates of basic technology or technology accessibility and more on ensuring that the country is 'future-proofed' and that growth and sustainability of a competitive market are assured. This is evident in Singapore, where the IT and telecoms regulator, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, has a number of infrastructure and training programmes already running under an 'Intelligent Nation 2015' masterplan.3

In contrast, in many developing countries such as Mongolia, Vietnam, Bhutan and Nepal, regulators and policymakers are tasked with creating the conditions that would enable an active ICT market to come about. That said, developing countries in the nascent stages of ICT adoption, with less mature markets but with access to current technologies, may actually be at an advantage compared to developed countries. This is because they may be able to 'leapfrog' some of the issues faced by the developed countries that can often distort or skew the ICT development process. For instance, developed markets may have had to make a tough political and economic choice when faced with the prospect of having to impose prohibitively high termination payments (using taxpayers' money) as a cost of dismantling tightly controlled or nationalized monopolies or oligopolies. Faced with such a prospect, a government might delay liberalization to ensure that the monopoly period granted runs out first.

Another perhaps more important issue is an outdated regulatory and legal framework. Developing countries may be at a relative advantage in so far as they can start from a 'fresh page' when it comes to developing regulatory and legal frameworks for ICT, especially since they can draw on the collective regulatory experience of developed countries to bolster and build their own expertise. Some developing countries have been able to use World Bank aid to consult professionals from countries with maturing regulatory regimes, such as Singapore, to get advice on structuring ICT regulation. This allows them to gain insight into the issues and challenges involved in successfully regulating for growth—ensuring end-user protection without stifling industry growth by over-regulating—and to put in place a market-conducive legal and regulatory framework. For example, through World Bank funding, both Mongolia and Lesotho in Africa have tapped professionals from developed ICT markets to assist in the formulation of enabling and technology-neutral ICT regulation and legislation designed with the above goals in mind.

The policy and regulation focus in developing countries tends more toward increasing ICT penetration rates especially in rural and semi-urban areas. In nearly all developing countries, there are direct or indirect policies aimed at increasing the usage of ICT. So for instance, Bangladesh did away with import taxes and duties on computers in 1998 (see Raihan and Habib, this volume), while Nepal is constructing a national optical fibre backbone for telecommunications partly with aid from the Indian government (see Pandey and Shrestha, this edition).

Some developing countries are devising novel ways to grow their nascent ICT industries via indirect policies encouraging growth in technology, content and software development, especially to encourage innovation. This allows policy to have an influence in a space that is rarely regulated because it usually does not need to be—the space between infrastructure and end-user. In Pakistan, as described by Jamshed Masood and Salman Malik in this volume, the government is engaged in a study to consider the viability of a government-backed venture capital fund that can provide subsidized funding for Pakistani ICT ventures. A further impetus is tax holidays granted to the income of ICT-focused venture capital funds.

Leading by example—e-government and e-governance

The continuing diffusion of ICTs and the emergence of the Internet as the communications medium of choice among many businesses and citizens has increased the pressure on government departments to provide information and services through electronic means. This year, for example, Australia published Responsive Government: A New Service Agenda which recognizes the need to deliver a more coordinated and citizen-focused programme of activities and ensure that the capabilities to support this are present. This reflects many other similar initiatives in the region such as South Korea's u-Korea Master Plan (2006–2010), described by Jong Sung Hwang and Jihyun Jun in this volume.

There is a large variety of e-government projects and obviously, many of these require substantial expertise and experience that may not be available in governments with low IT capacity. Thomas Parks (2005) points out that very few government decision-makers have direct experience with IT. Even if they see the opportunity, they often lack experience in planning and implementation, which leaves them at the mercy of vendors and/or individual consultants. One common problem is the lack of time and budget for software acquisition and implementation, systems integration and training. Training in particular is vital and should thus be given as much budgetary allocation as the computer hardware itself.

Examples of laudable ongoing e-government initiatives can be found even in the remotest Asia Pacific countries like Bhutan (see Wangchuk and Pradhan, this volume) and the Maldives (see Ibrahim and Ahmed, this volume). Bhutan is working on implementing initiatives in border management, passport control and civil registration, while the Maldives is in the process of interlinking government offices via a WAN network as a precursor to e-government services. These initiatives show how policymakers can lead by example to encourage the uptake and penetration of ICT.

Open source

Nearly all of the Asia Pacific countries surveyed in this edition of DirAP encourage the development of open source software. Localized versions of the Linux OS are popular in a number of countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Mongolia. This is not surprising, given the relatively high cost of licensed software. Perhaps the most visible examples of policy favouring open source are in China and India: since 2002 governments in both countries have taken policy stances advocating open source over proprietary solutions.4 This has been followed more recently by a number of institutions in Southern India successfully deploying Linux-based solutions and state governments advocating their adoption.5

From an economic perspective, this makes absolute sense: one should use something that can do the job for $0. The chink in Linux's armour, however, is usability. Especially in countries with a relatively low literacy rate, it is much harder to learn on Linux than on any other platform. Policymakers should encourage the development of easy-to-use localized user interfaces in open source platforms.

Open content

Regulators and policymakers in Asia Pacific need to grapple with the issue of how best to get local content online and make it accessible to the widest audience. This can have a direct bearing on penetration rates for ICT as more and more people may choose to come online or take up ICTs if the services are available in local languages and a range of local content is accessible.

As for a licensing model for open content, there is a discernible interest in Asia Pacific in the more flexible licensing models offered by the likes of the Creative Commons6 and the Free Software Foundation (FSF). For example, India has been involved in the updating of the FSF's General Public License (GPL) from version 2 to 3 (see Noronha and Venniyoor, this volume.

General IPR and ICT laws

Legislation on IT and digital signatures is now in place in a number of countries in the region. When enacting such laws, attention must be given to the principle of technology neutrality: the laws should be applicable regardless of the technology.

With respect to approaches to applying and enforcing laws, the trend in developing ICT countries has been to follow the lead of the developed countries, which is to use a 'light touch' in ICT regulation—that is, regulators step in only when needed to correct imbalances in the market which the market cannot correct by itself (for example, monopolistic or cartelized competition).

Building and implementing sound policy and regulation

We have found that most of countries in the region that have enjoyed productive and sustained ICT growth share certain features in terms of regulatory approaches. These are:

  • Regular and effective cooperation and coordination among ICT regulators and industry;

  • A holistic view of the national and regional landscape when seeking to determine and implement ICT policy; and

  • Focused and coordinated implementation.

The regulatory and policy environment of some countries has all of these features, while others have only some of the features and they may be present in varying degrees. The point is that their presence appears to encourage holistic and forward-looking policy that is capable of being both visionary and realistic in terms of implementation resource requirements. A regulatory tool set containing some or all of these features (depending on national circumstances) can help to realistically address two key considerations facing the majority of Asia Pacific countries, namely:

  1. Managing the digital divide: 'Digital divide' refers to the gap that in many cases has opened up between citizens who are versed in ICTs and able to derive maximal benefit from using them and those not versed in ICTs due to lack of opportunity or inadequate infrastructure.

  2. Managing the convergence process: 'Convergence' in this sense denotes the convergence of content from disparate analogue formats provided over separate analogue infrastructure, to a single digital format (digital broadcast, digital sound, digital data) capable of delivery to multiple I/O, interactive devices via a single fibre optic 'fatpipe' infrastructure.

These tasks require regulators and policymakers to engage with ICT industry and users when formulating policy and laws. Coordination and consultation among the responsible government ministries and regulators, including those not directly responsible for ICT, are likewise essential. Singapore provides a good illustration of this model in practice. For nearly all major policy decisions, the Singapore IDA ( holds a public and industry consultation, and makes a decision only after considering the responses given.7 Thus, for example, the new IDA-administered Code of Practice for Competition in the Provision of Telecommunication Services 2005 was released with significant revisions most of which were partly or wholly attributable to concerns raised via consultations. Such coordination can inform the industry and users of the directions policymakers intend for ICT to take and it can give them a chance to adapt to it or, even better, to constructively influence it. Used properly, this collective decision-making process can make it easier to implement and get results from policies, as users feel the policies are cognizant of their interests.

A holistic view of the national and regional landscape

Policymakers need to think through the objectives of a policy, law or regulation and assess whether its expectations are realistic in a national and regional context. If it is unclear how the expectations and goals can be reached, then steps to make those clear should be identified and implemented.

This may seem simple, but there are ICT policies drafted as vision statements, without guidelines as to who needs to do what to achieve certain goals. For example, a government might come up with a 10-point plan for putting a country on the ICT growth path but does not provide clear instructions to the concerned ministries and governmental bodies on what coordination is expected or should take place.

The regional angle can also come into play, especially if it can enhance a country's position on ICT issues, such as open source software development and content licensing. With respect to open source software, given the marked encouragement it has received in Asia Pacific, it is conceivable to imagine policy encouraging cross-border collaborations (whether between governments/regulators or commercial entities or both) on open source development, especially between countries with the same languages. This can accelerate the development process for both locally developed software and/or the localization process for all software.

As for content licensing, as countries consider more flexible licensing models for open content, they may at the same time hesitate to have stringent standards thrust upon them, complete with obligations to adhere to digital rights management. An example is Australia, where a number of critics have cried foul over the government's decision to bring its copyright legislation in line with that of the United States, as part of its obligations under a free trade agreement which came into force in 2005. Australia's modification of its copyright and intellectual property laws included adopting provisions rendering illegal any measure to circumvent technology protection measures (TPMs), which in turn could put Australian copyright law at odds with the hitherto unassailable fair use access rights available to users of copyright materials (see Green and Bruns, this volume).

In such cases, it may be possible for developing country regulators to collaborate across borders to agree on principles for flexible licensing and copyright protection and to then use this common ground to seek better terms when negotiating with countries with traditional licensing terms (see Cardoza and Liang, this volume). This common stance could be used collectively when negotiating as a trade bloc or it could be used to strengthen an individual country's bargaining position when negotiating individually. Such a policy stance could also be used to advantage by private entities negotiating content licensing terms even in the absence of a free trade or IPR-specific agreement.

Forming a regional position also involves determining all of the governmental and non-governmental agencies that need to be co-opted to work together to bring high-level ICT policy to practical fruition. First, the practical goals of the policy must be worked out. Second, who is empowered to do what is necessary to bring it to fruition should be identified. And third, the responsibilities towards achieving the policy goals should be delegated and a clear review process and schedule to monitor progress should be agreed upon. In short, political will is necessary to achieve ICT growth. That said, it must be clear that the process of guiding and implementing focused and coordinated policy implementation is the ICT policy goal that requires perhaps the greatest amount of political will.

Overall impact of ICT on governance and policy

It is frequently assumed that the introduction of more advanced ICT reduces opportunities for corruption. However, as Wescott (2002) notes, the reality is more complex. While ICT sometimes helps in combating corruption, it can also have no effect, or even provide for new corruption opportunities, including fraud. Indeed, unintended consequences are common in e-governance projects, even those that have positive outcomes. Consider the following related but contrasting examples.

The government of Andhra Pradesh developed a land registration system where the land owner enters some details of his/her property, such as location, dimensions and other factors that affect the value of the land, and then calculates the value. Prior to the system, land valuation was performed in an entirely non-transparent system by assessors and agents and often required weeks and some additional payments. According to Subash Bhatnagar of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, 'Land registration can be completed in a few hours (with the new system), whereas earlier it took 7–15 days' (Parks 2005, p. 6).

However, researcher Solomon Benjamin (2005) has found that new land regimes can have very uneven effects. He notes that in Bangalore, the reduction of complexity in titles and centralization has made land much more open to larger purchasers. 'This has allowed very large real estate companies catering to the IT industry to access land in Bangalore, resulting in dramatic changes in land markets' (Benajmin 2005, p. 8). Gentrification becomes an issue and the rights of the poor are made more tenuous when ICT enables companies and politicians to collaborate on larger 'real estate development projects', which may be good for a region's overall economy but result in the transfer of security away from the poor to the benefit of the wealthy. After all, it is unrealistic to think that the poor will be trading on the ICT-enabled property market.


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