COVID-19 has taught us the internet is critical

Picture being locked down in a world without the Internet – no streaming services like Netflix and no way of collaborating with colleagues on Zoom or Skype. This was the reality 20 years ago at the beginning of the 21st century with insuperable slow or no Internet. The COVID-19 pandemic is confirming the critical importance of digital networks and service platforms. 

Business and IT are tightly interrelated and in running day-to-day operations most organisations rely on some digital technologies enabled by the Internet. While sheltering at home, digital networks that deliver the Internet to our homes, and the services that depend on those networks rose from supplementary ‘nice to have’ to something that is critical to economic activity and our daily lives.  

Never has it been so evident that to stay competitive in the marketplace, companies should incorporate current and emerging technologies into their business strategies. As a result of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, investments in technology should focus on reliable and well-known technologies. Also, it may very well be the choice of some employees to continue working remotely thus encouraging the growth of the technologies optimising remote work. 

The impressive list of technologies that are trending include, among others, the Internet of Things (IoT), Extended Reality, cloud computing, quantum computing, Artificial Intelligence as a service (AIaaS), personal profiling /consumer analytics, personalised and predictive medicine, blockchain technology, cybersecurity, cryptocurrency, reskilling human workforce, and 5G Networks 

New rules of the new reality 

By their very nature, the pioneers and trend-setters of these innovations make the rules for the new futuristic reality they create. With previous major technological revolutions such as the industrial revolution, industrialists like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan made the rules. Currently however, the nature of the technologies underpins the curial role of public interest in these activities. Hence, the connectivity and services developed by information capitalists are too important to exclude public participation in determining the rules they should follow. 

The critical nature of digital services merits public interest representation in decisions about their practices. Hence, the connectivity and services developed by information capitalists are too important to exclude public participation in determining the rules they should follow. Lack of public participation previously resulted in personal information becoming corporate commodities and the hoarding of data by companies that make their own rules and deliberately hamper potential competitors and new services. 

The landscape of the information economy with information assets that are soft, inexhaustible, and iterative is different from the industrial economy. Companies operating in both scenarios must incur incremental costs to procure the glass, metal, tires, and other hard assets.  

Four ideas for public participation 

Since the economics and the practices of information companies differ, we need to incorporate public participation to determine the rules for the critical services of the information era and look beyond the industrial era’s regulatory model. Hence, the challenges of the information age should not be forced into the inadequate space of the industrial era’s regulatory structures.  

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This is mainly because the current regulatory structure is modelled on ‘who’ does something rather than ‘what’ is being done. For example, in the Industrial Age, the networks that carried the product were different from the product itself and separate regulators were needed. In the digital era where the ‘what’ incorporates the use of algorithms, the current regulatory structure is inadequate and needs to be updated. 

Secondly, digital companies should not be forced to follow rules but have a say in the development of the rules. A ‘Digital Code of Practice’ will allow policies to sustain technological advancement rather than being bogged down by obsolete rules. There should be an agency that convenes, oversees, and approves a public-private process that establishes an agency-enforceable Digital Code. 

Thirdly, this new Digital Code should standardise the behaviour of companies in the services they offer to the public. Companies acting in an anticompetitive manner, including mergers, should fall within the jurisdiction of antitrust enforcers and the Code should not include antitrust exemption. 

Fourthly, the regulatory oversight needs to be principles-based and nimble. Modern digital products are constantly evolving and being updated in their changing environments. This developmental agility needs to be echoed in agile regulation. Punitive industrial regulations need to be replaced with rules that evolve as the technologies that drive change evolve.  

COVID-19 demonstrated that networks and the services they deliver are crucial in sustaining some semblance of normalcy in our lives and our economy. This pivotal role in society warrants public input. However, public participation must reflect the realities of the information era and not regress to repeat the industrial era’s limiting structures and concepts. 

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