It’s been quiet on this blog for a while, so I decided to share an observation based on some conversations I recently had at one of the Internet governance meetings. The conversations were about ICT companies and the point was that while Western companies are extremely enthusiastic about emerging markets, they do not consider their regulatory systems with the same rigor as they do in the developed world. In other words, while in the developed countries these companies invest considerable resources in working with the governments and lobbying, in the developing countries their efforts are primarily in marketing. Even when they do work with governments, it is mostly done through the marketing departments where the governments are viewed primarily as costumers, less as regulators.
I heard similar observations from a number of industry players and also from a government official. I listened and “filed” these observations, but they were brought back to life with the recent explosion of the BlackBerry story. You may know that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and now also India and a number of other countries, are threatening to ban BlackBerry unless RIM allows them access to the encrypted email data of BlackBerry users, stored on the company’s servers. India gave RIM an ultimatum until the end of the month to comply and the rumor is that the Indian government has similar plans for Google, Skype, and perhaps others.
I wonder how did RIM find itself in such a situation? Will other global technological companies find themselves in a similar situation soon too? Peter Svensson writes in Washington Post today:
“Threats by the governments of India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to shut down BlackBerry’s corporate e-mail services reflect unease about a technology that the U.S. government also took a while to accept. The foreign governments are essentially a decade behind in coming to terms with encryption, a technology that’s fundamental to the Internet as a medium of commerce. (…) RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry, doesn’t have years to wait for foreign governments to adopt the more relaxed U.S. stance toward encryption.”
I assume Svensson is right about his historical perspective; after all, writing about this is his bread an butter. At the same time, given that all the governments currently having an issue with BlackBerry are in developing countries, I think he is missing the point made by the people I talked to about the Western companies’ attitudes to the emerging markets’ governments.
It did not take the US government years to figure out its stand on encryption on its own. On the contrary, this position is a result of years of dialogue, argument, and debates between the government and the various interest groups, primarily the industry, through its lobbying activities, and the civil society. We can see a similar discussion taking place these days around the issue of net neutrality.
It seems to me that until the RIMs, Googles, and Skypes of this world won’t take the regulators in the developing world as seriously as they take the governments back home, we will continue seeing more “BlackBerry” cases. Until the multinational MICT companies will not engage in a meaningful way with the local governments in the emerging markets, the barriers to their activities there will continue growing and become more sophisticated, especially when it comes to such a politicized area as information.
So, I wonder if it is the time for these companies to start lobbying in the developing world just the way they are lobbying here. While I am aware of the potentially harmful influences of lobbying, it is an integral part of the policymaking mechanism and, for better or worse, it also has an educational impact on the policymakers. At the end of the day, usually those are the governments that are catching up with technology, while the industry is ahead of the curve.
What do you think? Is it the time to lobby?