Monday, October 13, 2008

ICANN – Confidence Campaign or Just a Con Game for Emerging Markets?

I work in Washington, and a week and a half ago the ICANN Confidence Campaign came to town.

As theater, it was a pretty impressive event. A near capacity crowd gathered in the hallowed halls of the National Press Club to hear Peter Dengate-Thrush, Paul Twoomey and various ICANN luminaries talk about the group’s plans to improve institutional confidence. The audience – mostly lawyers and policy types – rose one by one to ask about their particular interest areas. The event lasted for hours, bleeding substantially over the allotted time. Certainly the image of “participation”…

However, as the ICANN staffers and advisors explained their plans for the future, I was struck by one overriding question: What does this have to do with the real people who use the Internet for work around the world, especially the small businesses I work with in Emerging Markets?

The answer? Unfortunately, practically nothing.

As you may know, much of ICANN’s justification for “independence” from the US Government (and its strategic plan) is centered around making the institution more international AND more accessible to a wide international audience. Given this, I expected to hear a different tune, maybe even a more practical one as relates to the BILLIONS of future Internet users.

I expected to hear about practical steps to prepare for and bring in the new businesses and consumers around the world that will someday soon be using the Internet. I expected to hear about progress on Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), the ability to use non-Roman characters such as Chinese script after the dot (as in the Chinese characters for .org). I expected to hear about increased Emerging Market participation in ICANN events, maybe even about ICANN support for Internet Governance activities in places like Africa, where most interested parties simply can’t afford the price of attending ICANN’s thrice-annual jamborees. Finally, and crucially, I expected to hear how ICANN was going to take its successful private sector focus to the next level, building out beyond the OECD to actively address the hopes of small business persons around the globe.

Instead, most of what I heard was, well, crickets… Of the dozens of comments, only ONE about the interests of the users that will make up the future of the net. Hmm…

So, a small businessperson myself, nearly alone amongst the lobbyists, I asked about an issue important to small businesses like mine wanting to work in Emerging Markets, the introduction of new IDN TLDs. It was a simple question: Can ICANN guarantee that IDN gTLDs (the Arabic version of .com or .biz or .edu) would be available at the same time as the IDN ccTLDs (the .eg for Egypt)?

I asked because stuff like this matters to small business. I have friends who have .net or .com in the name of their business. I have friends that have had to go through the administrative nightmare of setting up a web presence in 10+ jurisdictions in Europe, each with its own different regulations and hassles, and simply don’t have the time or money to set up shop in a dozen Arabic-speaking nations just to do online business there. What they want is to compete for the Arabic version of their .com so they can do business with the entire Arabic-speaking world from a single website.

Finally, on a broader level, I asked because, having worked in economic development for many years, I want to see an open, growing e-commerce space, not one dependent on the whims of often business un-friendly governments.

So I asked my question, and as I got ready to ask the ICANN brain trust the broader point about how exactly ICANN’s plans will help the “Rest of the World”… I got cut off. There were other lawyers in line. I got no answer.

In the end, I can’t tell you what will happen with IDN TLDs. And though outreach to the wider world – which I took to mean, silly me, the actual wider world – is supposed to be a major part of the ICANN 5 point plan, I can’t tell you what exactly they’re planning to do, short of trying to set up a “legal presence” in Europe and an office in DC.

They asked for our feedback, and I was trying to give feedback. I suppose it could be worse – if ICANN were not even asking. But I still remain concerned. ICANN’s focus on building its administrative structure seems well-suited to address the needs of its staff. But setting up offices in OECD capitals to help lobby the US and other Governments is a long way from real outreach to the next billion users. And, as I sat in the room with all the suits, I felt farther and farther away from the small businesses that gave – and hopefully will continue to give – the net its vibrancy.

Last week, one week later, I was asked to speak at the Corporate Council on Africa’s Africa Infrastructure Conference – by coincidence just a block or so from the National Press Club. Our panel was all about the explosion of broadband connectivity on the continent, and we discussed, among other things, what changes access will bring to businesses and government.

The panel – composed of government and business leaders – was unanimous: Prices for service are coming down. New tools from low-power, low-cost computers to hopped up cell phones are making access easier every day. High oil prices and poor physical infrastructure make the logic of Internet based growth compelling. And tens of billions of dollars in planned investment suggest that smart investors see a real future for Internet-enabled business in Africa. The Internet is coming to Africa in a big way, and to other parts of the Rest of the World. It will be THE tool for economic and social development in the 21st century.

If ICANN isn’t interested, they should be.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Scrabulous, Scrabble, and Economic Development in South Asia

First published in The Progressive Bangladesh

By Andrew Mack
Friday, 25 April 2008

In February I made my first visit to the Subcontinent, in Delhi, for the regional meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN. In the main hall there were business and government leaders from around the region. At one of the side events an innovative new registry, dot asia, was launched.

Everything about the event spoke of economic dynamism and to me, of the benefit of an economic system – and longer term economic growth – built on a strong foundation of Intellectual Property (IP) rights. But most entrepreneurs in South Asia and other Emerging Markets (EMs) are still not fundamentally interested in the IP debate. They do see themselves as authors, or artists, or techies, but they don’t see themselves as IP entrepreneurs.

Personally I think this is a tremendous missed opportunity, with long-term implications for economic development.

The rolled eyes phenomenon

Of course if you get into a discussion of IP protection, many people will roll their eyes. Issues of IP are seen in the negative, largely defined by our nearly universal dislike – and this seems to be a global phenomenon – of lawyers. Add to this the general skepticism about the functioning of the courts in South Asia – and most people back away from IP.

However, to my eyes the IP protection debate is not about lawyers at all, but about the very entrepreneurs on whom so much hope is placed. I take as an almost frivolous example the case of the brothers from Calcutta that produced Scrabulous...

The Calcutta brothers who made Scrabulous

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I am a big Scrabble fan. I love playing. I have the computer game on my PC, and I play a lot. I know enough of the two letter words and obscure words beginning with Q that few of my friends will even play with me any more.

The blurring of IP boundaries may not be good for development
So you’d think that something like Scrabulous would have real appeal for me. But I think they should close down the program, and the sooner the better.

There are a number of reasons, of course, starting most obviously with the idea the brothers are hawking, which isn’t theirs to sell. The fact that Scrabulous is for fun and not for profit is irrelevant. It’s no different than piracy of any sort. If I write a book, it’s mine to sell, or license, or give away as I see fit.

Next, you have to consider the Scrabulous phenomenon and ask yourself – is Scrabulous really creating any real value for India? True, in the short term there might be some work for a few lawyers and a PR firm or two. But a few billable hours do not an economic powerhouse make…

Plain fun vs economic value

Compare Scrabulous with the original board game. Scrabble (the idea, using IP protection) has provided value for 50 years. The developers licensed the name to Hasbro, and again to Mattel. Money made, taxes paid, employment provided—the seeds of economic growth. From there the game spread around the world, long before the existence of the Internet. Again, people were hired in manufacturing and promotion in different countries. The game entered into the world’s consciousness. It was a good idea, made possible in part because of IP protection.

Scrabulous, on the other hand, will likely be gone within the year. Not much economic value there for India or the world.

There are many in Emerging Markets that get caught up in arguments around the high cost of IP. And its true, some IP – whether music, or film, or software, or whatever – can be costly. However, if we are really focused on building long-term opportunity in Emerging Markets, a short-term focus on the cost of IP misses the point.

I often hear that Bill Gates or Madonna (or in the case of Scrabulous, Hasbro) won't miss a few rupees if their IP is pirated. Maybe so. However, there is something much larger at stake. Emerging Markets entrepreneurs and government officials talk frequently about their desire to promote investment and growth and protect their own IP and CP (cultural property). They decry the lack of available finance for growth, and complain that they don’t get the best and latest goods and products.

From value to development

South Asia, as well as other Emerging Markets, can't seek to create an environment that will promote rapid, information-based, high-skill economic growth while tolerating loose IP standards. Experience shows that you simply can't have it both ways.

Why? They simply won’t attract as much investment in the long term. They won’t have the same ability to retain good talent. They won’t be able to build wealth. They won’t build competitiveness. And they won’t be able to and create alliances with companies that can give them access to global markets.

So, Emerging Markets need to recognize the role that IP protection can play in economic development, from creating employment, to strengthening the middle class, to ensuring economic independence and cultural preservation.

Requisite for the next IP entrepreneur

South Asians need to demand the kind of business environment that will help them thrive, and the improvements to the courts that will help them protect and leverage their country’s good ideas. In the words of Sourabh Gupta, a Washington, DC-based Indian trade and development analyst, they need to build “a body of case law that is pro-innovation and pro-IP protection to help underpin their aspirations of upward mobility.”

It’s not about today’s Bill Gates. It’s about tomorrow’s Bill Gates, the one who might come from India or Bangladesh or any other Emerging Market.

And as Gupta says, the opportunity “will only be as strong as the energies invested by those most materially affected – the vast multitude of small entrepreneurs.”

In the end, if we are truly serious about what we claim to want so badly – investment, jobs, to be taken seriously on the world economic stage, to become economic drivers, not just followers – then we need IP protection.

Because unlike Scrabble, economic development is no game.