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OECD declaration on the digital economy Blair Stewart
30 June 2016

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At the conclusion of a high level OECD Conference in Cancun, Mexico, last week, 41 countries adopted a Declaration on the Digital Economy: Innovation, Growth and Social Prosperity. This included 33 of the 34 OECD member countries, plus eight other countries.

The Minister of Communications, Amy Adams, signed on New Zealand's behalf. Australia has postponed signing as its government is in 'caretaker mode' during a federal election campaign but whichever government is elected would be expected to adopt the declaration shortly thereafter.

The signatory countries vowed in the declaration to:

  • increase access to broadband Internet and services to bridge digital divides.
  • reduce barriers to investment in and adoption of digital technology in all sectors.
  • work to develop global technical standards that enable interoperability and a secure, stable, open and accessible Internet.
  • develop privacy and data protection strategies at the highest level of government, while also encouraging the availability and use of data, including public sector data.
  • adopt technologically neutral frameworks that promote competition.
  • use open, transparent and inclusive processes to shape global Internet governance.
  • reduce impediments to e-commerce within and across borders with policies that strengthen consumer trust and product safety.
  • improve education and lifelong training to respond to the demand for general and specialist digital skills.

The Cancun meeting builds upon earlier ministerial meetings held in Ottawa in 1998 and Seoul in 2008.

The 1998 electronic commerce meeting resulted in a global action plan for the development of e-commerce that targeted important policy areas such as privacy and consumer protection. The 2008 meeting in the internet economy recognised the essential nature and function of the internet as a platform for growth and the need for governments to work with all stakeholders to guide its development.

The declaration records that the world economy is becoming ever more digital. This was reflected in many presentations at Cancun - not merely in commerce but throughout education, government, employment. Indeed there may be no spheres of human activity entirely exempt from the pervasive and transformational influence of all things digital.

The declaration acknowledges that in addition to its positive features, the digital economy creates a series of evolving challenges. The declaration presents a number of strategies for seeking to accentuate and harness the positive aspects and address the challenges. Leaving aside the precise agreed actions, there are certain recurring themes in the approaches that are suggested including the need to:

  • respect the rule of law and human rights - this is not the time to abandon core values;
  • empower individuals - for example through education, rights, protection of the vulnerable, retraining and support where job types disappear;
  • aim for participation of all countries and collective action - difficult for countries to tackle problems alone;
  • use holistic and multi-stakeholder and consensus-driven approaches - useful both at international and domestic level;
  • adopt an evidence-based and risk management approach to policy making - and acknowledging a gap in key metrics for the digital economy.    

A key recurring theme in the discussions at Cancun was the need to create conditions to support trust in the digital economy, particularly consumer trust. New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards, emphasised this point in his remarks to the ministerial meeting.

The declaration will inform the OECD's work programme over the coming years. For instance, in areas of particular interest for privacy, we might expect to see the OECD:

  • develop new metrics for the digital economy, such as on trust, skills and global data flows.
  • encourage development of privacy and data protection strategies and privacy risk management at the highest level of government that incorporate a whole-of-society perspective.
  • support the development of international arrangements that promote effective privacy and data protection across jurisdictions, including through interoperability among frameworks.

It is also expected that the OECD will undertake further substantial "horizontal" work on digitisation - that is, cross-cutting work across its various committees and diverse areas of activity.

The OECD declaration is intended to be a guide to member governments at domestic level and not merely for work to be undertaken at the international level. Accordingly, anyone interested in these issues should keep an eye out for action aligned with the declaration by signatory governments - including the New Zealand Government.

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