Concept Paper:

The Public Voice in the Digital Economy

OECD-APEC Conference on Digital Economy
Honolulu, Hawaii
14 January 2003

This concept paper sets out key issues for the "The Public Voice in the Digital Economy" conference to be held on January 14. The Public Voice is an international coalition of civil society organizations that seek to enable public participation in the activities of multilateral policymaking forums. In an increasingly globalized world, these institutions have a significant impact in the day-to-day lives of people across countries and societies. Active civil society participation in the forums fosters transparency and accountability. The OECD is a leading multilateral institution that has opened channels of communication with civil society; members of the Public Voice hope that APEC will build on this tradition and incorporate civil society interests into the policy framing process.

In June 2002 the Public Voice held a conference in Washington, D.C. in conjunction with the Internet Society 8th Annual Meeting. The discussion centered on the future rights and freedoms of the public in the information age. Topics included ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) reform and Internet governance; the civil liberties implications of recently passed Terrorism and Cybercrime measures; and the future of the Public Domain in a world where the expansion of intellectual property laws, Internet commercialization and media consolidation threaten to constrain the space for user activity.

The OECD-APEC conference, "Policy Frameworks for the Digital Economy" focuses on three questions: how to build Security & Trust in the digital world, enable wider Inclusion & Participation to bridge the 'digital divide', and improve the economy for Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs).  Members of the Public Voice bring important perspectives to each of these issues and must play a central role in developing the new policy agenda for the OECD.

ICTs enable rich new forums for cultural interaction, commerce, and knowledge building. The key challenges ahead is to expand the reach of ICTs while ensuring that the public interest is fully incorporated into the provision of communication services. The public interest includes providing security and reliability for communications and commercial transactions, promoting principles of open access to information, and enabling effective public participation in decisionmaking.

Security & Trust Crucial to User Confidence

The new OECD Security Guidelines correctly identify the importance of democratic values in  frameworks for network security. The Guidelines recommend that actions to protect security should be consistent with the values of a democratic society, such as the need for an open and free flow of information, the privacy of information and communication, and transparency in security measures. The Public Voice supports this approach to network security,

Still, ICT-enabled commercial transactions remain a major concern for consumers. Consumers International recent survey of the credibility, or lack thereof, of commercial web sites points to the need for better enforcement mechanisms and accreditation procedures to ensure that the public is not misled. Governments must also take a more active role in consumer protection not only through better regulation, but also through taking direct enforcement actions. Industry self-regulatory bodies also need to be routinely audited by the government and held accountable. Recently there have been several high-profile failures of self-regulatory mechanisms and the public wants government to take a more active role in protecting the public interest.

Spam, or unsolicited commercial email, is a particularly bothersome issue for all Internet users. Spam has been expanding rapidly each year and now threatens to clog the pipelines of communications. While everyone can agree on its deleterious effects, it is a difficult to fix the problem. International cooperation and coordinated enforcement action in this arena, however, could do a great deal to alleviate this problem. Additionally governments can take more proactive steps by promoting policies that support permission-based marketing. The OECD could be at the forefront of coordination efforts to tackle this problem.

While consumers are becoming more aware of the security requirements, a great deal still needs to be accomplished in consumer education and training. Industry self-regulation must be made more transparent so that the public is fully aware of potential security flaws. As the digital divide closes, the profile of users has shifted from the technical experts of the early economy to a broader cross-section of society. Solutions for consumer protection and privacy should not perpetuate the digital divide by being accessible to only the technically sophisticated users. Solutions must provide simple, clear protections that are easily accessible to all.

Conceptually trust can only develop between consumers and businesses in the presence of legal structures that enforce mutual agreements. Governments should also consider crafting laws and regulations that hold Industry accountable for inadequate security measures. Consumers can and do vote with their pocketbook, but government action is necessary, particularly when considering the pervasive culture of poor security in commercial software products, which can often be attributed to marketing pressures. Governments when analyzing their regulatory mechanisms to address security must not only go after the criminals, but also create incentives for better protections and preventive measures.

Users are also troubled by the rise in identity theft in the digital economy. This is facilitated by poor security and the easy sharing of information among different entities. ID theft can be limited with the assistance of Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs). PETs are protocols, standards, and tools that directly assist in protecting privacy, minimizing the collection of personally identifiable information, or when possible, eliminating the collection of personally identifiable information.  Fair Information Practices, including those set out by the OECD Privacy Guidelines, enable control over personal information by outlining rights of users and responsibilities of services in the collection of personally identifiable information.  In this respect, techniques that enable enforcement of Fair Information Practices would be considered PETs.

New investments in PETs should be directed toward limiting the collection of information and facilitating the development of technologies that enable users to maintain multiple identities in different contexts in the digital economy. This ability is widely available in the offline context and is critical to permitting the free flow of commercial transactions. The OECD ought to promote the development of PETs to promote security and growth in commercial transactions.

The security of personal communications is increasingly being threatened by new government surveillance measures such as the Council of Europe's Cybercrime treaty and in the private sector by workplace monitoring proposals. The real driver behind the adoption of ICTs lies in providing users the free flow of private communications and unfettered access to information. The Cybercrime treaty for instance takes too narrow an approach to the problem of security threats and  give too little weight to  due process and substantive human rights that are implicated in surveillance measures.

A further problem is that many new security initiatives lack adequate input from the technical community. In the other areas, including electronic voting and copyright protection, that are concerned with trust issues also do not receive adequate scrutiny from a technical perspective. Civil society, through engaging the academic community, can play a significant role in assisting the OECD and other policymaking forums understand new technology and its potential and limitations. Without this expert input the proposals might be anti-technology and counterproductive to the goal of creating a secure information infrastructure.

Inclusion & Participation

The individual has to play a critical role in the Global Information Society. ICTs have the potential to break down the barriers of asymmetric information access that impede citizen participation in policymaking. Governments, however, have been reluctant to accept public demands for greater transparency. The OECD can play an important role in educating governments about the importance of public, accountable institutions. These institutions must create opportunities for effective participation by the public. This includes providing a level playing field and allowing the public to play a role in setting the agenda. The Global Information Society can help realize the potential of an engaged citizenry, responsible industry, and responsive governments.

In working toward the Global Information Society, closing the 'digital divide', whether between different regions in the world or between different sections of society in a country, must be a top priority of the OECD. ICTs, as discussed above, can play a vital role in promoting democracy and fostering economic development. Governments, however, must be careful in choosing between solutions that aim to close the gap. The solutions must be guided by the twin principles of empowering the user with the education and training to make full use of the technology, and by ensuring that the particular technology adopted does not limit the open access to information and future choices between different ICTs.

An important factor in the uptake of broadband is the availability of content. Intellectual property laws have been increasingly closing the intellectual "commons" available to the public. A Global Information Society depends on thriving communities that actively engage in sharing and production of content. The current broadcast model for that depends on commercial producers with significant resources to produce content is not the only model that can be accommodated in the Global Information Society. Other models such as promoting information commons like those that exist in academia and promoting technologies that permit the fair use of content must be given the opportunity to develop. The OECD member countries can also take more direct steps to develop the public domain by promoting the localization of content and lowering the barriers for users to create content on-line.

The digital economy is transforming the workplace, but laws and regulations concerning the rights of workers still have to catch up. Workplaces are increasingly adopting flexible hours and encourage telecommuting from homes, but there are few guidelines addressing how the sanctity of home and family life can be accommodated under these new conditions. We need online rights for online workers. Employers are also more capable of engaging in monitoring their employees personal communications at the workplace. This is potentially an arena for the OECD to take a leading role in helping defining the parameters for workers rights, like it has done in other arenas in the past.


The economic potential of ICTs was probably as misrepresented in the era of the Dotcom bubble as it is today in more pessimistic times. The social consequences of ICTs, however, have yet to be fully explored. While consumers go online to engage in commercial transactions, the primary motive for acquiring ICTs is to communicate with others and to access information. The OECD must continue to keep these primary uses in mind while formulating new policies and guidelines. The promise of bridging the digital divide does not lie simply  in the creation of new markets for ICT vendors and other businesses, but rather in its ability to build communities and enable the sharing of ideas and information.


The Public Voice

Association for Computing Machinery

Consumers International

Electronic Privacy Information Center

National Consumers League

Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue

Trans Union Advisory Council