OECD Ministerial Meeting on the Digital Economy & Launch of the Cancún Declaration
Early in the morning, risen not just by the sun, but also the singing of the great-tailed grackles that flit from balcony to tree-top across the hotel complex, I looked out on the Caribbean and made my preparations for a day of presentations, debates and networking.
Heading to the conference venue, breakfast pastry still in hand, nudged aside by the wake of a ripple of people in clicking heels and clumping boots, clipboards and phones, whispering in the ears of advisor to advisor, all the way up the chain to the centre of the little bubble, where red-dressed, walked Penny Pritzker, US Secretary of Commerce (and, by the way, billionaire), one of the speakers for the first session.
She spoke of the fundamental importance of a free and open internet and the value of developing policy on the basis of a multi-stakeholder model.
Similar themes were pursued also by the other speakers, with emphasis varying depending on perspective, whether that be on the issue of economic opportunity, access to broadband, internet governance, or data privacy. Reference was of course made to the earlier 2008 (Seoul) Ministerial and the goals it outlined.
The range of delegates at the event also became very clear during the opening session and through the final conference programme, with sessions addressed or attended by representatives of major companies (Google, Samsung, Telefonica, etc); governments, of not just OECD, but other countries; civil society organisations; trade unions; academics; technical specialists (Internet Society, ICANN, IEEE, ITU, etc); students; and international organisations.
Multiple parallel sessions would have, in the past, meant so many missed opportunities to hear about the issues emerging amongst different groups, but thanks to the ubiquity of twitter at such events, it’s now hard to remember what that was like! The hashtag #OECDdigitalMX was trending for much of the event, with notes being passed back and forth between audience members and speakers, links to relevant documents and news items, as well as the occasional injection of humour. Search on twitter and you’ll find around 4,000 tweets during the conference (excluding the pre-conference day) and even a quick skim through the list gives a flavour of the diversity of topics and participants.
The inputs from the stakeholder consultations and also from the live voting app used during the meeting, indicated that one of the most fundamental blocks on the development of a digital economy is that of ‘trust’, or rather the lack of trust. Whilst for the commercial sector ‘trust’ was about consumers being willing to use online services and concerns over fraud, for many others, trust also encompassed issues of privacy, identity and individual autonomy. Who owns the internet, or rather those tools which people use to communicate and share, to store their information; who has jurisdiction; who can ‘snoop’ or demand access; and what is inadvertently leaked — all raised, all legitimate concerns, and all bundled under this broad heading.
For the panel sessions, which were very tightly structured, with ticking clocks (and determined chairs!), there had been preparatory reading (see list later) and questions raised in advance to which all participants were asked to respond from the perspective of their organisation or experience. All sessions were streamed and recorded, camera crews in every room, photographers snapping away and journalists ready to swoop on any Mexican (and some others) minister who emerged from the rooms.
And whilst all the rooms in this huge venue were buzzing away, a cluster of little rooms/cubicles with four chairs in each, and a locked door, were set aside for ‘bilaterals’. Trade deals, negotiations, projects, all being haggled over, and the flesh being pressed to signify that at least some degree of that commodity we spoke of was present: trust.
The advanced documentation makes for some interesting reading, alongside the One Internet publication which was launched at the event by Carl Bildt, and the Cancún declaration itself, signed by 41 countries and released on the final day.
- TUAC Discussion Paper on the Digital Economy
- CSISAC Document list
- New Skills for the Digital Economy
- Economic & Social Benefits of Internet Openness
- New Markets & New Jobs
- Full reference list at OECD Library
- The Cancún Declaration
As for my own participation, well it was extremely useful to be there and I wouldn’t waste terribly much time seeking out my own small contribution to the panel session, but if you are interested, the general focus was on digital skills and education, and a plea for us not to continually ‘reinvent the wheel’ with yet another policy document on digital literacies/skills, but rather in asking ourselves what happened to the previous 60+ such documents (I kid you not!), try to be more imaginative about how we engage learners, about how we build confidence (rather than merely focusing on technical competence) and overcome the sense of alienation which many people feel towards a set of technologies which is invading and colonising so many aspects of their lives.
By way of illustrative example, I of course, suggested our All Aboard project, but I think it has more resonance with many of the themes of this conference than might have been realised (both by myself and others), particularly on the question of whether what we are trying to do is build a technology based economy, or whether what we really need is to find ways in which all of us can flourish in a digital age.
Despite being in the protected space of a holiday resort/conference centre (or a bubble) for a few days, the outside world encroached with three significant sets of events: the protests and subsequent killings in Oaxaca; the Colombian peace deal (which was the President’s excuse for not addressing this conference - one I think all the attendees could forgive!); and the shock of the ‘Brexit’ referendum result.
For the moment, I’ll leave it there, given that I’ve provided an extensive reading list(!), but the photos below also capture some of the atmosphere of the event and indicate perhaps the scale of the undertaking which was so successfully managed by the hosts.