GES2012: Optimising information use through the internet and social media

This year’s Global Economic Symposium (GES) takes place in Rio de Janeiro next week, on 16-17 October.

GES is an annual event that invites stakeholders from around the world to discuss global issues, challenges and problems. It’s a great coming together of politicians, business leaders, NGOs, and experts across a huge range of topics – like a smaller version of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

I’ve been fortunate to be invited for the past three events to moderate the session on technology, which this year is titled “Optimising information use through the internet and social media” – a subject that would take far longer than the allotted 90 minutes to discuss in its entirety.

Panelists are invited to submit their views on the topic at hand in advance, and I thought I’d publish my submission here – I’d be interested in your opinions too:

Encourage the innovators, and allow consumers of information to make the choice

There is a fundamental dilemma to consider when looking for solutions to the challenge of “optimising information use through the internet and social media”: the internet and social media have grown as “bottom-up” technologies often used by people to bypass traditional social, cultural and establishment controls, yet the control of most of the information that has value to those people remains in the hands of businesses and governments.

So, when considering how to “optimise” information use, one has to look at who wants to use that information, and who has that information.

Typically the “user” is you and I – individual citizens going about their daily lives, requiring information owned by the state, by business, by educational institutions, healthcare organisations, and in the world of social media, by each other.

In most of those organisations, that information has either a commercial value, or more likely a power value – information being power in so many areas of life. Those organisations are loathe to provide that information if it means loss of commercial benefit, control, or competitive advantage.

So we are increasingly faced with two opposing sides of this challenge.

On one, the digital King Canutes, who see the internet and social media as a threat to their established models, and will use whatever means – often resorting to the law or legislation – to protect their incumbency. The music and film industries are classic examples of sectors reluctant to change and reflect the new demands of their customers, resorting to lobbying government to impose overly restrictive controls on intellectual property.

On the other side, are the organisations that see information access as an opportunity – for example, to empower people to take better care of their health; to encourage innovation through access to government data; and to boost education and business through open access to research.

The question, therefore, is should governments and other representative bodies use their influence – through legislation, regulation or other measures – to lean one way or the other? The evidence to date is that their efforts to do so are cumbersome, slow, and often inappropriate.

It is the latter organisations – those with open, transparent, accountable attitudes to information use – that are gathering popularity and success. The restrictive, laggard organisations are struggling financially, culturally and often even democratically – witness the Arab Spring as an example of that.

My proposal would be to avoid fresh legislation wherever possible, to allow openness to flourish, and ultimately to allow citizens to choose whether they want to deal with those organisations that restrict or those that encourage information use. Such an organic process is already underway, and the best response of business and governments would be to allow it to continue to its natural conclusion.

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