Asia’s economic winners will be those that embrace the open internet

The global internet is at a defining moment. Policymakers and regulators across Asia and around the world are writing rules that will shape our relationship with the internet for decades to come. Laws are being proposed governing everything from privacy and content, to how data is held, shared and used at scale.

This is a good thing — regulation is overdue. For too long, many of these important issues have been left to private companies to deal with alone. Facebook has advocated for this in a number of areas for some time now.

The stakes are high. These new rules will not only affect how we all use and experience the internet, they will have a profound impact on the digital economy. Even though Asia is home to very different political systems, one thing that is true almost everywhere is that digital technologies have driven growth and improved living standards.

From big corporations to coffee shops, bookshops and restaurants, reaching customers online is now central to how people in Asia do business. In 2019, analysis by Bain & Company, Google and Temasek found that Southeast Asia’s digital economy was worth more than $100 billion per year. Before COVID hit, it was on track to treble to over $300 billion by 2025.

This digitization of the economy has been accelerated by the pandemic as businesses have shifted online to reach customers. And data and digital tools will be vital for businesses as they rebuild in the months and years ahead. Regardless of the political differences across Asia, the digital economy will be at the heart of future economic growth.

New internet legislation has been passed or debated in countries across the region, from Korea and Japan to Singapore and Australia. As policymakers begin drafting laws, it’s increasingly clear there are competing visions of what the internet should be. And the consequences for the economy could be profound.

On one hand, there’s regulation based on a shared recognition that the digital economy will drive economic growth and living standards over the decades ahead, and a shared desire to create opportunity while limiting social disruption and harm. This approach is defined by principles of transparency, accountability, and the encouragement of innovation and entrepreneurship. As a company that believes fundamentally in the virtues of an open, accessible and global internet, we welcome this regulatory approach.

A 2019 analysis by Bain & Company, Google and Temasek found that Southeast Asia’s digital economy was worth more than $100 billion per year. Before COVID hit, it was on track to treble to over $300 billion by 2025. © Nikkei illustration

On the other hand, there are moves by governments to exert so-called ‘data sovereignty’ by building digital walls at their national borders, cutting their citizens off from elements of the global internet and threatening the free flow of data across borders. The temptation to exert national sovereignty over the internet is understandable, especially as nations elsewhere flex their digital muscles. But a lurch toward digital protectionism would be self-defeating for both individual countries and the wider region.

Digital frameworks defined by narrow national or political interests will stifle innovation, deter investment, and close countries off from the economic opportunities and social benefits of the open internet. They also risk undermining citizens’ rights.

The clear lesson from the success of Asia’s digital economy is that we should be tearing down walls across the region, not building new ones. The open, accessible and — crucially — global internet makes us greater than the sum of our parts. The ability to connect across borders, to buy and sell, collaborate and share, is the magical quality that makes the digital economy the incredible growth engine it has become.

If we want the new rules of the internet to preserve the benefits of the open internet while protecting against harm, where should we start?

First, to enable the digital economy to flourish, we need to keep the pipework of the internet open across the region. That means rejecting policies that would create regulatory silos and stem the flow of data across borders.

Second, to harness the benefits of a truly global internet, the more rules are designed to be complementary across the region the better. The global financial crisis demonstrated the need for regulatory harmonization and consistent standards. So we must collectively recognize the need for common principles and processes for international data sharing, allowing businesses to continue to offer cross-border services while providing consumers with better understanding of how their data is protected.

Third, to achieve all this, policymakers are going to have to work together in a spirit of shared endeavor. Multilateral agreement is difficult, but it’s not impossible. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recent agreement on reforms to international tax laws is evidence of this. Governments across Asia already recognize that collaboration is the best approach to tackling cyber threats, and it’s the right approach for cyber opportunities too.

As the region rebuilds from the economic damage of the pandemic, which vision of the internet governments embrace will be a defining factor. I believe the winners will be those that resist the temptation to build new barriers and instead work with others to protect and enhance the open internet.

This op-ed was originally published on Nikkei Asia on 10 August 2021.

Vice President of Global Affairs, Facebook. Former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, leader of the Liberal Democrats, member of Parliament.