TRPC Roundtable on “The Future of the Digital Ecosystem in Hong Kong”
The third event of the “Future of the Digital Ecosystem” TRPC roundtable series took place at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong on the afternoon of the 11th of August 2017. The roundtable was organized with the support of the Hong Kong chapter of the International Institute of Communications (IIC), Internet Society (ISOC) Hong Kong, and Netflix. Participants from the government, industry, academia, and civil society were present to discuss the current state of Hong Kong’s digital ecosystem and what more needs to be done to ensure Hong Kong does not fall behind in its digital developments competitiveness.
The general consensus among participants was that although Hong Kong has traditionally been a heavyweight and a leader in digital adoption and usage, it was now at risk of falling behind other nations such as Singapore and South Korea. This gap is particularly evident in the public sector’s use of digital services. A participant pointed out that e-government services in Hong Kong were outdated and not user-friendly, and services such as booking sports facilities at public recreational centres were still paper based. It was also suggested that the regulator needed to update its definition of broadband from the current 1Mbps speed to reflect the actual broadband penetration and speeds in Hong Kong. This will help the government to better identify gaps in its digital economy development strategy and help to enable services such as online learning and e-health.
Participants mentioned that there is a lack of community awareness in Hong Kong of issues related to the Open Internet and net neutrality. Although net neutrality may not presently be an issue in Hong Kong, more could be done to raise public awareness on consumer rights and precaution against potential discriminatory action. Ultimately, end users should have the right to access legal content and services of their choice. And although Hong Kong need not rush to regulate net neutrality, the government may play a role in further facilitating discussions by conducting public consultations on net neutrality, or implement a framework for network providers to disclose their network management techniques to promote transparency.
While Hong Kong has always been proud of the success of its competitive markets in ensuring accessible and affordable connectivity, the reality is that there still are costs associated in switching from one operator to another, while the outlying islands of Hong Kong still have fewer providers and much slower broadband speeds. In order to ensure Hong Kong does not fall further behind, the government will need to review its current IT policies, including its stance on regulating and promoting digital enablement both within the government and the industry. The government should also foster stronger partnerships with the private sector, such as for the provision of public Wi-Fi services. Participants were in general agreement that such services would be better provided by the private sector, rather than the public sector.
From an industry perspective, Hong Kong’s light-touch regulatory approach was commended for creating an environment which fostered innovation and growth. Some speakers raised that the laissez-faire approach for OTT services should be maintained while regulations for traditional broadcasting could be relaxed. For start-ups and app developers, the Open Internet, coupled with the popularity of app platforms such as the Apple iOS AppStore and Google’s Android Play Store, have been instrumental in promoting innovation and fostering the app development ecosystem. App developers today no longer need to pay telcos for prioritized access and connectivity to their apps. While issues of the Open Internet may primarily involve open access and connectivity, in the near future discussions have to be expanded to include the collection and sharing of data, especially as applications such as artificial intelligence, machine-learning, and predictive analysis take hold.
An area that was raised during the discussions related to the open access and sharing of metadata collected by large service providers. With the end-goal of enabling as much innovation as possible, a case could be made in opening up and sharing this data to enable more innovative use cases. This is an ongoing area of debate worldwide and not unique to Hong Kong, and has the potential to be highly complex and controversial. It would be advantageous for Hong Kong to begin such discussions earlier rather than later.
In conclusion, although Hong Kong is still doing fairly well in terms of digital adoption, there is still much room for improvement, especially in digital public service provision, fostering multi-stakeholder discussions, and promoting awareness on net neutrality. While these issues remain complex and ongoing, it remains imperative that these discussions are at least happening with different stakeholder groups so as to find solutions which balance both consumer and private interests.