More on IT Unpolicy

In my previous post IT and the Role of Government I objected to Atanu Dey’s arguments against having an IT policy for India. He proposed, what I called an “IT Unpolicy” – basically, do nothing.

Here’s a quote:

The Rational Information Technology Policy

Be totally blind, deaf and dumb on whether to use or not use IT tools.

Details:

* The government has no recommendations on who should use IT, in what manner IT will be used by people, households, and firms.
* The government will not directly fund or subsidize the adoption and use of any IT tools
* The government will neither support nor oppose the use of any IT tools in any legitimate activity. The government will be agnostic towards the adoption and use of all IT tools
* Tools are tools, not ends. Use of tools helps achieve ends. The government is interested in ends, not in means. Depending on the context, the appropriate tools will be selected.

There you have it. I have solved the problem of an IT policy.

My rebuttal argued that for a variety of reasons, an active hand of the government in promoting the use of IT is desirable.

He responded thus to my post

The misunderstanding of the role of government is distressingly common. A blog post on 6 AM Pacific declares my post on the rational IT policy “to be wrong-headed.” Then adds the non-sequitur, “I think it is important for any government that comes to power to nurture and encourage the use of IT in government, business, education and at home.”

I am hard pressed to see where it is that I have advocated that the use of IT should not be nurtured or encouraged. The government has a role in enabling the use of IT where it is appropriate. What I am against is the government mandating of specific tools and technologies. It is not the government’s job to pick winners. It has to get out of the way of people and businesses and let them figure out what is the best use of their resources. The ones who use the tools are best able to judge what is appropriate, not some bureaucrat in some government office. The bureaucrat has the right to choose what is used in that government department, not elsewhere.

Reading his post and the few others that he wrote on the BJP IT Policy Document, I came away with the distinct impression that it was not just that he didn’t want government to pick the winners. In fact, he saw all IT as a tool, or a means to an end, which did not deserve government funding, policy or advocacy. The users of the tools would determine its demand and that was sufficient to decide its fate. I disagree with the notion that tools, especially ones with a lot of leverage like IT has, don’t need a helping hand from the government.

I would even take it further. The government should, in many cases, actively favour one technology or one option over another. I can point to any number of policy measures – mobile phone standards (GSM/CDMA), local/mobile number portability, net neutrality (in the US), promoting open source software in government (in China) – where there are multiple valid paths but the government must choose. Making the right choice (or in some cases making any choice) can lower costs, increase competition and increase penetration.

Not everything can be just left to the market. This variety of libertarianism, if it ever had a hope, has been squelched by the global crisis. Markets don’t self-regulate. People want well regulated markets. They want a government that is a force for good, not a passive-stay-out-of-my-way government. I understand that it isn’t always easy to determine the boundaries for a force-for-good government. And corrupt actors within the government will cause leakages. But that is no reason to not have an active government making policies such as an IT Policy.

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4 Responses to More on IT Unpolicy

  1. Raj says:

    You are right, to draw a parallel, imagine Govt leaving to the consumers to choose whether they would use 110V or 230V electricity or their own voltage.

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  2. Krishna says:

    While I am all for regulations, I would rather support a non-political regulator. The role of regulators in 3-G spectrum auctions (not just by DOT in India, even by FCC in the US) is mired in so much controversy and nepotism that one would rather the Government keep away from tech (not just IT) as much as possible. The latest is that DOT do not see it happening before the polls ! [ Ask why? Now the DoT is headed by Minister A. Raja of DMK – In case if DMK does not have the requisite strength in Parliament after the polls, whoever comes in his place can have his pound of flesh… Result, outright indecision 🙂 ]

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  3. Ajay Radhakrishnan says:

    "Basab – long time reader, first time commenter.

    Atanu Dey's view of IT as just a "tool" definitely seems to be done to support the libertarian view of that post. In today's world, technology is ubiquitous – it is part of any "infrastructure" that any government would need to understand and set policies. Government policies should encourage adoption of technology, albeit with an eye to the bottom-line – i.e. better infrastructure, increase in efficiency, better standardization etc.

    IMHO – It should stop short of actual technologies – first, the bureaucrat or the politician does not have an clue (even in the US) and second, intense lobbying, buying power and corruption is omnipresent leading to twisted policies."

    -Ajay

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    • Ajay – you have a good point. But if you look at the approach that the US FCC took on and the resultant hodge podge of wireless standards in the country you wonder if a more prescriptive approach might not have been better.

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