06 July 2005

The Web

A shining star is born in cyberspace

The liberalisation of commerce and lifting of trade barriers was a bold step to align Malta's economy towards the EU's model. The growing list of accredited professionals and consultancies is readily available to all applicant firms requesting their services. This was a positive move towards creating a professional approach aimed at kick starting a restructuring mentality.
Another novel initiative by Minister Austin Gatt is being taken to create an awareness programme under the auspices of the MCAST. It aims to extend business-to-business online commerce particularly among the small enterprises. Last year saw a milestone development with the signing of an agreement of understanding with the giant firm Microsoft. The giant is reported to be investing Lm20 million over three years aiming to transform the island into an ICT-jewel in the Mediterranean.
A programme of co-operation included the setting up of a Microsoft IT Academy for students and employees. Gatt has certainly hit a rich vein when he signed with Bill Gates while Malta was agog with having secured such a prestigious American godfather to nurse the birth of an ICT family. In retrospect we cannot but recall that computers were seen in a derogatory stance in the late seventies.Then with over 20,000 unemployed workers, computers were not welcome. Thirty years later jumping the queue in technological advances, Malta can look forward to unfreeze its isolationist mentality that may still linger on from past socialist ideologies.
Indeed further injection of US capital is welcome now that we have made the grade and started being noticed by the elusive US investor. Will this augur for more US investment?
Commentators state that advances in technologies show no sign of slowing down. The awesome power of computer chips continues to race ahead. Internet usage has continued to grow notwithstanding that following the burst of the dot-com bubble there was massive fallout. But many may ask if we are witnessing a strong comeback in the IT revolution of the late nineties? The answer is not an easy one. It all depends on a number of factors -such as the state of the global economy, the sky high oil prices, the supply of investment capital and the appetite of consumers for new cyberspace products such as the high-speed always-on mobile internet via third generation cell phones.
In view of this challenge Malta must address the digital divide and boost information and communication skills among the grassroots.
The culmination of the e-minister's success is expected to pave the way for independent software vendors to set up in Malta.
Surely Malta boasts of top-notch legislation in the fields of e-commerce, data protection and protection of intellectual property rights. E-Malta Commission’s unyielding promotion of the island's status as a potential hub is commendable. Potential new job opportunities in ICT sector show that government is finally harvesting the fruits of its labour. Can our shining star in the cyberspace firmament ever aspire to become a centre of digital excellence mirroring the success of Ireland and Singapore?
Certainly we procrastinated in recognizing the need for adequate investment in ICT training facilities. The opposition may well ask why have we lacked behind in our educational progress to attain cutting edge awareness of the latest developments in the ICT domain.
No doubt attaining higher levels in digital education means a massive investment for a country having a GDP reaching only 62% of eurozone members. Can we afford not to divert a higher percentage of our GDP to training?
Ideally this investment will culminate in a five year re-training programme to catch-up where we have trailed behind in the digital society. Over the past decade our politicians have lost precious time and energy with internal haggling over ideological hurdles such as EU membership thereby missing the wood for the trees.
The political price we paid during the early nineties was that we missed the dot-coms bonanza. Regrettably Malta started late in exploiting computer technology.
Over the years we have moved at a snail’s pace in the ICT revolution. Computer literacy is still weak even amongst post secondary students and the massive investment in telecoms in 1990's has up to recently been the domain of the State monopoly. The quickening of the process to liberalise has been a direct result of getting closer to EU policies on telecoms and energy de-regulation.
What price democracy… the country could have focused more on pressing items in its agenda to modernise its economy and brace itself towards the threats of globalisation. Economists predict that Malta needs another 35 years to catch up with European GDP levels at its present rate of development. This is unacceptable. Indeed Malta needs to race ahead of strong competition which it now faces from the Eastern block countries now full members of the EU. The latter enjoy a lower cost of living advantage, have introduced a flat tax system and are close to the richer European countries that constitute the bulk of our export market.
The technologies that have built the internet are racing ahead on many fronts and are already too pervasive for anyone to stop them in their tracks. Governments in the western-wired world are being confronted by clashes over the citizen's unending quest to information. As a result the information highway is in constant use by governments, companies, news media and law-abiding citizens. It goes without saying that the growing power of electronic technology makes it possible to conduct more social interactions such as chat-shows on a global network.
Luckily for us the idea to promote digital excellence is being vigorously pursued by Austin Gatt. The e-minister is responsible for speeding up the integration of various ministries and respective departments to merge their online services using ICT methodologies. We are witnessing new services such as the delivery of online government services in a user-friendly and efficient manner. These are vital services to help improve our competitiveness as an emerging economy. But of course there is a price to pay for embracing the ICT revolution. Sceptics say that if left unbridled it will restrict our personal privacy.
In theory it encourages authoritarian governments to set up widespread surveillance similar to George Orwell's Big Brother scenario. This can be partly true. As more human interactions are conducted and recorded electronically the regulatory bodies’ ability to analyze databases on citizens and install surveillance equipment grows. The rapid erosion of personal privacy may prove to be a question for better legislation over misuse of computer data and its exploitation .Where social norms over misuse of private date fail, than obviously clashes will gravitate towards the law courts. In this respect Malta's laws reflect the latest in consumer protection and if well interpreted by judges may prove to be an effective shield against abuse of personal rights or privacy on intellectual property.
The internet revolution will force changes on democracies by handing more individual power to citizens. The concept of having direct access from home to a host of government services is already increasing the expectations of local taxpayers. They are waking up to their rights demanding a fair return on taxes which were levied on them. United in a chorus they plead.....give us more value added services.
Furthermore as a general rule freedom and access to information is the best deterrent to the “Goliath of totalitarianism, which will be brought down by the David of the microchip” as Ronald Reagan once said.
Now that we have attracted Microsoft’s attention, let us herald the birth of a tiny star that was born in cyberspace. We pray that it will soon attract other investors.

The author is a partner in PKFMALTA ,an audit and business advisory firm.

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