Obama's Internet Initiative & Social Reform in the U.S. & Japan

March 19, 2010

Joshua Fouts
, Chief Global Strategist, Dancing Ink Productions
Kazuya Okada, NTT Data Agilenet
Kevin Werbach, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Toshihiro Yoshihara, Visiting Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Devin Stewart
, Director, Global Policy Innovations, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

A distinguished panel of specialists in information and communications technologies met at Japan Society to discuss the Internet and social change in the United States and Japan.

Kevin Werbach of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School was an advisor to the Obama campaign and member of President Obama's transition team, and now serves as a consultant to both the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department. He offered a gentle critique of the title of the day's program. "From my perspective, there isn't an Obama Internet initiative," he said. "The Obama administration itself is an Internet initiative. The Internet and ICT are central to the way this administration operates and the way it thinks about and looks at and interacts with the world."

The transition team's slogan, "science is back," had multiple meanings: not only that the new government would double the amount of spending on basic research, but also, and "much more broadly, that there was a strong belief in data-driven policymaking," Professor Werbach said. Technology is viewed as "a fundamental enabler for solving all of the great societal challenges that we have before us." Thus electronic medical records and broadband linkups among hospitals constitute a platform and foundation for health care reform. The FCC's new website has both extensive detail on the new national broadband plan, including technical papers, and dynamic tools that the public can use to contribute data. Realizing that there was little data on existing broadband deployment, for example, the FCC included a "test your broadband connection" tool to gather data on the speed, availability and reliability of broadband systems. "One hundred and fifty thousand people have gone here and used this to test their broadband connection in the first week. That's providing a powerful reservoir of data to drive policymaking."

"It's the idea that policymaking is more than just documents, is more than just passing legislation, but involves using the power of the Internet and IT in all its ways." Technology allows us "to break out of what we in D.C. call the inside the Beltway mentality."

The Obama administration strives to take the C in ICT seriously, a philosophy carried over from the election campaign, he said. "What the Obama campaign did so well was not just broadcast out its message through both traditional television as well as the Internet to its supporters. What it did was it allowed its supporters to talk to each other through little things, in some cases like an iPhone application that would let you download your own phone book and make phone calls to people in battleground states that you knew to try and encourage them to vote for Obama, to tools that let people have house parties and so forth."

Connecting America is the title of the national broadband plan, and the plan's goals are conceived broadly, Professor Werbach concluded. Connecting America "means physically stringing fiberoptic cable, and making possible mobile wireless connections to every corner of the country, and all that that enables, but it also means connecting people; ...connecting America to the rest of the world, connecting citizens to their government and also connecting citizens to each other. That is the potential, and I think that is a model that could very well be applied in Japan and other countries as well."

In Japan, ICT has been positioned as a strategic tool to address concerns about economic growth, an aging population, the quality of health care and education, regional disparities and the environment, said Toshihiro Yoshihara, a visiting fellow at CSIS. Around the turn of the century, the e-Japan initiative was launched, its goal being "very simple: making Japan the most advanced ICT country by 2005," first by deploying a broadband infrastructure and then by putting in place systems and applications to make use of broadband capacity. Today, wireline-based broadband reaches about 60 percent of the Japanese market, roughly the same as in the U.S. Mobile broadband systems have far higher market penetration in Japan than in the U.S., despite the increased popularity of 3G data communication in America since the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

Japan's broadband system ranks number one or number two in the world, and is faster than the American system, Professor Yoshihara continued. Fiber to the home, or FTTH, is the premier access service in Japan, offering speeds of 100 megabytes per second. In the U.S., FTTH is offered by Verizon and some small companies, but it's likely to take "a very, very long time for FTTH to become a very common access service in the U.S." because of the great distances involved.

Where Japan falls short is in the implementation of ICT in education, government and health care, he said. According to the Connectivity Scorecard developed by Leonard Waverman of the London Business School, which is based on broadband deployment plus ICT use by government units, businesses and consumers, Japan is 10th among developed countries, topped by the U.S., the UK and Canada.

Several Japanese government initiatives are in the works to increase the use of ICT. "Smart grid" projects bring together energy, telecom and other companies, along with academic researchers, to collaborate on systems that will produce and use energy more efficiently. A national e-PO Box program, designed by the LDP as a one-stop service for pension, public insurance and medical information, is slated for launch in 2013, though the timetable is now uncertain given the DPJ's defeat of the LDP last year. In Okinawa, the local government has set up an EHR, or electronic health record, that allows individuals' health data to be shared quickly and efficiently among government, medical institutes and others involved in health care.

Privacy and security protection are critical, as are quality issues, Professor Yoshihara said. If Internet connections fail or are slowed due to network congestion, users of applications such as telemedicine that depend on real-time-based data delivery could suffer very serious or even fatal harm. One solution could be a managed IP network, like NTT's Next Generation Network, or NGN, which can set priorities for communications that are particularly critical.

The extensive comment process used in crafting the U.S. national broadband plan is an important model for policy development, he said. The FCC solicited public input through its website and through workshops held around the country, gathering some 75,000 pages of comments. "This was a very, very open process."

In Japan, the government does collect public comments before announcing major initiatives, "but the number of comments are very limited, and also it is very unclear how those comments are reflected in the final version" of the legislation, Professor Yoshihara concluded. However, "my feeling is that just importing the U.S. model doesn't work in Japan, because of cultural differences, IT literacy differences, and so on."

The apparent dearth of innovation in IT in Japan has a variety of sources, said Kazuya Okada of NTT Data AgileNet. One is Japan's special devotion to tradition, which overwhelmingly favors face-to-face meetings over videoconferencing and telework. Thus, while office phones in Japan typically have a conference call function, workers may use it so seldom that "they forget how to use it."

Japanese industry is famous for realizing the potential of kaizen, or continuous improvement, but kaizen is almost by definition incremental, Mr. Okada continued. Disruptive change is seen as something to be avoided. The IT and government services sectors haven't matched the innovativeness of Japan's hybrid vehicles or its consumer electronics such as the Walkman and Wii. The mindset in Japan is one of farmers, not hunters, in his view: cooperation and collaboration are the key qualities.

When innovators do decide to move forward, other hurdles appear. The persistent weakness of the economy discourages risk-taking, which is an essential part of innovation. Legal obstacles, including strict privacy laws, may be too costly for startups to address. The Japanese culture gives little reward to innovation, and "if you do fail, then there is punishment and often irreparable damage" to your standing in society. Japan has tended to use IT not to transform its businesses, but simply to automate its traditional processes.

Japan has imported many American IT trends, Mr. Okada noted. The DOS/V initiative, which made it possible to use Japanese characters on the world-standard IBM PC, "was like Commodore Perry arriving in Yokosuka and opening up Japan to the world." Yet Japan has failed to follow through on the promise of some concepts, such as enterprise architecture, that have proved very useful to U.S. firms. "I fear that the same thing might be happening in open government," he added. "I'm not quite confident that Japan sees this opportunity as data democracy" and will actually make use of public input to shape policy.

"My key area of interest for the last 20 years has been improving cultural relations use of new technologies in a way that is contextually relevant and functional for the audience," said Joshua Fouts of Dancing Ink Productions, a creative and consulting firm based in New York.

Government is just one area where the use of new technologies could bear much improvement, Mr. Fouts said. An example is the Twitter feed launched in 2009 by Michael Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya. Mr. Ranneberger is a career foreign service officer with deep experience in Africa, and his posts were "lauded as the first example of Twitter diplomacy." Yet even today, he has not taken advantage of one of Twitter's most important avenues of communication, namely the ability to follow other Twitter users--including, especially, those who are following him. In the culture of Twitter, to follow someone means, quite simply, to tell that person that "I am listening to you."

"As we introduce these new forms of social media into our diet of our cultural engagement, we need to understand that the rules don't change," Mr. Fouts continued. Cultural engagement still requires that "I have to listen to you as well as speak to you." He quoted Judith McHale, who recently took office as the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy: "We have to engage even when we disagree with others. We have to communicate--two-way communication, not one-way messaging--through both government-to-people and people-to-people dialogue."

For the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Mr. Fouts and his colleague Rita King conducted a study of cultural dialogue in virtual worlds such as Second Life, focused on cultural engagement with Islamic societies. The study found "that there was a massive untapped community in which dialogue was taking place that was substantive and meaningful."

Dialogue through virtual worlds would complement, but not replace, the opportunities provided by exchange programs, he emphasized. "There is a perception" among policymakers "that the choices are binary, that if you do technology for cultural relations that you are implicitly removing the physical-world exchanges. And actually we disagree with that. We think that this should be an integral part of your outreach efforts."

U.S. foreign service officers whom he interviewed told him that training sessions in new media, social media and immersive media were generally led not by cultural relations specialists, but by engineers. Thus when the officers went back to the countries where they were stationed, they had the benefit of exposure to people who were in charge of building the media tools, but not to people who had experience in applying the tools. "As we think about how is it that ICTs are used in cultural relations, how is it that we are trying to encourage innovation, we need to also think about the fact that people who are on the front lines of doing cultural engagement need to have this technology contextualized in a way that is relevant to them."

"We need to find a way to integrate context, culture and training into innovation, especially when it's applied to cultural relations," Mr. Fouts concluded. "There is a massive opportunity that we are missing to create and expand our global conversation across cultures towards better cultural understanding."


Moderator Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs asked:

What are ways that Japan and the U.S, can work together to bolster innovation and inventiveness?

"These are both very large, very successful, well-developed societies in this area, but I think in both the U.S. and Japan, people look over at what is happening in places like China, and the speed of development and the speed of growth, and are worried, appropriately, of losing that leadership," Professor Werbach responded. "Just given the stage we are at in history, in some ways there is more commonality between the U.S. and Japan than there has been in the past. And I think these kinds of dialogues at every level would be very instructive."

Mr. Fouts commented, "Japan's brand in the U.S. is really a technology innovation brand. Whether or not the infrastructure, as we have heard, is borne out through that, I think the U.S. perceives Japan as providing us tremendous innovation in entertainment, tremendous innovation in technology. I think that could be a real centerpiece for a shared cultural interest and experience to move forward."

The key may be to combine America's abilities in innovation with Japan's abilities in kaizen, in improving processes and products, Mr. Okada said.

Cyber security is a very important issue on a global basis, and one that the U.S. and Japan need to collaborate on, Professor Yoshihara said. "The Google in China problem is a very huge and international problem."

What is the role of anonymity in the development of social media and virtual spaces?

"It's still a new and evolving culture," Mr. Fouts replied. "The rules of transparency haven't been fully manifested." When he and his colleagues enter these spaces, they do reveal their physical-world identities, "and we found that as that comfort level is introduced, other people respond in kind," though that's not uniformly the case.

"What we are really talking about is people not having to be anonymous, but people being willing to criticize someone, or to come up with and put forward a risky idea, and I think that is a real challenge. It's a challenge in this country, but I think in many ways a greater challenge in Japan how to foster that kind of culture, because that is so central to innovation happening," Professor Werbach said.

Audience members joined in the Q&A:

There is tremendous cynicism about the government's ability, be it in Japan or in the U.S., to deliver accurate information about topics like health care, information that helps the public and not just the administration in power. Are we really going to trust the government?

"I think the answer to that is you put the data out there, and you put it out there in a way that it is robust and reliable, and let people do what they want with it. Let people themselves be a watchdog of the government," Professor Werbach answered.

The question is whether citizen opinions are actually used as a foundation for analysis, Mr. Okada said. If not, "then it's just another discussion forum that would be burning out."

Money is really the limiting factor in innovation. Do you see a continued limitation of investment as inhibiting these innovations and cultural exchanges?

Realizing these goals requires government spending, which is a problem given budget deficits in both Japan and the U.S., responded Mr. Okada. It also requires changes in law and regulation, for example in rules that bar some types of telemedicine in Japan.

"I think that actually innovation is on the rise" in the U.S., through "an atomization of industry," Mr. Fouts observed. "The scale where we are measuring innovation is not on big corporations, but lots and lots and lots of micro entrepreneurs." For 14 years, the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin was a tiny independent gathering, but this year, it had 14,000 attendees. So "innovation is occurring, but it's still in a grassroots level that hasn't reached and probably will never reach the mega scale that we are used to perceiving innovation in."

"One other thing that is going to prevent the capital from getting to where it needs to go in Japan of course is also deflation. We should not forget that. It's very difficult to write a business plan when prices are falling," Mr. Stewart said.

--Katherine Hyde
Topics:  Policy

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