Laurens Jan Brinkhorst is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands. Mr Brinkhorst previously served in such positions as Minister of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries; State Secretary for Foreign Affairs; as a member of Groningen Provincial Council; as a member of the advisory council of the World Resources Institute in Washington DC and as a member of the board of governors of the Netherlands Institute for Economics. Mr Brinkhorst also has an academic career, served as professor of International Environmental Law at Leiden University, visiting professor of International Environmental Law at the University of Lausanne, the chair of trans-national and European governance at the University of Tilburg and the chair of European Law at Groningen University. He has also headed numerous delegations and served in a variety important leadership and legislative posts, often linked to environmental and public safety issues. Laurens Jan Brinkhorst earned a degree in Law from Leiden University and earned his MA in Public Law and Government from Columbia University, New York, USA.
The Amsterdam Internet Exchange passes more than 16,000 terabytes of data through its switches each month. This, and migration to an all-pervasive Internet Protocol infrastructure, are among the many elements of the plans for a Connected Holland. The telecom and media sector will be affected, but it will open new possibilities for both Dutch society and business. The new environment calls for interoperable systems, wide-scale education so people can use them, and increased public trust in these new services.
During most of my life, I did not know what the Internet was. Nobody knew; it still did not exist. The first time I heard about it was ten years ago: a robust network for the exchange of information. Initially used as a communication network by scientists, nowadays it connects virtually everybody, everywhere. We can hardly imagine life without email. "To google" has become the standard expression for looking something up. It even has an entry in the Dutch dictionary. The Internet of Things The next expected step is that the Internet will not only connect people, but also connect objects: the so-called ‘Internet of Things’, as the ITU calls it in its study on ubiquitous network connectivity. Powered by new technologies, such as radio frequency identification devices (RFID) and nanotechnology, networked computing will be incorporated into the fabric of objects that surround us. Sure, this may take a few years to develop and ‘take on board’, but eventually the supermarket shelves, themselves, will report that they are running empty, T-shirts will call for an ambulance when the heart rate of the wearer falters and coffee cups will switch on the espresso machine when it is time for a ristretto. As the Minister of Economic Affairs, my primary reaction is: splendid. New products and services, more competition between existing and new market players and more convenience for consumers mean a higher level of economic activity. My second thought is, how can we seize these opportunities and ensure that society as a whole benefits optimally from these developments? "Everybody and everything connected" is a catchy phrase, but the real value of these connections lies in what people can and will do with them. In my vision of Connected Holland, people will have maximum opportunities to arrange their everyday environment, making the best use of ICT. Convergence and strong competition On fixed lines, Internet traffic has now become the dominant form of electronic communication. The once completely separate worlds of telephony and cable TV have ‘converged’ and are fierce competitors now. For the Netherlands, this competition has resulted in a top position in terms of broadband Internet. With 20 broadband access lines per 100 inhabitants, the Netherlands are second only to South Korea. The Amsterdam Internet Exchange is one of the biggest Internet junctions in the world. More than 16,000 terabytes of data, roughly 20 million CD-ROMs, passes through its switches each month and traffic volume grows by nine per cent a month. We are developing into the digital gateway to Europe. Fierce exist competition does not only within the access market, but also at the level of the services carried over the Internet. I am happy with this internationally competitive market, because it provides consumers with more choice, at lower prices. If we believe what the market players say, and I see no reason why we should not, there will be even greater choice in the future. Everybody appears to be pushing for competition between, and on, infrastructures. Most countries with dominant analogue terrestrial networks, like the Netherlands, are planning digitalisation and the switchover of their analogue infrastructures. After digitalising broadcast and telephony, the next challenge will be to make them converge into an ‘all-IP environment’. The all-pervasive Internet Protocol (IP) will enable the exchange of information over all infrastructures, via all kinds of new applications. Seamless, ubiquitous, multimedia and interactive are the buzzwords here, but what is their impact on the economy and society? Impact on the economy and society For many firms, the Internet is a ‘disruptive innovation’ that undermines existing business plans and models. Many businesses in the telecom and media sector, and far beyond, inevitably are, and will be, deeply affected. They will have to rise to the challenge and seize the opportunities. For example, new possibilities for the distribution of media content can boost the creative industry. The Dutch creative sector is internationally renowned for its groundbreaking approach in design as well as innovative multimedia formats. You see, George Orwell may have coined Big Brother, but Endemol cashed in on it! So we should be able to profit from the ever-new possibilities for display, creation and distribution that IP offers. The real importance of electronic communication will be in the services sector, though, services that really answer people’s needs, from public safety to health care and from education to mobility. I recently launched a programme to stimulate the use of ICT in these four fields. Thanks to progress in IT, the breakthrough technologies of the Internet Protocol and the World Wide Web, many services are much better placed than they were, say, 10-15 years ago for competing in an international environment. They could really profit from ongoing liberalisation and digitalisation. Businesses as well as consumers will benefit from freer access to the international marketplace. The EU services directive has been designed to do just that. On a global scale, multilateral talks at the WTO are organized to help reduce barriers. Both are necessary to remove entry barriers to markets and limit the scope and power that allow firms to regulate entry conduct and prices in their industry. This will create more possibilities for new and innovative firms. ICT, especially the Internet, prove their value particularly as instruments for operating internationally, reducing or even eliminating distances and distribution costs. However, not only the efficiency and economies of scale are improved, but so is the quality of services for consumers, as we have seen in the travel industry, home electronics and banking, for instance. The Dutch Innovation Platform has labelled ICT as an innovation axis and strives to guide Dutch firms towards a knowledge-based economy. On the EU level, I initiated a debate on the EU’s future ICT agenda during the Dutch EU presidency in 2004. A study that resulted from this debate established ten breakthrough areas. Of these areas, interoperability, e-skills and trust have been incorporated into the EU’s i2010 Agenda. Interoperability, skills and trust In order to fully profit from the possibilities offered by the Internet, systems that run on it have to be interoperable. The Internet offers great possibilities for interconnecting systems for the automatic execution of business processes. As mentioned, RFID could prove to be much more flexible and cheaper than traditional forms of interchange of electronic data. When routine administrative tasks can be eliminated, in particular data re-entry, large gains in productivity will probably result. For this, it is necessary for systems to ‘talk to’ and ‘understand’ each other. This requires standardisation, not only on the technological level, but also on the semantic level, when it comes down to the definition of simple terms such as bill, order, account and so forth. Dutch firms and organisations actively contribute to international standardisation, and I have planned measures to further encourage participation in standardisation efforts. Secondly, people need to acquire skills to fully profit from the Internet. This requires promoting the use of ICT in the education system and the development of content for e-learning. It is also necessary, though, to impart computer skills to the unemployed as well as the employed, including, when necessary, people with lower education levels, with reading difficulties or the elderly, for instance. Therefore, the EU has tagged e-skills as a priority for shaping the Information Society. Thirdly, we have to increase public trust in electronic networks. New forms of electronic harassment, like spam, phishing and slamming, and uncertainty on topics such as authentication and identification, can result in people refraining from making the most of the full range of opportunities the Internet offers. Surely public confidence will rise if reliable technologies and good programmes for consumer empowerment are in place. Still, we have to prepare the Internet for society and society for the Internet. Childcare, healthcare and care for aging people, for example, are very delicate processes that we cannot just transfer to an IP-environment. This transition intrinsically changes the process and people and organisations must learn to deal with this. The shape of the Information Society Although the Internet was initially designed for military and scientific purposes, it has now settled in as the core of our Information Society. Governments will be confronted with new issues that have an impact on society and might render some existing policies inadequate, which makes these developments political. The Internet needs to be governed, not so much technically, the management of numbers and domain names for instance, but rather from a societal and geopolitical point of view. The Internet has become a vital infrastructure for society. It is a ‘common place’ and needs to be treated that way, especially regarding matters of public safety, privacy, the digital divide and essential liberties such as freedom of speech. Therefore, I am very pleased that the whole world was represented at the World Summit on the Information Society, in Tunis, last November. Two very valuable documents were presented there: the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society and the Tunis Commitment. Every single country has the responsibility to contribute to shaping the Information Society as a whole. We need a form of governance to do this effectively. So as I work hard to get Holland Connected, I will see to it that this will be in tune with international developments. For what would be the use of a country being connected in a world that is not?