What do you expect from the incoming cabinet?
Michiel Steltman: "At the moment, very little! If you read the party manifestos, the vast majority don't even mention ICT. And there was almost nothing said about ICT during the election campaign, either. So the signs aren't encouraging. However, failing to consider ICT is failing to consider the country's future. Because ICT will shape the future of the Netherlands. It touches every aspect of society, from care robots to smart farming, from the internet of things to on-line shopping."
Roelof Meijer: "So far, governments have tended to think of ICT exclusively in internal terms – in terms of their own computer systems. It is very important that a broader view is adopted. There needs to be an ICT vision and we need policies on the digitalisation of society as a whole. The government has an important role to play in that regard."
Michiel Steltman: "Ironically, the complacency about ICT probably stems from the Netherlands' strength in this field. We have a fantastic digital infrastructure, but we can't afford to just sit back and enjoy it. Countries such as Estonia, Denmark, Germany and the UK all have digital agendas and will overtake us if we're not careful. And what we're talking about here is the nation's earning power. Where are the opportunities? How do we develop a successful industry, so that when people use the internet they aren't just making companies in the US rich?"
What does the government need to do, in concrete terms?
Michiel Steltman: "As I see it, there are four key points. First, the right kind of oversight is required. A top team should be appointed. ICT is too broad a field to be left to a single minister. Second, the government needs to invest. Invest in establishing the right parameters, of course: an innovation-friendly and enterprise-friendly policy environment. But also invest in digital infrastructure. We spend billions on our road and rail transport infrastructures, but our digital infrastructure is taxed! The VAT rate on printed books is 6 per cent, but on e-books, it's 21 per cent. That kind of thing suggests an outmoded view of the digital world. The third key point for the government is digital skills. It's vital that digital skills have a proper place in the school curriculum, and that we raise the knowledge level of the average person, e.g. through public information campaigns. Finally, the new government needs to address cybersecurity. And I don't mean just provide a cybersecurity budget for the investigatory services. You simply can't police the internet that way. In fact, the internet doesn't really exist in the sense of an entity that you can police; what we call the internet is just arrangements amongst a couple of billion devices. Good cybersecurity is about everyone that's linked to the system, not about a single organisation."
Roelof Meijer: "I'd like to add another point to those identified by Michiel. That's protection of the internet's core values: freedom, access, openness, and diversity. So far, Dutch governments have pursued dual policy paths in this field. On the one hand, international policy has been geared to protection of the internet's core values. The Dutch government has repeatedly spoken out against state involvement in the 'public core' (protocols and infrastructure). Yet, at the same time, the Ministry of Justice and Security regularly proposes policies that are totally at odds with that principle. Policies that seek to increase state intervention and control over the internet. I do not for a moment wish to suggest that we should not be trying to increase internet security or tackle terrorism. But many of the proposed measures would have no useful effect in relation to those aims. They would, however, have all sorts of drawbacks, such as creating an 'unlevel playing field' and making the Netherlands less attractive as a place to do business. Measures such as filtering and blocking could even impair the functionality of the internet."
Michiel Steltman: "Our industry needs to become more proactive. Most of the firms operating in the internet infrastructure sector are SMEs. I'm not sure that they fully appreciate that their operational freedom depends on the internet itself remaining free. They are preoccupied with their own day-to-day challenges, and wider shared interests tend to get neglected. That may be understandable, but we can't all stand by and watch the internet's core values cast aside."
Roelof Meijer: "Discussion and consultation, influencing events and protecting interests. Those things depend upon having a vision and making a concerted, active contribution. I sometimes look at certain traditional industries, such as agriculture, and see how effective they are. And I wish we could be more like them."
Does the government have enough expertise in house?
Roelof Meijer: "Yes, definitely. At SIDN, we mainly get to deal with the Ministry of Economic Affairs. They certainly have some very knowledgeable people. So do the Ministry of Justice and various others. So the expertise is there, even if it's somewhat fragmented. Within the political community, it's a different picture. There's little understanding of our industry and what knowledge there is tends to be more localised. DINL is has now been trying to educate policy-makers for a couple of years, but it's a big task."
Michiel Steltman: "Amongst politicians, knowledge of the internet industry is parlous. So, after the elections, we start from a weak position. A lot of the work we've done has been undone by people moving on. We have an influx of new MPs and we can start again from scratch with them. However, I'd like to make it clear that it's not just about educating the political community. We will also be reaching out to them. If we can help, we're happy to do so."
Any advice for the parties currently negotiating to form the new government?
Michiel Steltman: "We've already set out our wish list. At the end of the day, I'd be pleased with a single sentence in the coalition agreement: a statement saying that the government will appoint a top team to work on an ambitious digital agenda covering things such as digital skills, cybersecurity and investment in digital infrastructure."
Roelof Meijer: "And if that suggestion is taken up, I shall be very pleased!"