Why not Thailand? asks Google chief

Why not Thailand? asks Google chief

The rise of the Internet across the world has shifted into a new gear, where the next 5 billion to come online will be very different from the first 2 billion who used it. These people will live and work in countries like Thailand, and economies like Thailand's will be defined by the Internet as much as by their roads, schools or electrical grids.

The question is, what sort of Internet will Thailand choose? Building an Internet for a country means more than boosting the number of devices and connections. It also means the amount of information online: business addresses, literature, government services, museum exhibits, maps, textbooks, recipes and… well, as we all know, anything can be online, and what people can do with the Internet counts just as much as how many phones there are.

I find that a lot of business people and officials from countries like Thailand ask "Why", when it comes to doing things online? As they build up their national Internet, they define the Internet according to all the things they don't want people to do with it. It's as if Henry Ford had started by defining the Model T as a car that couldn't drive on mud.

I don't underestimate the Internet's dangers, and what's illegal offline should obviously be illegal online. But if you focus mostly on what people can't do with the Internet, you're wasting a national opportunity. If you focus on all the good things they can do with it, you find they flourish and so does your country.

To prove my case, all I have to do is point to the Thais who have looked at the Internet and, instead of asking "Why", asked "Why not?" That approach transformed their businesses and lives.

A vendor of muay thai boxing equipment started his business at just 23 and with the help of the Internet is now exporting his stuff to over 20 countries worldwide, without having to worry about middlemen or supply chains.

The Internet enables business ideas that might have once been seen as quirky to turn into successful and meaningful businesses. In Bangkok, Khun Ploy has been running a burial service for peoples' pets based on leads she gets from Internet marketing.

While we can't replace the need for doctors to physically attend patients for important diagnoses, doctors are finding they can help rural populations with their medical expertise by using Google's Hangouts tool for video conferencing.

As Thailand prepares for the arrival of the Asean Economic Community in 2015, its competitiveness will depend on these kinds of people, who look at the Internet and ask "Why not?"

And that's true culturally, as well. Hong Kong has set up a digital academy of educational videos; India uses the Internet to broadcast cricket; PSY used YouTube to become a global pop star.

Imagine the possibilities when everyone in Thailand has the potential to follow that path. A small group of new-generation Thais, working from a garage, started a totally new format for a creative talk show that now has 1.3 million followers. If I had written that sentence 10 years ago, it would have been close to nonsense, unless they had a very large garage. But today, I'm sure you can guess how they did it. They put their show on YouTube.

Today, online platforms define a nation as much as museums or libraries. Already in Thailand, the value of online video is estimated at Bt41 billion (S$1.6 billion), according to a recent study by Thammasat University.

Those ingredients suggest Thailand has what it takes to be a major player in Southeast Asia. But it can't do it without the Internet, and it can't do it without an Internet that looks more like the rest of the world's.

The same quirk in Thai law that has resulted in the oldest online portal, Pantip, needing an army of lawyers instead of engineers, also makes it challenging for international online platforms to offer localised services. Other countries have started from the same premise that I mentioned at the beginning. They assume that, first, you have to make your local Internet as locally relevant as possible.

Once you've created that foundation for growth, you figure out how to enforce the limits swiftly and effectively, so that Thai Internet users benefit from Thailand's Internet laws more than lawyers do. That approach allowed YouTube and Facebook to flourish in the US before going global.

If Thais had set up exactly the same services at roughly the same time, would they have had the same success? The vendor of boxing equipment who asked "Why not?" has found astonishing success on the Internet. Shouldn't that also be true for those people who want to make it as easy to post Thai content as it is to send an e-mail?

No country has got worse because of the Internet, and everyone will eventually be connected. Connectivity will not solve income inequality, though it will alleviate some of its more intractable causes, like lack of available education and economic opportunity.

However, this won't happen automatically. It will happen because people made deliberate choices, and the choices made across Southeast Asia when it comes to the Internet over the next few years will define the region for decades.

Thailand is taking the right steps with the one-tablet-per-child programme; the next step is to ask what will be on those tablets and how we can get as much Thai content there as possible. Otherwise, it will be like supplying everyone with books but only letting them write with white ink.

Let's instead focus on making it as easy as possible for Thais to build the Internet that's right for their country, their village, their neighbourhood, their economy and, most of all, for them.

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