To become a digital nation

Digital government, digital citizen, digital banking, digital business, etc. sound like buzzwords but they are actually present in the daily life, such as the smartphone in your hand.

Several years ago, what would you do when you left home for work and found out that you had left your wallet at home? Most people would probably make their way back home as they could not go out without a penny in their pockets. Today, if people with a smartphone leave home and realize that they have left the wallet, perhaps not many would have to come back home. However, it’s certain that many of the people with a wallet in their pockets but their smartphones at home will have to come back. It’s simply because with a smartphone and some apps like the e-wallet, they no longer need to carry cash with them.

Today, all apps for the conveniences of daily life, such as ride hailing, hotel booking, goods delivery, food or goods ordering, utility bill payment, health monitoring, child supervision and video call, are contained in the smartphone. On a larger scale, economic activities and social services like e-commerce, transport, tourism, communications, finance-banking, education and health care are digitized and connected via the Internet and devices with online apps. Digital economy, digitization and connectivity via the Internet have actually been penetrating deeply into the daily life, with the smartphone in your hand as the most visible example.

Western countries, where information technology have started and boomed, especially in the 2000-2010 decade (with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple), have continued to realize the importance of digital economy development. After the United States, the cradle of the information technology (IT), Europe has followed suit with its vision and scheme for a “single digital market,” Australia is embarking on “Digital Australia” and Singapore is promoting a “Smart Nation.” Digital nation is the vision and the objective for governments to devise national digitization strategies so as to create a fresh momentum for the economy and not to be left behind in the fierce global competition.

Major policy issues for Vietnam

The Vietnamese Government is putting more emphasis on Industry 4.0, though IT and digitization are the core elements of this industrial revolution. In reality, however, the digitization process in the corporate sector, social life and economic and commercial activities is progressing at a very fast pace with good prospects. Given her young, tech-savvy population, Vietnam is among the top countries in the growth of Internet, smartphone and social media users.

While a national strategy and the Government’s action are yet to be in place, the private sector and citizens have actually gone ahead with digitization. Despite this positive development, however, on a national scale, big socio-economic issues are emerging more visibly in the course of the digitization process. Those issues are beyond the handling capacity of the private sector and need the Government’s action. In essence, they are not the issues of Vietnam alone but also of other countries and require common policies on a global scale.

The first issue is the protection of privacy in the Internet environment. The Facebook-hit scandal, where the personal data of some 80 million American users were illegally exploited by third parties through Cambridge Analytica, has raised the alarm bell globally over how enterprises manage and exploit personal information and data. In Vietnam, data breaches and personal data trading and exploitation are also commonplace, and there are high-profile cases involving big enterprises.

The second issue is fake news, incorrect information and extreme speeches on social media. Gossiping is an age-old human culture. However, slanders and fabrications will go viral when they are put on the Internet, which has no border and an extremely fast speed of spreading and sharing, harming the interest of not only individuals and the community but also the whole society. Even the United States has fallen victim when her presidential election was compromised with information on social media. In Vietnam, not only State leaders but citizens and communities are also suffering from fake news and “bad, harmful” information. However, how to balance between economic development (social media is a business platform) and users’ need to express personal opinions and views and to share information, and between control of “extreme speeches” and freedom of speech and expression is a tough question and no answer is out now.

The third issue is economic management, especially the collection of taxes from cross-border commercial activities and services. The Internet is borderless, and with it, territories and geographical boundaries become relative, as enterprises can operate anywhere. Hindering the flow of information and data is cutting the lifeline of the digital economy. However, how to collect tax and to protect the interest of employees in Vietnam when online business platforms like Grab, Netflix and Airbnb are not present in the country but have business operations here?

And finally, the fourth issue, which is not an issue common for all countries but only particular for Vietnam, is the system for settlement of commercial and civil disputes in the digital environment. The juridical system, which is an inherent weakness of Vietnam, is becoming a critical issue in the digital age, as the speed and the effect of disputes are multiplying online. Without an effective juridical system to settle disputes and protect digital citizens, enterprises may migrate to another country having a better system. This is not sheer warning. Vietnamese startups’ preference for operations in Singapore serves as concrete evidence.

Needless to say, a digital nation and a digital economy are certainly a big momentum for Vietnam. What matters is how to identify issues and work out major policies. Again it should be noted that Industry 4.0 is still distant but national digitization and the above issues are immediate.


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