e-government before e-commerce

Marvin A. Tort

Posted on March 06, 2013

FORMER SENATOR Ramon Magsaysay, Jr. is correct in asserting that the Philippines is "poised for growth in mobile commerce," and it is safe to presume that if he gets reelected to the Senate in May, he will propose changes to make his e-commerce law more in tune with the times.

But while I am supportive of Magsaysay’s push for growing e-commerce, I still believe that improving on e-government should be the Senate’s priority. After all, e-commerce still grew and prospered in the last 12 years or since Magsaysay’s e-commerce law was passed by Congress in June 2000. We cannot say the same for e-government.

While some public transactions with government agencies can now be done using the Internet, we still have a long way to go in terms of putting the entire bureaucracy online. And this applies to both the national government and local government units. I believe an effective e-government platform will not only improve public service but also minimize corruption.

In his keynote speech during the recent Digital Commerce Summit in Makati City, Magsaysay noted that the "bullish Philippine economy, changing consumer behavior and lifestyle, and rapid technological changes, are forces definitely pushing e-commerce to full maturity."

Magsaysay, who authored the e-commerce law in 2000, likewise cited an international ranking putting the Philippines now at number seven, out of 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and at number 32 out of 61 countries worldwide, in terms of internet growth, utility, and impact on people and the nation.

With respect to "Readiness of Communications" and "Institutional Infrastructure"; "Web Use and Content"; and, "Social, Economic and Political Impact of the Web" on the country as a whole, the only ones ahead of us in Asia are industrialized or progressive countries New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Korea, Japan, and China.

A lot has happened since Congress passed the e-commerce law almost 13 years ago. For one, technology has improved. Also, Filipinos have become more accustomed to using technology in their everyday lives. One estimate puts the country’s total e-commerce transactions -- including airline and hotel bookings -- for 2012 at ₱50 billion, up 40% from 2011.

Given this trend, Magsaysay said one could only imagine the possibilities if the country had the "right infrastructure." Citing a telecommunications report, he also noted that while approximately only 15% of households have computers, 99% of the population was estimated to have cellular phones, which can now be used for internet access.

Another estimate puts "internet penetration" at only 36 million Filipinos. Although in my opinion, 36 million out of over 94 million Filipinos is not a bad average considering the demographics, i.e. a big bulk of the population is not old enough to use a computer or access the internet.

Some bottlenecks cited include expensive connectivity or the high cost of bandwidth and "outdated" policies that are not in tune with new technology and the new environment for doing business. And aside from lowering the cost of access or connectivity, existing infrastructure must be improved to consistently provide high level of service.

In his speech, Magsaysay impressed the need to "prime our payment and banking system, improve technology platform, and enhance government support through pro-active, dynamic, and forward-looking policies and regulations." He also urged a review of "challenges in adopting and enforcing e-commerce legislation, as well as new legal and regulatory issues arising from evolving technologies and applications."

The former senator also noted the need to "revisit the Consumer Act of the Philippines" given the changing commercial landscape. "Seizing the full potential of digital commerce requires that adequate attention be paid to the legal and regulatory framework governing related transactions. Ultimately, in order to turbo boost e-commerce, users need to be able to trust that their data is secure and their transactions are protected," he added.

I see Magsaysay’s point in pushing for improvements in infrastructure and policies to boost e-commerce. But I counter that his e-commerce law or Republic Act No. 8792 is almost 13 years old and we are still far from ideal with respect to transacting electronically with the government. I believe any changes in policy should prioritize public over private transactions online.

RA 8792 already gave legal recognition to electronic data messages and electronic documents; legalized the validity of electronic contracts as well as the trading or commerce of goods via electronic means; and, promoted the government’s use of "Electronic Data Messages, Electronic Documents and Electronic Signatures."

But Part IV Sec. 27 of that law also required that "within two (2) years from the [law’s enactment], all departments, bureaus, offices and agencies of the government, as well as all government-owned and-controlled corporations… shall… accept the creation, filing or retention of documents in the form of electronic data messages or electronic documents; issue permits, licenses, or approval in the form of electronic data messages or electronic documents; require and/or accept payments, and issue receipts acknowledging such payments, through systems using electronic data messages or electronic documents; and, transact the government business and/or perform governmental functions using electronic data messages or electronic documents."

And Part IV Sec 28 of the law required that "there shall be installed an electronic online network… to facilitate the open, speedy and efficient electronic online transmission, conveyance and use of electronic data messages or electronic documents amongst all government departments, agencies, bureaus, offices down to the division level and to the regional and provincial offices as practicable as possible, government owned and controlled corporations, local government units, other public instrumentalities, universities, colleges and other schools, and universal access to the general public."

RA 8792 can be more useful to the general public if and when electronic transactions in and with the national and local government bureaucracies become as widespread and convenient as originally intended by Congress 13 years ago.

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