On the surface it was exciting reading this weekend’s media reports. Two newspapers picked up a press release from one of our political parties and gave us images of scandals of Wikileaks proportions, of Edward Snowden’s revelations, and of Bhutan possibly getting embroiled in global state sponsored technological espionage with at least one superpower.
We welcome the debate but, unfortunately, like the five blind men who went to see an elephant, we did not get a clear perspective.However, it gives the opportunity to explain an important and interesting project. Fortunately, the real situation is not the thriller it sounds like. It is an important initiative in Bhutan’s journey towards e-governance, one of the most important public policy shifts of our times.
One major misconception was that this project will “compromise data security” and it will be “dangerous and disturbing for Bhutan”, implying that the US government will seize all Bhutan’s secrets. If we worry that the US government will pounce on our data through Google, have we thought about what is happening now when we are completely vulnerable to, not just all governments, but to any individual with a laptop or computer or smart phone? And, by the way, it is being very naive if we think that our local email servers are not being hacked. We are being regularly hacked - our data, emails, and all – to an extent that government data is entirely exposed and the attacks on our email system often cripples correspondence.
Companies like Google spend millions of Dollars on security infrastructure and guarantee a comforting level of security to their clients. Google is required to secure all “Our Data” as part of the service they provide. It is “Our (Bhutan’s) Data” and Google only stores and processes it. We also accept that there is no such thing as “total” security as governments which spend billions of Dollars on Internet and email security also agree. Even Singapore, with its 140,000 ICT experts and billions of Dollars is still finding this out. We hope that, one day, we will build the capacity and have the resources to do this locally but we are a long way from that.
The press release and stories give the impression that we are taking all government data and handing it over to a foreign company. Governments, or even individuals, do not or should not place all their secrets on the Internet. There are a number of alternative communication channels that must still be used for different levels of information. Google provides offline support for most of it’s products ensures that a copy of your data resides in your own computer, thus enabling you to access your information even when the Internet is down.
We signed a one-year contract and if the government decides the data can be easily, at minimal cost, migrated out of Google datacenters to local servers or to an alternate service provider. Google is such a strong advocate against vendor lock-in, they are one of the biggest supporters of Open Standards. This ensures that data can be easily migrated to different platforms. We liked the fact that Google provides tools to export data out of Google’s Data centers whenever we need to. In fact Google even maintains a website dedicated to show users how to migrate data out of Google. http://www.dataliberation.org/
What this project will provide is better public service delivery without the technical overheads that we cannot afford. At a time when we can take a reliable email system for granted in most parts of the world, even in trains, airplanes, and parks, we are employing many ICT professionals just to keep our servers working. Safety is a luxury we cannot even think about. Let us first achieve a situation where our emails, not just high government officials, can send a message knowing that it will be received by the right person with safety guaranteed.
The Government, MOIC and DITT can assure you that the Google project was not a hushed up deal. Many online alternatives were assessed before deciding on Google. In fact we came across other online service providers that provided online productivity tools and we decided to go with the implementation that most officials within the government were already familiar with. Just as the news stories quoted a few “experts” who caution us against it, we spoke to dozens more institutions and known experts before we made a final decision.
Bhutan negotiated a substantial discount on Google’s published rates. US$30.00 per user per annum from US$50.00. We looked at trends and found that prices go down, not up, with increasing competition. In addition, Google has agreed to provide all students, teachers, and education administrators free accounts. This adds up to about 250,000 accounts.
It is important to know that we are saving more in terms of human and technical resources by adopting the Google system. The 350 ICT professionals working in the government can now be freed focus on actually planning and innovative use of ICT within their respective Agencies.
All this is not a defense of Google but an explanation of an important government initiative based on the progressive premise that we have to move forward. The government has adopted progressive policy on ICT and we, as bureaucrats and citizens must help take the nation forward. We will continue to welcome comments, suggestions, and criticisms from our concerned citizens with a request that the discussion is more objective.