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Opinion

How an open internet can power Asia-Pacific's economic recovery

Everyone should have the opportunity to be part of the digital future

| Malaysia
"For many businesses forced to close their doors during lockdowns, Facebook and Instagram have been a lifeline," writes Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and founder of LeanIn.org.

When he was young, Giden Lim helped out in his mother's florist shop and could often be found selling flowers in the streets outside. His mother's entrepreneurialism made a big impression on him, as did her passion for flowers.

Years later, Giden co-founded BloomThis with Penny Choo, his then-fiance and now his spouse. They believed that a gap existed for an online florist specializing in same-day deliveries and subscription services and were determined to fill it. Together they built a thriving business, working all hours to build up a loyal customer base in Malaysia and beyond.

When the pandemic reached Malaysia, BloomThis took a double hit -- demand dropped as weddings and events were canceled, and supply dried up as restrictions meant they could not import flowers. With revenue down 90%, Giden and Penny had to get creative -- launching new products and promoting them through personalized ad campaigns. Now, sales are higher than a year ago and the future is bright again.

Giden and Penny's story is typical of a long-term global trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic. People are increasingly spending their time online -- connecting with each other, working, shopping, gaming and more -- and increasingly businesses are moving online to reach them. Giden and Penny recognized this shift when they started BloomThis, and their use of digital tools has helped them reach customers during this difficult year.

Facebook sees this digital transformation play out on our services every day. Billions of people use Facebook and Instagram to stay connected when they are physically apart. As the pandemic spread, thousands of Facebook groups formed to help the most vulnerable in our communities -- bringing millions of people together. Others formed to celebrate and support health care workers, to sew face masks or put together care packages.

For many businesses forced to close their doors during lockdowns, or run under restrictions as BloomThis has, Facebook and Instagram have been a lifeline -- from restaurants taking online orders to gyms doing virtual workouts and performers putting on livestreamed shows.

As ministers from across Asia-Pacific gather for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference this week, they do so during the first truly global pandemic of the digital age. This context makes the debates that will take place about the rules that will shape the internet and the economy for years to come more urgent and important than ever. Ministers from APEC economies have talked about the importance of digitalization in building the resilience of small businesses, of cooperating to ensure the flow of data, and of strengthening consumer trust in digital transactions. They are right.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg will address the APEC CEO Dialogues, a virtual event hosted by the APEC Business Advisory Council, on Thursday.   © AP

Small and medium-sized businesses are the heartbeat of APEC economies -- accounting for 40% to 60% of GDP -- and they are Facebook's heartbeat too. There are more than 200 million businesses using our free tools every month to create virtual storefronts and communicate with customers, and more than 10 million advertisers -- the vast majority of which are small and medium-sized businesses like BloomThis. Their stories show just how important e-commerce, powered by data-driven tools, is to recovery efforts in the region and beyond.

For businesses like BloomThis, personalized advertising -- which uses data safely and in a privacy-protected way -- is the secret ingredient that makes success possible. As the digital transformation continues, these businesses can be the driving force of the economic recovery. But for that to happen they must be able to continue to rely on data-driven tools and to connect to customers and markets beyond their own borders.

The pandemic has proved the value of connection, cooperation across borders and the economic opportunity created by an open internet. But we cannot take these things for granted. The future of the open internet is far from assured.

A number of countries have begun to exert so-called data sovereignty and build digital walls around their citizens -- or to seriously consider moves in this direction. This shift toward digital protectionism is self-defeating -- it risks fragmenting the global internet into national and regional silos, and harming businesses and economic recovery across the Asia-Pacific region. Cross-border connectivity is the foundation of a strong digital economy. It should be protected and enhanced, not restricted by new digital borders.

Governments, tech companies and others must work together to preserve what is best about the open internet while protecting people's privacy and preventing harm. And we should give everyone the opportunity to be part of this digital future. Inclusive economic empowerment means investing in digital literacy programs, developing online education, and improving connectivity for people in remote communities.

Crucially, it means empowering women. Huge gender gaps have existed for as long as anyone can remember, but women have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. They are more likely to have responsibilities to care for others, more likely to lose their jobs or have their pay cut and more likely to feel overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious. That is why it is so important that APEC has put women at the heart of its agenda to advance economic empowerment.

By working together to protect and enhance the open internet, and to create the conditions for a strong and inclusive recovery, I am confident that we can build a thriving digital economy that will power the Asia-Pacific region for years to come.

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