75年前，第二次世界大战接近尾声时，来自同盟国(Allied nations)的代表们相聚美国新罕布什尔州的布雷顿森林(Bretton Woods)，商讨创建一个监管国际货币体系的框架。
但在庆祝活动中，有个问题值得一问：现在是IMF超越货币范畴来思考其他问题的时候了吗？黑莓(BlackBerry)背后的加拿大公司RIM(Research In Motion)前联席首席执行官吉姆•巴尔斯利(Jim Balsillie)认为是这样的。
对于习惯关注货币的经济学家来说，这个想法听起来可能有些奇怪。但巴尔斯利认为，如今数据的流动对全球经济的推动作用不亚于金融对经济的推动作用，以至于就创造价值而言，数据往往被描述为新的石油。他指出：“1976年，标普500指数(S&P 500) 16%的市值是无形资产，（但）今天，无形资产几乎占标普总市值的90%。”
IMF在本月发布的最新《世界经济展望》(World Economic Outlook)报告中表示，对大型科技公司的垄断权力感到担忧，因为它担心这可能会破坏未来的增长和创新。
理论上，联合国(UN)应该对互联网有所监管。但在实践中，该机构相当没有实权、又盛行官僚主义，其主要目的是促进政策讨论。虽然也有一些较小规模的组织勇敢地捍卫着互联网的基本架构（比如互联网名称与数字地址分配机构(internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers)），但它们往往聚焦于某些比较偏门的领域。
以下为此文英文原文：Do we need an IMF to regulate the internet?
Seventy-five years ago, as the second world war was drawing to a close, delegates from the Allied nations met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to create a framework for regulating the international monetary system.
They assumed back then that monitoring money was crucial for fostering peace and building growth. No surprise there, perhaps: after the war there was an urgent need to restart the global economy, via institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And, for all the bumps in subsequent decades, that is what happened. When the IMF and World Bank held their spring meetings this month, downtown Washington was adorned with posters hailing “75 years of co-operation”.
But amid the celebrations, it is worth asking: is it time for the IMF to think beyond money? Jim Balsillie, the former co-chief executive of Research In Motion, the Canadian company behind BlackBerry, thinks it is.
Last year, the IMF hosted a seminar to talk about the new digital economy. During the discussions (at which I also spoke), Balsillie made a novel appeal: he said it was time for the IMF to help co-ordinate global data rules and to forge a joint international strategy for dealing with the impact of technology.
That idea may sound odd to economists, who are used to focusing on money. But today, Balsillie argued, the movement of data drives the global economy as much as finance — so much so that data is often described as the new oil, in terms of creating value. “In 1976, 16 per cent of the value of the S&P 500 was intangibles [but] today intangibles comprise almost 90 per cent of the S&P’s total value,” he noted.
That makes data governance a key policy issue. But the seemingly intractable splits between the US, Europe and China in this respect have the potential to rip the internet apart. Indeed, the risks are so high that Silicon Valley luminaries such as Eric Schmidt, former Google chief, have warned that we could be heading for a “ splinternet”, a network fragmented by national barriers.
So just as bodies such as the IMF tried to create growth-promoting rules for money, they should now do likewise for data. “Nothing less than a historic gathering of key decision makers will forge a new global framework . . . for the data-driven economy,” Balsillie told IMF head Christine Lagarde as he called for “a new Bretton Woods moment”.
I doubt that this idea will ever fly (although Lagarde herself was too tactful to say so at the time). The IMF already has its hands full with traditional financial and economic problems, and is staffed by economists rather than tech experts.
Also, it’s not clear whether even the wily Lagarde would be able to bang heads together to forge a data accord — even if she wanted to. The original Bretton Woods initiative was created by 44 allies who were fighting a war together. Today, geopolitical rivalries, notably between China and the US, are more likely to outweigh any sense of common purpose.
Nevertheless, I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Balsillie’s appeal, for at least two reasons. First, we all need to recognise just how radically the digital revolution is changing our idea of what an economy is — and how value is created in an era where data is almost as important as money.
In its latest World Economic Outlook report, published this month, the IMF said it was alarmed about the monopoly power of big tech companies, since it feared this could undermine growth and innovation in the future.
Second, Balsillie’s suggestion exposes much bigger questions about global governance. Maybe it seems weird to imagine the IMF setting global data standards. But what is even stranger — and more alarming — is that no other institution is really in a position to do this.
In theory, the UN is supposed to have some oversight of the web. But, in practice, it is fairly toothless and bureaucratic, aiming primarily to foster policy discussions. While there are smaller organisations valiantly fighting to preserve the underlying architecture of the internet — such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — these tend to focus on niche areas.
What the internet lacks, in other words, is anything like a network of central banks, or the Bretton Woods institutions, which might do for data what those bodies do for money — namely, fight to keep it flowing around the world in the face of geopolitical tensions. In part, this is by design: the techies behind the internet set out to build a decentralised network and were suspicious of government control.
But it is also because our digital economy is still pretty young; thus far, there has not been the type of catastrophic shock (a complete collapse of the web, say, or a massive cyber hack) that might force competing countries to co-operate. Bretton Woods, after all, was a response to the second world war; the US Federal Reserve was born out of financial panics.
Can policy makers learn the lessons from financial history and create mechanisms for global co-ordination for the digital world before — not after — a shock hits? History suggests not. But unless that happens, the issue remains that data, like money, makes our world go round — but unlike with money, there are few global mechanisms for co-operation. The IMF might not be the obvious body for this; but if not it, then who?