Yahoo’s Nick O’Donnell: Economic Hyperlinks

Yahoo’s Nick O’Donnell talks with PAA on how to keep tech innovation moving, the digital economy growing and the data borders open.

How is the tech industry perceived differently between consumers, industry and policy makers? How does this affect the public affairs dynamic?

From a public affairs dynamic it is fair to say that consumers now demand more from the tech industry and that they are more discerning. There are a lot of options out there and it is extremely important that the approach companies take matches their perception amongst users. For Yahoo, we’ve worked hard to build and maintain the loyalty and trust of our over 800M users worldwide. We take a user’s first approach which is defined by the three pillars: security, privacy and safety. Our aim is to deliver innovative products into our users’ daily habits, wherever and however they may need it. Of course, this needs to be done in a socially responsible and transparent manner.

Transparency and trust have come through as absolutely key to business. We have committed to releasing a transparency report twice a year that outlines the requests that we receive from governments around the world and how we respond. We continue to fight to protect our users’ information by ensuring that requests are lawful and not overbroad.

As we’ve said before, we aim to entertain and inspire the daily habits of our users– which are increasingly turning towards mobile platforms. We are constantly innovating new ideas and products that will continue to deliver the best user experience. The constant cycle of innovation, in turn, has an impact on the public affairs dynamic that requires strong relationships in the public affairs and policy arenas. It is essential that we have a network of strong relationships with key stakeholders, whether they be regulators, governments or legislators. Herein our challenge is to raise the level of appreciation for free and open innovation.

Our focus is on ensuring that we can unlock the full potential of the digital economy through the public affairs exponents and to allow full and unfettered global access and participation. That is ‘success’ to us. As expectations and perceptions change so to will the role of the public affairs professionals. We shall continue to see that markets evolve and allow for creative expression, experimentation and positive innovation. This comes through trusted relationship and working with stakeholders.

How have the role, functions and brand identity of tech firms evolved in the past two decades?

We are indeed one of the older statesmen in the industry – Yahoo is 19 years old this year – and the industry has changed dramatically. Tech is now an essential component of everyday life and it is a very noisy marketplace. The challenge is how to break through the noise. Transparency and trust are now undisputedly the fundamental expectation of users, which is key to tech brands in the market today.

Over 450M of our daily users globally connect with our products through mobile now. You will see that Yahoo is focused on integrating our long-beloved products such as Yahoo Finance, Sports, and News, to the mobile platform. We are now putting our products into people’s pockets to integrate them even more simply into their daily habits. Whether on web or mobile, we are continuing to deliver the best user experience.

With tech’s rapid evolution and suite of available products and platforms constantly accelerating what are the challenges policy makers face regulating the tech industry?

The rapid pace of innovation and evolution in the tech sphere is unprecedented and it is very hard to expect government and legislation to keep up with the iterative cycles of innovation. As legislation affects how we can continue to innovate, it is so important to build good relations with policy makers around the world to help them understand the benefits of new technologies and also the legislative impact to our business. Whether to apply old legislation or to develop new legislation is a constant conundrum. Education and collaboration are perhaps more useful tools than ‘band aid’ legislation or indeed criminalisation to bring about behavioural changes. One prime example is that it is an extremely difficult challenge to modernise legislation to be compatible with how content is now delivered across multiple platforms.

We have always been in favour of self-regulation given the speed and scope of innovation in the tech industry. Businesses that deal with trust must be allowed to look for the solutions and lead the market in response to policy issues. We constantly engage policy makers in collaboration and education, who then strive to come up with well thought out and balanced solutions, while at the same time providing an environment that encourages innovation. That will always be the goal.

What level of multi-lateral co-ordination is necessary across industry sectors in order for public affairs professionals to adequately serve the tech industry?

The answer to this has changed over time. Tech touches all aspects of life now so we must be open to working with as many companies and industries as necessary. But what is extremely important and becoming extremely apparent is not just working across sectors, but with domestic partners. You need to tell a local story in order to work within the global environment. It is the many local parts that make the whole in our public affairs conversations, particularly within the Asia Pacific.

We rely heavily on trade associations, particularly those that operate on a domestic level, for example the US-ASEAN Business Council. We use these to connect and work with businesses that share our beliefs and approach. Yahoo is also a founding member of the Asian Internet Coalition, which brings together the larger global players and local friends of the AIC. This allows us to have the right domestic conversations.

In what environment do public affairs professionals in this industry now find themselves working?

Privacy will always remain a hot topic in the policy environment space. The internet governance conversation is going to have a huge impact on the shape of the internet in the near term and for some time to come, notably the free flow of data and the internet economy. It is the digital innovation that has empowered small businesses and it is important to create the right environment to play further on the digital stage and global digital economy. This will only grow further. Users demand access to the digital economy. They will accept nothing less. For public affairs practitioners success in a policy sense accordingly means that we keep moving forward, we keep innovating and that the data borders remain open.

Nick O’Donnell is Regional Manager, Asia Pacific, Public Policy Yahoo!, Inc.