Why internet/GDP ratios make no sense
On Monday, the Economist reprinted a chart from a BCG report, which purported to show the contribution of “the internet” to the total GDP of various different countries. Britain comes out on top, with an internet-to-GDP ratio of 8.3%; it’s followed by Korea, China, Japan, USA, India, and Australia. After the UK, the highest-ranking European country is Germany, on just 3.3%, while Canada lags far behind the US.
All of this was rather puzzling to me, so I spoke to BCG’s Paul Zwillenberg, one of the authors of the report. And the main thing I wanted to know, of course, was how on earth you could turn “the internet” into an annual dollar amount divisible by national GDP.
“It’s like electricity. It’s part and parcel of the fabric of daily life,” Zwillenberg said, almost before I could ask my question. “It’s touching every part of the economy.” I’m inclined to agree — but you’d never dream of measuring different countries’ electricity-to-GDP ratios. So what’s he doing here?
Zwillenberg did say that in ten years or so, “you won’t need to measure the internet economy because it will be totally pervasive”. But for the time being, he’s determined to measure the internet. And the way he’s doing it is very web 1.0.
Remember the dot-com boom of the 1990s, when everybody got excited about the internet because it was a new way to buy stuff? That’s basically what BCG is measuring here. They’re taking total consumer expenditure in each country, and working out how much of that expenditure is online. As in, buying a hardback from Amazon, or a Beanie Baby from eBay. Then they add in the amount you pay your ISP to get online each month. And then they add a certain amount for investment by private enterprise in internet infrastructure, and a bit more for what they call “net exports” — the Czech Republic, for instance, apparently has a big internet security software sector.
The exports bit helps to explain why Canada’s number is low: a lot of Canadians, for obvious reasons, like to buy things on Amazon and other U.S.-based e-commerce sites. And every time they do, under BCG’s methodology, the Canadian internet economy is decreased by that amount. (It’s an export of the U.S., and an import of Canada, and the calculations add up net, rather than gross, exports.) As a result, it’s theoretically possible, in BCG World, for the internet to account for a negative proportion of GDP, in some countries.
But more generally, it seems to me that BCG’s not really measuring the internet here — it’s not measuring the hours spent watching YouTube, or interacting with friends on Facebook and Tumblr, or spreading news on Twitter, or even checking your stock portfolio or updating your billing information somewhere. It’s measuring e-commerce, primarily, which is an interesting subset of the internet, and one of the oldest, but ultimately just a fraction of what it can be.
And when you’re measuring e-commerce, you’re measuring lots of things which aren’t really internet-related at all. For instance, e-commerce is naturally going to be more common in countries with a reliable postal service; in countries where gasoline prices are very high (because the cost of gasoline is a hidden tax on shopping in real life); and in countries where the cost of retail property is very high. The UK, of course, scores very highly on all those counts, while the U.S. doesn’t. But what those things say about the internet’s contribution to the economy as a whole is, I think, limited.
On May 17, if Alexia Tsotsis is to be believed, Facebook is going to go public, and might well find itself with a $100 billion valuation. Almost none of that valuation can be seen in the kind of things that BCG is measuring. So let’s not get too carried away with the idea that it’s easy to quantify the degree to which countries are diverging in terms of digital uptake. It isn’t. And the BCG methodology really isn’t a step in that direction.