End the Dotcom sideshow

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 19 October 2012

The story has been going on for so long that it is hard to imagine daily news without Kim Dotcom. Ever since the controversial internet entrepreneur’s arrest on his Auckland estate, which is as oversized as his personality, the Dotcom saga has fluctuated between spy story, political scandal, and soap opera.

So why does this bizarre Dotcom circus irritate me so much? Maybe it’s the fear that my compatriot Dotcom, né Schmitz, may shape the way New Zealanders think of us Germans. At least he is not called Dotde, let alone Dotcodotnz.

What really frustrates me, however, is something completely different. By following the exciting life of the world’s best-known (alleged) cyber villain, we are missing out on what really matters for the future of this country.

On Wednesday, I gave a speech to the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand in which I outlined some of the challenges facing the New Zealand economy in a changing world. Due to its size and its geography, there is a vast difference between New Zealand and other developed economies.

Other countries may get away with bad policy settings for longer because of the size and depth of their capital markets, because their currencies enjoy reserve status, or because they are conveniently geographically positioned.

New Zealand has no such luxuries. While small and flexible enough to make our own decisions about our economic direction, we have no safety net if things go wrong. And we are so small and remote that potential trade partners have no absolute need to do business with us.

This means that instead of waiting for the world to discover New Zealand, we have to embrace the world. In addition, to make the world interested in us we have to be exceptionally good at what we do.

But are we doing this? Are we inviting the world to engage with us? And do we offer exceptionally good prospects to potential international partners? As it stands, question marks are appropriate.

These are the issues that New Zealanders concerned with the future of their country should be discussing. Sideshows like the Dotcom saga only detract us from thinking hard about the things that matter.

No doubt Herr Dotcom has real entertainment value, and his case confounds the view that there’s nothing comical about us Germans. But New Zealand would be better off dedicating its attention to real policy issues and sending Dotcom back into cyberspace.