Beyond Conroy: Australia's future internet politics

Whether it's the Coalition's Malcolm Turnbull or Labor's candidate, any future communications minister faces the same long-term issues — and geek lobbyists must learn to deploy better skills.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor on

Senator Stephen Conroy resigned this week as Australia's broadband and communications minister, leaving behind a considerable legacy, ranging from the still-under-construction National Broadband Network (NBN) to a total review of content classification and censorship laws. Despite his often abrasive style and rough relationship with the media — myself included — and despite the daft cybersafety help button and failing to pass his media regulation package, Conroy did more to change Australia's communications landscape than any recent predecessor. History will remember him.

But what of the future?

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced today that his new ministry will be sworn in on Monday. But there will be an election soon enough, and the [cough] wisdom of the Canberra Press Gallery says that the Coalition will win and, therefore, Malcolm Turnbull will become minister.

Whoever wins, they'll need to address the same issues over the next three years — data retention, the NBN, censorship, copyright, and privacy, amongst others — and those on the geekier end of the spectrum will need to develop far better lobbying skills than they've shown until now.

What's needed is better knowledge, better messaging, and more sophistication.

Data retention is the biggest issue on the table. The politics is complex and, as recent revelations about the US National Security Agency (NSA) and PRISM have shown, the stakes are high. These issues sit at the very core of the power relationship between governments and their citizens as we wriggle further into our digital future.

As ZDNet's Josh Taylor wrote on Wednesday, data retention always comes back — not just because police and spooks always want an easier run in their investigations, but because it's part of a grand global strategy.

The attorneys-general of the Five Eyes nations — the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — agreed at a meeting in Sydney two years ago that countering "cyberthreats" was a key focus. Their agreed strategy was that the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime will be further entrenched as the key international legal instrument in this fight. Data retention is at the core of that treaty.

They also agreed that telecommunications interception laws must "keep pace" with new technology — a wonderful piece of spin designed to ensure that anyone not agreeing with their proposals is seen as allowing us to "fall behind", all presented without any quantitative evidence to honestly tell citizens how this digital arms race is progressing.

Now any data retention laws will be negotiated by the attorney-general, not the communications minister. But when it comes to treating the internet and telco networks as channels for trustworthy private communication and secure venues for global commerce, rather than as instruments for surveillance and law enforcement, the comms minister must be our voice in Cabinet. It'll be their job to help us deal with the attorney-general's ignorance and his department's attitude problems, including the lack of transparency.

Providing we turn the new minister into an ally, that is. In countering the cyber ignorance that still runs inexcusably deep through our political classes in 2013, we need to avoid having an attitude problem ourselves.

Unfortunately, during Conroy's six years as minister, most of his geek opponents did little more than shout about how stupid he was. Having met with Conroy a number of times, both on and off record, I can assure you that he has a firmer grasp on the issues than his recent predecessors, and he is anything but stupid.

Indeed, the stupidity on display was mostly by Conroy's opponents.

The fight against the government's mandatory internet censorship proposals, for example, was portrayed as being against "Conroy's filter", even though it was part of Labor's official party platform, and Conroy was just doing his job as minister to enact that policy.

There was scant recognition that Conroy continually tweaked the policy to address criticisms, and eventually heeded calls for a review of classification laws. Instead, each change became a stick of inconsistency to hit Conroy with.

Even the popular Twitter hashtag #nocleanfeed missed the point, reminding people every time it was used that Conroy was proposing something clean, wholesome, and good, rather than the dirty, dirty "right to pornography". That's clearly no way to win hearts and minds amongst socially conservative voters who are worried for their children's sakes.

Might I suggest George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate? There's a free summary available (PDF).

Similar stupidity brought us the hashtag #fraudband for the Coalition's broadband policy, and much shouting that fibre to the premises (FttP) has more future potential than the various technologies for squeezing more speed out of copper networks. But that completely misses the Coalition's policy points, which are about getting at least some speed improvement more quickly to those in need.

Discussions about copyright law need to avoid hallucinations about self-entitled "rights" to convenience and timeliness in the distribution of popular movies and TV programs.

And the less said about the attention-seeking acts of vandalism done by people donning the Anonymous mask, the better — except to say that Australia still has a working democracy, and working processes for influencing the government. Over at Crikey, my colleague Bernard Keane has explained how Australia's data retention proposals were stymied. Anonymous does not figure prominently.

Right now, Australia sits at the cyber crossroads on so many digital policy matters. Labor's leadership change gives the party an opportunity for policy change, and the Coalition has yet to announce its policies in detail. Over the coming weeks, there'll be a lot to critique. But as economist Umair Haque tweeted yesterday on a probably unrelated matter, "Everyone seems to think they're a critic. Without the hard work of critical thinking. They're not critics; just shouting spectators."

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