Labor to push blockchain in government despite DTA reservations

The DTA considers it over-hyped, but Data61 is bullish on the long-term application of blockchain and Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy Ed Husic agrees.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Despite the federal government's official opinion on blockchain being that the technology requires more work before it should be adopted, Shadow Minister for Human Services and the Digital Economy Ed Husic is an advocate for its potential, and is disappointed in the position Canberra has taken.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) -- the organisation Husic is set to assume if Labor wins the next election -- was given AU$700,000 to investigate blockchain as part of the 2018-19 Budget. In October, DTA chief digital officer Peter Alexander provided an update on the Commonwealth entity's probe, saying that "for every use of blockchain you would consider today, there is a better technology -- alternate databases, secure connections, standardised API engagement".

"It is the DTA's current position that blockchain is an emerging technology worthy of ongoing observation. However, without standardisation and additional work, for many uses of blockchain, there are currently other mature technologies that may be more suitable for immediate use," DTA published as its official position a few months later.

Also: The blockchain explained for non-engineers  

Facing Senate Estimates on Monday night, acting as CEO, Alexander compared the use of blockchain with deciding what format of movie media to use.

"For government to use a technology, pick a winner, maybe the best analogy is we might choose the Betamax version of blockchain and have a number of implementations of that, when other agencies and organisations are using VHS, and then someone else will come along and use DVDs or Bluray, and in the end all we want to do is watch a movie, and we've chosen an implementation which isn't going to interoperate particularly well with others," he said.

Husic told ZDNet on Tuesday that while he advocated for the DTA to probe the technology, and for the agency to be the point of call for government when thinking about its practical applications, the determination it has reached isn't something he agrees with.

"There's this line that's starting to creep out into the public space more and more about is blockchain over-hyped, do we really need it, are there other applications that exist that we can use instead of blockchain? Some of these thoughts are being spruced through government reports as well, without getting partisan, but there has been some reports from people that I would expect better, that have been saying that," Husic said during the launch of a blockchain paper from the Australian Computer Society (ACS).

"As soon as I hear that argument about blockchain and whether or not it's too soon, too early, or there's something else around, we could do something else with existing technology, we won't have to rely on blockchain -- it's sort of like someone saying when the internet was rising, 'Do we really need a webpage? Do we really need this? We can just rely on what we've been doing at the moment ... we don't need to use this technology called the internet and other people will do it first'. Then we saw other people do things first and get the advantage ... and then we had to play catch-up.

"We can't afford to repeat that mistake."

According to Husic, a divide exists between "people in the know" who recognise the merits and application versus people who are "completely distinct, do not think, or have no familiarity with blockchain itself" who he said are in "a position to make decisions about applications and won't because they think there's something else around".

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) Data61 has also been viewing its potential applications for government and private service delivery, and sees it as something the nation could lead the world in the development of.

With work still progressing, Data61 CEO Adrian Turner told ZDNet on Tuesday both he and the organisation are bullish about the future of the technology, and highlighted that research conducted down under is leading the way on a global stage.

"No one believed that people would transact on this thing called the internet that was designed to deal with email -- that was fundamentally a messaging system -- and then, over time, all of the barriers were removed," Turner said.

"I am a believer that as people -- and industrious people -- that we will solve these problems and I think the structural changes are enormous so I'm bullish on blockchain for the long term, but like most technologies, we buy into the dream of what's going to be possible and then we get to the practical and pragmatic realities of implementing, dealing with performance, scalability, limitations, skills, integration with legacy systems -- all of that messiness to make it real."

Must read: Is FOMO making enterprises unnecessarily leap into blockchain?  

Also speaking at the ACS event, Turner had earlier on Tuesday said Data61 was currently grinding through solving such issues, but remained objective about the promise and potential of the technology.

"We've got high-performance compute capabilities, strong cryptography capability, strong protocol development experience -- for example wireless -- we've got all the ingredients to actually smash it globally if we can get focused," he said.


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