Q&A: Australia's 'Luddite' IT minister

IT minister Richard Alston, best known for Australia's Internet censorship law, strikes back at critics who call him 'the world's biggest Luddite'
Written by Cass Warneminde on

In this exclusive interview, ZDNet Australia spoke with Australia's controversial minister for IT and telecommunications, Richard Alston, who has been criticised in the high-tech industry for his policies on Internet regulation, junk email and other issues.

Civil liberties advocates such as Electronic Frontiers Australia have particularly criticised a law designed to regulate Internet content, which led to the American Civil Liberties Union referring to Australia as a "global village idiot". Darce Cassidy of Electronic Frontiers called the law "the digital equivalent of book burning". In this talk, Alston gives his views on content regulation, broadband, spam and whether someone referred to by critics as "the world's biggest Luddite" is the man for the job.

ZDNet: Do you regret making the comments that broadband in Korea is being driven primarily by demand for porn and games?

Alston: I said that was a number of reasons given to me by senior players here and there. I'm not expressing any personal judgement, I'm just reporting what people say to me. These were not the drunks on the street corner, these were people who have a sophisticated understanding of what's going on.

There are a range of other factors. It's a very densely populated country. More than half the population lives in Seoul, more than half the population of Seoul lives in highrise buildings, cyber apartments are very easy to wire up, they don't rely much on the English language so they don't have trans-Pacific costs of accessing US databases. I think it is probably true to say... that if you've been to Korea a few times, there isn't a great deal to do and a lot of kids do come home early and a lot of parents do encourage their kids to get onto broadband services. Given the government has always seen it as an industry strategy, there's been a fair bit of subsidisation in terms of cost. I think because ISDN prices were high, it made it attractive to go to the next stage to ADSL. You put all those things together and Korea is different from anywhere else.

Have you been unfairly targeted because of those comments?

It's the same sort of response we got to Internet content regulation. There was a time when Electronic Frontiers were running around lampooning all that we ever tried to do. I think the Council of Civil Liberties in the US came out and said we were village idiots. The fact is our Internet content model is now regarded as one of the best. In fact, it was held up at a conference in Asia last year as an example of how governments can get the balance right. The simplistic notion that because you can't achieve 100 percent success in closing off any particular Internet site is a reason for not doing anything is not an acceptable explanation and I think everyone does expect us to do everything we can to control paedophile lists and bomb recipes and the like and most of the take down notices that have been issued have been of paedophile lists.

I understand that the Government will soon announce some anti cyber-terrorism measures. Can you elaborate on what these measures will include?

No I can't.

Do you believe Australia's IT infrastructure is at risk?

Well that's an absolute question. I suppose all you can do is try to minimise risk but you can't guarantee that people are immune.

Do you believe Australia is a target of cyber-terrorists?

Is our infrastructure a target more than anyone else? Every country around the world could probably ask itself the same question. In theory, I suppose everyone should assume that they might be and then do whatever they can to mimimise the risk. But certainly, the conventional wisdom that 80 percent of hackers were internal is now overwhelmed by the possibility of terrorists deliberately targeting whole networks, and that certainly raises the stakes dramatically for government.

Has the government identified any specific threats in this regard?

I can't give you an answer to that. I don't know. Certainly, I haven't been told anything.

Would the threats likely be internal or external?

Its sort of Boy Scout stuff isn't it, you know 'be prepared'. You should assume the worst, so you should be prepared for both. I mean, I am not aware that anyone in particular is targeting us, but as we know, these cells of terrorists are pretty diffusive and by definition aren't coordinated or orchestrated out of one location, so you don't know. It's very difficult to identify where the threat might emerge. It might be just one social isolate with terrorist inclinations or it might be a whole campaign.

In the last Federal Budget, there was almost 25m Australian dollars earmarked for IT infrastructure security. What sorts of policy initiatives can we expect to see as a result of that money? Where is that money going to go?

I don't know if I can really tell you that. In many ways, it's not probably something that you'd want to canvas publicly anyway.

Just as it has banned Australian-hosted pornographic content on the Internet, would the Government consider extending the ban to religious extremist groups' Web sites or known terrorist Web sites?

Well the current regime caters for the possibility of these things being regarded as highly offensive, I mean if they're criminal then they qualify automatically -- it's really then a complaints-driven regime. If someone wants to say that a particular Web site is offensive or illegal, they bring it to the attention of the ABA and things start to happen. I think we'd be reluctant to go down the path of trying to introduce some specific regime for racial intolerance, simply because things vary so much depending on the individual content.

Have you identified any sites or have you received any complaints about particular sites?

They don't complain to me, they complain to the ABA (Australian Broadcasting Authority).

Are you aware then, of any complaints being made to the ABA?

I haven't read of any.

ZDNet Australia has found one site linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, for instance, which is even asking for donations. Is that the sort of site which could be on the Government's hit list?

If it is now a proscribed organisation then it is presumably illegal to contribute funds, so that's a criminal offence then it would qualify under the existing proposal.

Do you consider the Government's content regulation legislation a success?

I don't think anyone ever pretended that you were going to achieve perfection, any more than a law banning murder means there are no more murders being committed. But if the principal purpose it to try and make the mainstream a bit safer, well I think it does achieve that. I mean, it gives people a degree of comfort but does that mean that smart young kids can't get around it? No. But is that an argument for doing nothing? No. So, given that, you are trying to achieve a balance without interrupting the flow of the Internet.

How would you respond to critics who contend that the legislation is holding the Australian IT industry back by putting us on level terms with heavily-censored countries like China?

Well, put it this way: No IT company or senior executive has ever raised that issue. The only people that ever raise it are journalists. I remember being in Silicon Valley when a journalist asked me that at a big forum. There were plenty of IT companies around and they all sort of looked at me and said, 'don't tell me they're running that stuff'. All that tells you is that it's an interesting issue to run hypothetically but it doesn't make the slightest difference to the industry -- they are not interested in being associated with a porn business or the paedophile networks or anything else.

If it's not slowing the Web down, then they don't have a problem. If you asked any of them, they would probably be very supportive for social policy reasons. I think it's just one of those issues that people have fun with in the media. You get a Libertarian group that says 'you just don't get it'. What we've been saying over the last five years is that most other countries have pretty much the same view as we do.

What about spam? Are there any plans to legislate against that?

Apart from people wringing their hands about the issue, I don't recall offhand any specific proposals that people are saying we could easily implement that will dramatically reduce the problem.

What's standing in the way of a government-led solution to the spam problem facing Australian businesses and individuals?

It is incredibly cheap for someone to disseminate spam to thousands of recipients who don't want it. It's cost-free and that's always a problem. If there's a pain threshold it's much easier. Someone did come to see me -- Sean Howard, who used to be at OzEmail -- he had some simple spam solution. It looks as though it's going to involve the market which is probably the way it ought to be.

Do you view spam as a serious problem that requires Government intervention?

If it's interfering with the critical infrastructure I suppose yes, but if it's interfering with normal commerce -- well, you do what you can. But you don't want draconian solutions that are worse than the problem. It's a nuisance at the moment but if it started to clog up the system then we might have a very different view.

Some commentators suggest that you are looking after the IT ministry under protest. Are you happy in the IT portfolio?

Is that right? I haven't heard that. I think it's a natural fit with Communications, so I think it was a very good move that we made. I certainly would resist the proposition that it could be 'hived off'. In some ways it fits within a broader innovation portfolio but at the end of the day, you can't bring everything under one mega-portfolio. To me it's one of the more interesting aspects, particularly since the telco and dot-com crash. Trying to get the IT sector moving in various ways I think is a very exciting challenge.

Will you be satisfied in this portfolio for the duration of the Coalition's stay in power?

Ultimately it's not my call. As far as I'm concerned it's a great space to play in and I'm more than happy to keep doing this work.

Many people in this industry would like to have an ex-IT Minister installed as the Prime Minister. Do you have designs on the top job?

[Laughs] I did read that the ACS (Australian Computer Society) is promoting the fact that not every Cabinet Minister was a wild enthusiast for IT. The fact is, everyone would like to think they're at the centre of the universe in policy terms. If issues arise and you can win through on them, then it doesn't really matter in a sense if your colleagues don't have the same level of enthusiasm.

You've personally attracted quite a bit of criticism throughout your tenure in the IT portfolio, with some suggesting that you don't truly understand technology and the benefits it can provide to business and individuals. What is your response to those critics?

It's very hard to respond to general statements. If anyone can point to specific areas of policy where it can be demonstrated there is a better approach, we'd be more than happy to follow it.

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