Public Policy and the NBN

Final Thoughts about the Broadband Future Event


The orientation of this event seemed about right to me.  Ministerial commitment, some razzamatazz, some background on the NBN Co, many different kinds of participants, and good, old-fashioned business networking.

But the public policy aspects attracted limited attention at the event.  They demand more air-time, and much more depth, and that requires direct involvement and leadership from advocacy organisations.  And if the NBN is going to deliver as quickly as the Minister and the Tasmanian Premier believe, then constructive debate is going be needed very soon.

In case 'public policy aspects' is too vague, here are some tasters.

Access and Equity

These issues are as relevant to Digital Ed as they are to eCommunities.

Consumer Protection

This applies to B2C eBusiness, and to eHealth, and to Digital Ed, and to some forms of Smart Infrastructure such as Smart Grids.  The consumer voice was muted at this event.


There was frequently a very large elephant in the room in the form of copyright legislation that's become completely lop-sided in favour of copyright-owners, and is completely at odds with the modern world that every session was enthusing about.
Quite simply, we have to get the responsibility for the Copyright Act transferred to an agency that understands the digital age.  But no-one talked about that.

The Rabbit-Proof Fence

There's very wide support for this Government's re-discovery that infrastructure development is a government responsibility.  But that brings with it a substantial risk to democracy.  The Chinese government is building censorship into its backbone routers, to deliver the Great Chinese Firewall.  We need to make sure that the emergent NBN design doesn't facilitate censorship through our own form of Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Unhealthy Initiatives

The eHealth agenda, as being driven by NEHTA, is based on a central planning model.  It assumes that new services are dependent on the creation of a virtual national database, and a national id scheme.

The scale and complexity of the health care sector are such that the current approach is destined to fail, wasting many more millions of dollars, and a lot of time.  The focus needs to be switched back to what HealthConnect failed to do, and NEHTA is doing far too little about - standards and protocols to enable inter-operability among federations among islands, in a controlled manner, without the destruction of patient trust that centralisation entails.

Consent mechanisms, authentication and authorisation, pseudonyms and anonymisation are sadly lacking.  People won't trust, and shouldn't trust, the 'grand scheme' architecture that NEHTA is trying to foist on the industry.

Digital Ed

Bureaucracies around the country are looking to impose on students a kindie-onwards identifier and a State-maintained record.  And their motivation isn't to facilitate learning, but to deliver statistics for program evaluations.

Ed institutions, meanwhile, are worried about 'stranger danger', and complaints about student access to 'inappropriate' materials.  So they're interposing censorship and tight surveillance into the layers between students and the open Internet.

It would be a crying shame to see students blocked from the world they're supposed to be learning about.  Fortunately, students' ability will continue to run ahead of their teachers and the bureaucrats.  And students will vote with their fingers (ambiguity intended), and will work around the censorship and subvert the surveillance.

We're at dire risk of letting the old generation think it can impose its values and conservatisms on the new generation that lives in the eWorld.  We need to talk about the conflicts between child safety and real learning, and how we can negotiate (and continually re-negotiate) appropriate balances.


As infrastructure design emerges, and new applications are conceived, there will be many new privacy challenges, and many longstanding privacy problems will be exacerbated.  

Smart grid involves a whole new category of sensitive personal data that smart grid designers seem to think can be automatically collected, stored, used and disclosed. Smart gridders need to work out how to embed privacy smarts inside their designs.

Advertising-based eBusiness currently means Google, because right now they're so far ahead that it's effectively a monopoly.  Google is consolidating a vast amount of data about every consumer.  They breach the privacy expectations of local consumers by storing data and running services in jurisdictions that are friendly to business rather than consumers.  Is that what we want for Australia?

eCommunity, in both its for-profit and not-for-profit forms, handles sensitive content.  And it invites participants to expose data about themselves and one another, in ways that someone, sometime, is going to regret.  Are we ready to put frameworks in place to guide users, and guide the designers of services, away from the pioneers' excesses and towards more mature behaviours?

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