With all of the negative press about Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), consumers who have the option to switch to the NBN from a working broadband connection might be forgiven for being cautious. After the NBN is made available in an area, residents have up to 18 months to switch from their current plans to one provided on the NBN. Once it is available in an area however, residents are usually deluged with offers from various internet service providers (ISPs) about switching, making it hard to ignore.
Moving to NBN on HFC
In my area in Western Australia, I have had HFC from Telstra for many years and so changing to the NBN does not involve a change in the underlying technology. Although some researchers have classified HFC as being an inferior technology to Fibre to the Node, it is actually capable of delivering speeds of 100 Mbps down and 40 Mbps up. Within the next one to two years HFC will be capable of 1 Gbps speeds with the roll out of DOCSIS 3.1.
HFC connections may still suffer if ISPs do not adequately provision adequate CVC capacity on the NBN but HFC does not have the same limitations as Fibre to the Node with regard to the distance from the node. There is also a possibility that the NBN will see more homes connected to a node than was the case when Telstra ran the network. This may also impact performance.
In my case, I was consistently getting speeds of 100 Mbps for downloads but only 2 Mbps for uploads. Prior to the NBN, these speeds have been a luxury for those Australian’s who lived in areas that were services by Telstra and Optus with HFC.
Making the switch to the NBN was relatively simple but uncovered some decisions that it is worth spending time considering. If doing a conversion, some of the options aren’t made obvious by the sales team and so need to be explicitly requested.
The question of speed
Once you have decided on an ISP, there is the question of what speed of connection is available at any given residence. HFC doesn’t suffer from a slowdown based on the distance from the “node” and so speeds up to 100 Mbps are available. ISPs like Telstra however, sell plans based on download limits and at the default of 25 Mpbs. Choosing up to 100 Mbps costs another AUD 30 a month.
It seems that for most Australians who have connected to the NBN, the default of 25 Mbps has been the most popular choice, with 53% of fixed connections being at 25 Mbps and a further 29% at the lowest tier of 12 Mbps. For the average family just watching streaming video and using social media and browsing, this is likely to be fine. It has resulted however in the overall average speed of internet connections in Australia remaining low at 10.1 Mbps.
Choice of wireless router
Another choice that doesn’t seem important at the time is the choice of wireless router that ISPs offer. Here again, the default for Telstra is a basic Sagemcom F@ST 5535. And it is basic. It doesn’t support the fastest wireless protocols used by recent smartphones and laptops, 802.11ac. The fixed cable connections from the router are also not the fastest kind. Not having the fastest wireless can make a significant difference to the overall speed of the internet connection of devices and so it is always worth upgrading.
Some of the routers also have the ability to fail over to using 4G if the NBN connection is not available for any reason. This may be important because on the NBN, the landline phone is switched over to using the main internet connection using Voice over IP (VoIP) and not the physical connection over the old copper network. However, if the power goes out, the phone will also be unavailable even by this route.
Other than for the phone connection, any wireless router can be connected to the NBN modem. The Telstra router can then be simply used for the phone connection and its WiFi switched off.
Making the switch
For me, and I stress the personal nature of this, the switch was fast, efficient and painless. From contacting Telstra, the wireless router was shipped within 4 days and the appointment with the NBN technician booked for a week after the order was placed. Any interaction with the Telstra NBN connection staff involved little wait times and the only negatives were some confusing emails and an order status that said the order was delayed when it wasn’t.
The NBN technician arrived and didn’t need to switch the physical box attached to the wall outside the house. It was just a question of plugging in the modem, making sure it worked, and telling NBN and Telstra to switch it all on. The technician gave me advice of avoiding being disconnected when making the switch over from the old system to the new and then left, although I had been barraging him with questions about how the rollout was going.
Getting connected was just a question of connecting the wireless router to the NBN modem, switching it on and connecting to the wireless network. As I mentioned above, I use Apple wireless routers and so altered the configuration after things were connected.
And the results?
The download speed dropped from the Telstra non-NBN connection. During the morning, I got about 94 Mbps download. The massive difference was in the upload speed which is now about 38 Mbps. This is a huge bonus over the existing connection which gave 2 Mbps. Upload speeds are never really thought about as a problem until you realise that synchronising with services like iCloud, Google Drive and DropBox all become significantly faster with the NBN connection.
However, in the evening, the speed dropped to between 50 – 70 Mbps download and 23 – 35 Mbps upload. This was something that didn’t happen on the Telstra non-NBN connection which was consistent even in the evenings.
It is still early days and as more people connect in my immediate area, bandwidth may be further affected. Telstra may also ramp up the capacity so that there are not these changes in speed based on the time of day.
Update from NBN Co
In response to the article, a spokesperson from NBN Co clarified the following points:
 With regard to the number of HFC connections per node:
“At present Telstra runs around 1000 premises on an HFC node sharing 1Gbps of capacity. On the nbn we will have only 650 premises per Node and once we reach full DOCSIS 3.1 we will have 10Gbps of capacity available”
 Regarding the speed drop I had experienced in the evenings:
“Your speed drop in the evening is almost certainly CVC related”
What is this awkwardly named idea? It’s the concept that someone’s experience of the internet in Turkey, for example, is increasingly different from their experience of the internet in Australia.
Travellers to China, in particular, will be familiar with this phenomenon. Thanks to the government’s tight control, they have to use Baidu rather than Google as their search engine, and are unable to access Facebook or news sites like The Economist and the New York Times.
We have a growing splinternet because of regional content blocking and the need for companies to comply with diverse, often conflicting national policies, regulations and court decisions.
This tension is particularly apparent when it comes to the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter. These platform companies have users in almost every country, and governments are increasingly insisting that they comply with local laws and cultural norms when it comes to access and content.
The internet was never truly open
The idea of the internet as an independent, global and unregulated platform has always been something of a fiction. Even at the height of techno-futurist rhetoric about its potential to transcend national boundaries in the late 1990s, there were always exceptions.
The Chinese Communist Party understood from the start that the internet was simply a new form of media, and media control was central to national sovereignty and its authority.
But the splinternet refers to a broader tendency to use laws and regulatory powers within territorial jurisdictions to set limits on digital activities.
A threshold moment was Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013. The documents he shared suggested that the US National Security Agency, through its PRISM program, had been collecting information from global users of Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo.
In countries such Brazil, whose leaders had had their communications intercepted, this accelerated moves towards developing national internet control.
Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet law, for instance, now requires global companies to comply with Brazilian laws around data protection.
Is this a bad thing?
Until now, much of the appeal of the internet has been that it’s driven by user content and preferences, and not by governments.
But people are paying more attention to hate speech, targeted online abuse, extremism, fake news and other toxic aspects of online culture. Women, people of colour and members of certain religions are disproportionately targeted online.
Academics such as Tarleton Gillespie and public figures such as Stephen Fry are part of a growing rejection of the typical response of platform providers: that they are “just technology companies” – intermediaries – and cannot involve themselves in regulating speech.
…there is a great deal of evidence that these platforms are being used to spread hate, abuse and extremism. That trend continues to grow at an alarming rate but it remains unchecked and, even where it is illegal, largely unpoliced.
If we say online hate speech “should be policed”, two obvious questions arise: who would do it and on what grounds?
At present, content on the major platforms is largely managed by the companies themselves. The Guardian’s Facebook Files revealed both the extent and limitations of such moderation.
We may see governments become increasingly willing to step in, further fragmenting the user experience.
Fair play for all
There are other concerns at play in the splinternet. One is the question of equity between technology companies and traditional media.
Brands like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix and Amazon are eclipsing traditional media giants. Yet film, television, newspapers and magazines are still subject to considerably greater levels of country-specific regulation and public scrutiny.
For example, Australian commercial television networks must comply with locally produced material and children’s content regulations. These mostly do not apply to YouTube or Netflix despite audiences and advertisers migrating to these providers.
It is increasingly apparent to media policy makers that existing regulations aren’t meaningful unless they extend into the online space.
In Australia, the 2012 Convergence Review sought to address this. It recommended that media regulations should apply to “Content Service Enterprises” that met a particular size threshold, rather than basing the rules on the platform that carries the content.
Do we want a splinternet?
We may be heading towards a splinternet unless new global rules can be set. They must combine the benefits of openness with the desire to ensure that online platforms operate in the public interest.
Yet if platform providers are forced to navigate a complex network of national laws and regulations, we risk losing the seamless interconnectedness of online communication.
The burden of finding a solution rests not only on governments and regulators, but on the platforms themselves.
Their legitimacy in the eyes of users is tied up with what Bank of England chair Mark Carney has termed for markets is a “social licence to operate”.
Although Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and others operate globally, they need to be aware that the public expects them to be a force for social good locally.
We often think of the internet as a levelling, democratising technology – one that extends access to knowledge, education, cultural resources and markets.
But the net also reflects the social and economic divides we find offline.
Released this week, the second report of the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) reports on data covering four years of local online participation across three dimensions: online access, digital ability and affordability. Together, the three dimensions produce a digital inclusion score.
Since 2014, when data was first collected, Australia’s overall digital inclusion score has improved by 3.8 points, from 52.7 to 56.5. In 2016–2017 alone, Australia’s score rose by 2.0 points, from 54.5 to 56.5.
But there is still a “digital divide” between richer and poorer Australians. In 2017, people in our lowest income households (less than A$35,000 per year) have a digital inclusion score of 41.1, which is 27 points lower than those in the highest income households (above A$150,000) at 68.1.
When the three dimensions are considered separately, the measures of access and digital ability show consistent improvement from 2014 to 2017. However, the affordability measure has registered a decline since the 2014 national baseline (despite a slight bump in the past 12 months).
The cost of being connected
Affordability is a key dimension of digital inclusion.
Internet connectivity is important for accessing a wide range of education, government, health and business services. A decline in internet affordability means Australians on fixed or low incomes risk missing out on the benefits of digital technologies, and falling further behind more connected Australians.
The ADII shows that the cost of data — for both fixed and mobile internet — has declined over 2014-2017. These findings are in line with the ACCC’s ongoing monitoring of prices for telecommunications services, which indicate an average decline in real terms of 3.1% since 2006.
However, when we measure affordability, we are not only looking at the cost of data; we are also interested in what proportion of household income is being dedicated to this service.
The affordability problem with the internet is different from other key household services where there are price pressures, such as electricity and water. The residential consumption of energy has grown very slowly over the last decade, but prices have increased sharply.
With the internet, while we are now getting more data for our dollar, our demand for data has dramatically increased.
A recent report from the Commonwealth Bureau of Communications and Arts Research (BCAR) tracks the affordability of phone and internet use since 2006.
The BCAR report finds that, overall, phone and internet affordability has improved since 2006. However, their data also shows that almost all the gains occurred before 2013, and that, since then, affordability has declined or flat-lined. Further, BCAR’s data suggests that the lowest income households in Australia are now spending almost 10% of their incomes on internet and communications services. In contrast, middle income households are spending around 4% of their disposable income on these services, and for wealthier households, the figure is less than 2%.
Increasing reliance on mobile
Some recent and far-reaching changes in our use of technology are evident here: the extent to which the internet has become an integral part of everyday life, the fact that we are spending more time online, and we are doing an increasing range of activities online. In many households, we are also connecting with more devices.
However, the problem of affordability also reflects another recent development that the ADII highlights: one-in-five Australians now only accesses the internet through a mobile device — and we know that mobile data is considerably more expensive than fixed broadband on a per gigabyte basis.
Mobile-only use is correlated with a range of socioeconomic factors. The ADII data shows that people in low income households, those who are not employed, and those with low levels of education, are all more likely to be mobile-only.
Despite the benefits of mobile internet, this group is characterised by a relatively high degree of digital exclusion. In 2017, mobile-only users have an overall ADII score of 42.3, 14.2 points below the national average (56.5).
Digital inclusion is unequal
In the 2017 report, the ACT, followed by Victoria and New South Wales, are the highest scoring states in the overall digital inclusion score, as they were in 2016. Tasmania remains the lowest scoring, followed by South Australia.
The lowest scoring socio-demographic groups in 2017 were households earning less than A$35,000 per year (overall score of 41.1), Australians aged over 65 (overall score of 42.9) and those with a disability (overall score of 47.0).
The ADII uses data derived from Roy Morgan Research’s ongoing, weekly Single Source survey of 50,000 Australians. These are extensive, face-to-face interviews, dealing with information and technology, internet services, attitudes, and demographics.
Calculations for the ADII are based on a sub-sample of 16,000 responses in each 12 month period. The index is a score out of 100: the higher the overall score, the higher the level of digital inclusion. An ADII score of 100 represents a hypothetically perfect level of access, affordability, and digital ability. A score of 65 or over is regarded as high; one below 45 as low.
A focus on improvement
An increasing number of Australians are online, but although the costs of data and devices are falling, there is a risk that issues of affordability will leave some of our most vulnerable behind.
Australians with low levels of income, education and employment are consistently less connected than the rest of the population, with consequences that will become increasingly serious as the digital transformation of government and the economy proceeds.
As an increasing number of essential services and communications move online, the challenge to make the Australian internet more inclusive is becoming more urgent. Affordability is a key area for attention, but so is improving Australians’ digital ability.
The issue of affordability suggests a range of possible areas for useful policy intervention. If we think it important to subsidise essential utilities such as electricity for low-income Australians, we may need to consider whether an allowance for internet access for essential services might also be necessary.
For the large number of lower-income Australians who rely entirely on mobile devices for internet connections, we will also need to consider new ways to support digital inclusion. These could include unmetered access to essential health and social services, and the further development of secure, public access wi-fi.
But how do you know if you’re getting a good deal when you connect to the NBN? How do you know if you’ll be getting the high-speed connection you were promised?
NBN Co is building the infrastructure, with 5.7 million premises now able to connect to the network via fibre, hybrid cable, wireless or satellite. To make that connection though, you have to deal with one of almost 150 listed ISPs.
Customers are ‘confused’
The ACCC’s chairman Rod Sims says we should expect a healthy and competitive sector. But he also says many consumers are “confused about broadband speed advertising” and the industry has been “inconsistent in making clear, accurate information available”.
The Australian market is different to that in the United Kingdom, where the regulator Ofcom actively provides accurate information to consumers to enable a comparison of services.
Australia takes a different approach, relying on protections available via consumer law, and encouraging industry self-regulation to provide the right information to the consumer.
The experience you get really depends on a range of factors relating to transmission quality, reflected as speed of connectivity and latency (delays) in exchanging information across the internet. Key factors include:
how you connect to the internet router in your house (such as by Wi-Fi or ethernet)
the transmission quality from home to the Point of Interconnect (where the ISP’s network connects to the NBN)
transmission quality within the ISP network
transmission quality of the content delivery network.
Measuring the speed of your internet connection
A basic speed test of any internet connection is a measure of the time it takes to transfer a fixed file from a server. The result is usually given in Mbps (Megabits per second).
Many ISPs, such as Telstra, Optus and iiNet, currently provide internet speed tests for their customers.
But speeds measured this way tend to reflect the connectivity from the ISP to the consumer. The speeds you experience in general use can be significantly lower than the “peak” speed advertised by the service provider.
To get a better idea of the real speed of your internet connection you should use another speed testing service, in addition to the one recommended by your ISP.
You should also repeat this measurement at various times of the day and keep detailed notes of any results. Some typical speed tests are:
Currently most ISPs offer a higher speed for downloading and lower speed for uploading. As many users often download the same content, the network can be optimised to take advantage of this and offer higher speeds.
But users also upload unique content, such as photos to social media accounts or files to cloud storage. This does not have the advantage of scale and thus speed of access could be lower.
As cloud-based storage and content-delivery networks – such as Netflix, Foxtel and others – become more highly trafficked, our requirements are changing. Many users now prioritise more symmetrical internet connectivity, with similar download and upload speeds.
How fast should the internet be in Australia?
In Australia, premises with fibre connections to the NBN can theoretically get a peak rate of 100Mbps. In fact, in Australia there are 5 tiers of NBN connections, varying between Tier 1 (12Mbps download/1Mbps upload) to Tier 5 (100Mbps download/40Mbps upload).
But the measured speeds can often be slower than promised by your provider.
There are various reasons for this. It could be that there is a problem between the premises and the NBN network, or there could be delays or oversubscription within the ISP network.
There can be congestion and delays in national and international networks due to inadequate investment by various stakeholders to keep the capacity of the network in scale with the increasing number of customers.
Your experience can also vary across the day and from one service to another. As the number of users varies quite markedly over 24 hours, the state of the network (NBN, ISP network, Content Delivery Network) can change with various levels of congestion.
This leads to different speeds of connectivity at different times when accessing different types of services. For example, web access might be slower given the location of a server, compared with an internet video streaming service that might be optimised to deliver the most popular content within the region.
While many internet service providers advertise a typical speed, in Australia there is no expectation that they should indicate the variability (the range of minimum and maximum speeds).
When so slow is too slow
If you think your NBN connection is too slow and not what you were promised, you should raise the problem with your ISP. If they fail to resolve the issue you should report it to the ACCC.
Australia could have anticipated these speed issues and established a broadband performance reporting framework as part of access to the NBN infrastructure by providers.
The Australian Communications Consumers Action Network (ACCAN) has been crying out for a scheme to monitor the performance of ISPs.
But this hasn’t happened yet. So for now it’s left to you as a consumer to monitor your NBN connection speeds, and report any ongoing problems to the ACCC which hopes to start publishing speed and performance data later this year.
Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumers Commission (ACCC), has signalled that the regulator is going to take a tougher stance against internet service providers like Telstra, Optus and Vocus about misleading consumers about NBN broadband speeds.
In particular, Sims has said that Telstra’s continued use of terms like “Very Fast” and “Super Fast” to describe theoretical, but often unobtainable, broadband speeds needs to stop.
The ACCC has indicated that it is likely to bring court cases before the end of the year if these practices don’t end.
In a speech at the Unwired Revolution Conference, the ACCC talked of the findings of a Australian communications sector review.
In particular, Sims drew attention to the fact that the Australian public were opting for slower speeds on the NBN mainly because ISPs were unwilling to sell faster speeds due to the high costs of the connections (CVC) provided by NBN Co.
The pricing of wholesale connections provided by NBN Co are set in order for them to recoup money that has been invested, in large part by the Australian federal government, and so unless NBN Co is directed to do this differently by the government, the situation is unlikely to change.
Part of the problem is the lack of transparency. Many properties that are being supplied with a Fibre to the Node (FTTN) connection may never be able to get the fastest connection plan of 100 Mbps because they are too far from the node. As the chart below shows, speeds of 100 Mbps can only be achieved if the house is within 500 meters of the node.
A map of properties in Australia highlights that two houses on opposite sides of a road can have very different maximum speeds because of the nodes they are connected to. Telstra has previously admitted that some customers were sold plans for speeds they would never be able to attain at their premises.
In addition to this, there are the number of connections to that node and in particular, the capacity of the ISP to handle peak demand by having spare CVC capacity. There are also other factors that would affect a property’s connection, including the state of the copper wiring between the node and the house.
What the ACCC wants ISPs to do is to tell customers not only what the theoretical maximum speed may be for their property using a given technology, but also what the speeds may drop to during peak demand.
NBN Co has this data and could make it public, but it won’t because it claims that it is the responsibility of the ISPs to tell their own customers. Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland has filed a freedom of information request for the NBN data of theoretical speeds for each property.
The ACCC is recruiting volunteers to install special hardware and software to monitor speeds and the quality of internet connections in their homes.
The results of a pilot trial reported in 2015 showed that the problems with peak demand and variability of internet speeds existed on pre-NBN internet services like Telstra’s HFC cable service. As the figure below highlights, even fibre to the premises (FTTP) connections from one provider varied dramatically, dropping significantly every evening.
While the data that the ACCC is collecting will be useful and will ultimately assist in highlighting ISPs that are not providing promised services, it would be far better if NBN Co provided this data publicly in the first place.
If the politics and economics of the NBN mean that consumers are going to mostly stick to slower speed plans, many of the proposed economic and social outcomes that were originally envisioned will not be realised.
While it may represent a slightly better situation for some people who currently have a poor connection via ADSL, it is hard to justify the AUD$20.3 billion that has been invested by the Australian government in the network so far.
The importance of understanding how routers work and how to protect them from malicious attacks was highlighted by WikiLeaks’s recent revelations about the existence of an alleged CIA hacking tool, code named “CherryBlossom”. This tool can apparently hack routers, allowing the perpetrator to monitor traffic and perform software exploits on victims.
The average person is unlikely to be targeted by this level of attack. But if you’re going to have a router at home, it’s important to understand exactly how it works.
How does a router work?
A router is like a post office for the internet: it acts as a dispatcher, choosing the fastest and most effective delivery paths.
Let’s assume you have a smartphone at home that’s connected to your router and through that, the internet. You’re keen to find a song to listen to. Here’s how it works:
Your smartphone takes your song request, and converts it into a radio signal using the specification (it’s called a 802.11 Protocol) that controls how your Wi-Fi works
This information is sent to the router, including your smartphone’s Internet Protocol address (essentially, its internet street address) and the track you requested
This is where the Domain Name Server (DNS) comes into play. The main purpose of this platform is to take a text based address (let’s say, http://www.spotify.com) and convert it into a numeric Internet Protocol address
The router will then send off the request information to your internet provider, through their proxy and then on to Spotify.com
Along this journey from your home to your internet provider to Spotify.com, your request information will “hop” along different routers. Each router will look at where the the requested information has to reach and determine the fastest pathway
After going through a range of routers, an agreed connection between your home internet, your iPhone and Spotify will be established. As you can see in the image below, I have used a trace route service from Australian-based company Telstra to Spotify showing 16 routers along the journey
Then data will begin to travel between the two devices and you’ll hear the requested song playing through your smartphone.
Explaining the back of your router
Even if you now understand how your router works, the machine itself is covered in mysterious ports and jargon. Here are some to look out for:
Ethernet ports: these exist to enable hard wired networking to the router itself in cases where a Wi-Fi connection is not possible.
SSID: this refers to “Service Set Identifier”, and is an alphanumeric set of characters that act as your Wi-Fi network’s identifier.
Telephone/internet port: this port allows your router to gain a hard wired (RJ-45) connection to the internet, usually through telephone lines.
WPS: this stands for “Wi-Fi Protected Setup”. It allows users faster and easier access to Wi-Fi, because they will not have to enter in the passkey once pushed.
LAN: a “Local Area Network” refers to a grouping of computers and devices being networked together, typically with cables and routers in a singular space – often a university, small company or even just at home.
WAN: when we take a series of geographically distributed LANs and connect them together with routers, this is what we call a “Wide Area Network”. This is useful for larger companies that want to connect all their office locations together.
WLAN: closely related to a LAN, “Wireless Local Area Networks” are LANs whereby users who are on mobile devices can connect through a Wi-Fi connection, allowing complete mobility and thus reducing the need for any cables.
Cyber safety with routers
It’s important to protect your router and Wi-Fi network from being compromised.
Change your router’s administrator password and make it strong
change the identifying SSID name so it doesn’t give away any details about the model of your router or who owns it
ensure encryption is turned on in the router settings: this will ensure the traffic travelling over your network is unreadable
change the passkey you enter in when connecting to Wi-Fi
ensure your router’s firmware – the software that’s hard coded into your router – is up to date.
Routers ensure your home and internet service provider can stay connected. Look after your router, and it will (hopefully) look after you.
Self-help book and works of popular psychology often instruct us in the art of apologising. Their advice is reflected, in turn, in much online discussion.
Most commonly, we’re advised to give elaborate, self-abasing apologies: apologies that go well beyond acknowledging misjudgement or admitting to wrongdoing. Withvariations, we are told to elaborate in detail just what we did wrong, describe why it was unacceptable, offer nothing in the way of justification or excuse (though sometimes we’re told we can give an explanation without justifying ourselves), and provide explicit assurances that we will never repeat the behaviour. In summary, we’re told to condemn, criticise and abase ourselves, and to ask humbly for forgiveness.
This might be needed for some betrayals of love or friendship. But for most situations it is very bad advice.
In its most serious mode, the social practice of apologising relates to actions that are later regretted, leading to deep feelings of guilt or shame. With the passage of time, or when we’re brought to focus on what we’ve said or done, we sometimes feel terrible about our own conduct.
To save space, I’ll set aside serious failures resulting from, for example, incompetence (much as these might be interesting in their own right). Let’s consider cases of serious wrongdoing. Here, one person has deliberately harmed or deceived another (or others) in a significant way. In the worst cases, the victim might be someone who legitimately expected the wrongdoer’s goodwill, special concern or even love.
In a situation like this, the victim has every reason to feel profoundly betrayed. Since the wrongdoing was deliberate and significant, it revealed something important and unsavoury about the wrongdoer’s character – what she was psychologically capable of – and especially about her attitude to her victim. In acting as she did, she showed an attitude of disrespect or even malice.
If she aims at reconciliation and seeks forgiveness, the wrongdoer will need to demonstrate that she has undergone something of a psychological transformation. She will need to express heartfelt remorse, show a clear understanding of how she betrayed the victim, and offer especially strong and convincing assurances. She will enter the territory of condemning her own moral character – as it was expressed in the past – and claiming to have changed.
Even the most complete and self-abasing apology might not be enough to regain the victim’s trust and good opinion. The wrongdoer has, after all, revealed by her actions that she was psychologically capable of acting with disrespect or worse. Furthermore, claims to have transformed in moral character are inherently difficult to believe. The victim might understandably be unwilling to restore the relationship to anything like what it previously was.
But most cases are nothing like this. Worthwhile thoughts about apologising in cases of serious wrongdoing can be very bad advice for the range of milder situations that we encounter almost every day.
In most situations, any sense of guilt or shame is greatly attenuated, even to the point where it might – quite properly – not be felt at all. Thus, words like “sorry” are uttered more as matter of politeness and social convention than to express heartfelt remorse.
Think of the following sequence of events (which happened to me a few days ago). I’d alighted from an intercity train, late at night, and was walking along a moderately crowded platform when I stopped – fairly suddenly, no doubt – to check out a vending machine. The middle-aged man walking immediately behind brushed my arm as he stepped past, and we automatically turned to each other to say, “Sorry!” We spontaneously nodded and smiled at each other, raising our hands, palms outward, as if to indicate peaceful intent and absence of weapons … and he then walked on while I concluded that I didn’t really want the junk food on offer in the machine. And that was all.
The entire exchange took only a few seconds, and neither of us had to go through any process of abasement or self-criticism. How, exactly, is this different from cases that seem far more serious?
It is different along many dimensions, and what follows is not intended to be complete. First, no one was hurt (even psychologically). At most, both of us were momentarily startled.
Second, it would be beside the point to castigate either of us in any serious way. Perhaps we could both have been a bit more conscious of what was going on around us, but at most we showed the sort of lapse in attention and concentration that happens to human beings all the time. I had not been aware of his presence behind me; he did not expect me to stop. But people frequently bump into each other in crowds, and no one is seriously blamed: it’s a normal part of life. It would, of course, be quite different if somebody recklessly sprinted through a crowd, shoving aside people who were in his way.
Third, the two people concerned had no previous relationship except, I suppose, as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. There was no relationship of special regard and trust to try to restore. In that sense, we were not exactly seeking reconciliation, although a certain smoothing of the situation was called for. I doubt, however, that this point makes much difference. Even if the man who brushed past me had turned out to be an old friend, no elaborate apology would have been needed.
Small everyday incidents such as this can be surprisingly pleasant encounters. As long as both people act in the expected way – immediately signalling goodwill and peaceful intent – these incidents make us feel better about ourselves and tend to strengthen societal bonds. For a brief moment, each person provides the other with reassurance that whatever happened was not a prelude to any malicious or violent – or otherwise unfriendly or anti-social – course of action. Importantly, each conveys that the other deserves consideration and respect.
Notice how, during these quick exchanges, we often smile or laugh; we express some mutual amusement at the little tangles of social life. In part, we laugh at our own fallibility, and we forgive ourselves and each other for it. We acknowledge that our fallibility is part of being human, and that it does not, in itself, merit condemnation.
And yet, we do say “Oh, sorry!” or use similar words. In context, this is not an admission of serious wrongdoing or guilty thoughts. We are not seeking anything as grand as forgiveness. By using such words, however, we offer clarity and reassurance. We express something like the following: “I made a miscalculation (or had a lapse in concentration, or whatever might be the case); please understand that I bear you no ill will or disrespect; you have nothing to fear from me.”
Often, this is what we really want to know from each other, and this message also has the advantage that it is usually a believable one. By contrast, an assurance by a serious wrongdoer that she will never do such a thing again might strain credulity.
Words of apology are, then, often given without accepting any blameworthiness. Since we are human – not infallible or omniscient beings – we make mistakes, get distracted, have lapses in concentration, and so on. Sometimes, indeed, we take actions that prove not to be optimal, even though they were not contraindicated on the information available to us at the time.
If you’re at all like me, you might very often find yourself apologising for things that you don’t feel especially ashamed of or guilty about. You might also receive such apologies from others.
For example, a salesperson might apologise to you if you have to wait for an unusually long time to be served, even if the delay was caused by something obviously beyond her control. The apology does not indicate an admission of wrongdoing, and it is certainly not an assurance that nothing like this will happen again (it might well!). But it offers respect and reassurance to someone who has been inconvenienced, even unavoidably.
I frequently find myself apologising to someone I’m talking to if I’ve miscommunicated what I was trying to say and thus caused confusion (or perhaps even hurt feelings). Alternatively, I might apologise if I realise that I’ve been interpreting my interlocutor wrongly: I’ve grabbed the wrong end of the verbal pineapple and thereby caused confusion. In either case, however, the miscommunication is not a reason to feel any serious guilt or shame.
For example, if I misinterpret somebody’s words the reason might be genuine ambiguity in what he said. Conversely, if someone misunderstands my words, perhaps he was being uncharitable. Alternatively, it might have been genuinely difficult to formulate the idea I was trying to get across – and in the circumstances perhaps I couldn’t have been expected to do any better.
It might nonetheless be reasonable – and it is somewhat conventional – to waive our possible defences once we realise that we’re at cross purposes in a conversation. It isn’t difficult, and it can become almost instinctive, to say things like “Sorry – I’ll rephrase that” or “Oops, sorry – I see what you mean now.”
The truth of it is, we can almost always express ourselves a bit more clearly and listen a bit more astutely. In acknowledging this on any particular occasion, we are not admitting to serious wrongdoing or a nasty attitude. Our mild words of apology can and should reflect this.
Through minor apologies, we reassure the people we’re dealing with that we view them as worthy of respect. We signal that we don’t hold grudges or assign blame over small things that have gone wrong, and that the people we encounter don’t need to worry about how we regard them or what we might do next. All this helps us get along socially, as human beings must.
A flexible practice
The more we think about the practice of apologising, the more we become aware of how varied, complex and flexible it is.
On some occasions, perhaps you should have taken more care, yet you were not outright malicious or even reckless. Perhaps you were tired or stressed or poorly prepared for a task. In these cases, something more than a brief conventional apology might be in order. All the same, mere failure to take adequate care does not indicate anything especially unsavoury about your moral character. It happens from time to time to almost anyone.
If your carelessness has caused significant harm, you might feel urgent concern for those affected and you might owe them some kind of redress. But depending on the circumstances, it might be overkill if an officious interloper demanded that you humble and condemn yourself. If you did any such thing, it would feel and appear insincere.
Irrespective of any advice from pop psychologists, it often makes sense to accompany an apology with an explanation or excuse. Indeed, explanations or excuses can be better than apologies. Allow me to elaborate.
It is often said that “intent is not magic”, and that phrase does have some point when clear-cut harm has been inflicted on somebody identifiable. In more cases than not, however, it is precisely the wrong way to think about human interaction. Often, what hurts us most about someone else’s conduct is the attitude that it seems to reveal. It might seem to show that the person views us with malice or disrespect. If she is someone we care for, that can be emotionally devastating. We might wonder whether our relationship with her was based all along on an illusion.
But much of the sting is removed if she gives an explanation or excuse that shows she does not, after all, harbour malice or disrespect. She might, in fact, utter conventional words of apology, but the important thing is that she reassure us in some convincing way about how she feels. The point of good explanations is that they really do explain; the point of good excuses is that they really do excuse.
In some cases, we can even apologise for actions that were not our own. For example, you might apologise (as you try to shuffle him out of a party) for the boorish and embarrassing conduct of a friend who has had too much to drink. Similarly, a media organisation might apologise for a defamatory or outrageous remark made by a guest.
Likewise, the leader of a country might apologise formally for something done by her country, even if it happened a long time ago before she was born. This is a fairly well understood public act with a potential to reconcile and heal. It makes intuitive sense because it relies on the idea that political entities have an ongoing existence beyond the lifetimes and participation of their individual citizens.
However, not just any relationship can make an apology coherent. There has to be the right sort of connection between the person giving the apology and somebody else’s behaviour. For example, you can’t sensibly apologise for your friend’s boorish actions on some past occasion when you were not even present.
In some situations, we don’t have a clear idea who may have been inconvenienced or offended by our conduct. Contrary to much advice on the Internet, it makes perfectly good sense in these circumstances to offer contingent apologies such as “We apologise for any inconvenience” or “I am sorry if I upset anyone.”
On some particular occasion, you might think that any upset from your conduct was not reasonable. You might even doubt whether anyone was genuinely upset, as opposed to grandstanding to make a point. Nonetheless, you might also feel concern about any upset that actually was experienced, even unreasonably. If so, a mild and contingent apology might be perfectly in order. It is a socially intuitive way to convey that you are not motivated by malice or disrespect. And again, it signals that whatever you did or said was not the precursor to a more troubling course of conduct.
This leads me to the sensitive topic of weaponised demands for apologies, often followed by equally weaponised complaints about “notpologies”.
Weaponised demands and complaints
As we’ve seen, it’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility – or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.
In other cases, you – or I – might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)
In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.
When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.
If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little – or arguably nothing – wrong.
As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public – perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark – it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.
To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.
Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.
When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.
Your best guide?
My subheading to this article, “Your Best Guide on the Internet”, is lighthearted but on point. As I’ve emphasised, the practice of apologising is complex. We often have to make subtle, discriminating decisions about when and how to engage in it. By contrast, most advice on the Internet is misleading in suggesting that there is a single formula that we need to learn.
Fortunately, our intuitions are usually well honed by experience during our formative years, and most of us make reasonable judgements more often than not, even on the spur of the moment. We might not always be aware of it consciously, but we sense in our everyday practices that apologies can take many forms to suit a myriad of circumstances.
None of this is intended to suggest that I always get it right in my own life! Perhaps no one does; in any event, I am not holding myself out as a role model. I have sometimes made mistakes in this area, even quite serious ones, usually out of anger or pride or self-righteousness. If I have any advice to give beyond the most obvious, it’s to try to avoid those feelings – especially in combination. It’s wise to put them aside, if we can, and in cases of doubt it’s often best to give some sort of apology even if it goes against our grain.
The ability to apologise freely, without embarrassment, should be easier if we recognise how often our mistakes come from ordinary human limitations for which we should feel no particular guilt or shame. Combined with this, most apologies do not relate to serious wrongdoing, disrespectful attitudes to others, or defects of character.
Everyday apologies usually have rather conventional and pragmatic functions: to express regret (but not necessarily culpability) for inconvenience, confusion or hurt; to assure others that we respect them and recognise their interests, and that our intentions are not hostile; and to indicate that others have nothing to fear from us going forward.
In a sense, none of this is new. I’m telling readers what they already know, but the opposite of what they are too often told. I’ve set out in an explicit way some of the complexity that we are all aware of if we’re not confused by pop psychology or a dubious ideology.
Once again: it is often worth apologising (albeit mildly) even when we’ve done nothing wrong; apologies are often quite legitimately accompanied by explanations or excuses; most apologies do not have to be lengthy or especially self-critical or self-abasing. In some situations, much-maligned “notpologies” might be all that is needed.
This complexity should be familiar, once we think about it clearly and for ourselves.
For each of us, as individuals, the social practice of apologising gives many options to match with the ever-changing situations we encounter in our lives. We can think of them as tools in our social kit. Exactly how we use them is up to us.
Examining the rollout of NBN technologies as of December 2016, our preliminary analyses suggest areas of greatest socio-economic disadvantage overlap with regions typically receiving NBN infrastructure of poorer quality.
Comparing NBN technology with inequality
To determine socio-economic disadvantage, we used the Australian Bureau of Statistics’s (ABS) socio-economic indexes for area (SEIFA) and its index of relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage (IRSD) from 2011.
Across Australia, we found only 29% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one (the lowest-scoring 10% of areas) had fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) – considered the best broadband technology solution available – or fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections. So far, around 71% of the NBN technology available in these areas involves inferior options, including hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), fixed wireless or satellite technologies.
On the other hand, 93% of areas with a SEIFA decile of 10 (the highest-scoring 10% of areas) had FTTP or FTTN.
If we look only at major cities in Australia – where the level of fibre technology is higher overall – areas with the greatest disadvantage, while exceeding similarly disadvantaged areas nationally, still received significantly less FTTP and FTTN: 65% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one had FTTP and FTTN, compared with 94% of areas with a SEIFA decile of 10.
Of course Australia is a large, sparsely populated country, which makes the business case for rolling out fibre difficult in some regions. Nevertheless, inequitable access to NBN technology appears even when controlling for the remoteness of the location.
If we look at outer regional Australia where fibre is less prevalent, the pattern looks worse. Only 12% of the most disadvantaged areas with a SEIFA decile of one received FTTP and FTTN, compared with 88% of the most advantaged outer regional areas with a SEIFA decile of nine.
Receiving FTTP or even FTTN may still be better than receiving HFC, fixed wireless or satellite technologies. While HFC may be able to match maximum speeds of FTTN, this is unlikely to happen during peak times when the increased number of users sharing the same data capacity will slow service considerably. And, similar to FTTN, these technologies provide fewer opportunities to upgrade capacity to meet future demand.
However, given only a limited data set was made publicly available in December 2016 by the NBN company, it is difficult to determine exactly which services are currently installed where. For example, the data set we used does not differentiate between FTTP and the lesser FTTN connection.
It also aggregates some NBN technology into an “other” category, making it impossible to distinguish between HFC and satellite service.
The NBN company offers a “check your address” search for its most up-to-date rollout information including technology type, but was unable to share this information with us in a single, usable data set.
A NBN spokesperson said the network was being rolled out across Australia regardless of any socio-economic mapping.
“Determining the sequence is a complex process of weighing up factors including the location of construction resources, current service levels, existing broadband infrastructure, growth forecasts and proximity to nbn infrastructure such as the transit network,” she said in an email. “Only 8 per cent of premises in Australia are not in the fixed-line footprint.”
Internet access and social inequity
A faster internet connection is increasingly central to people’s social connections, education opportunities, employment prospects and ability to access services.
This was raised in a 2011 report by the parliamentary Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications. It emphasised the potential role of the NBN in enhancing greater equity in digital access to services in regional and rural areas.
The Committee heard that, due to the ‘digital divide’, many of the Australians who could benefit the most from broadband currently have the lowest levels of online participation … The extent of accompanying measures implemented by governments will determine whether the NBN narrows or widens this digital divide.
Previous research has also found that people from lower socioeconomic groups are already restricted in their use of digital information and communication technologies. This can limit their access to a range of social determinants of health.
When populations already facing disadvantage receive poorer quality digital infrastructure, those with the greatest need will continue to slip farther behind.
Equity must be at the forefront of the NBN company’s considerations as it continues to roll out across Australia. Further entrenching social inequities through digital infrastructure is not the NBN anyone dreamed of.
Note: The “contention rate” section of the NBN technology infographic on this story has been updated to improve clarity.
Imagine China takes down its national internet blocking system – aka the Great Firewall – tomorrow. Will this affect how you use the internet?
Without the Great Firewall, Facebook and Google will grow exponentially in China. Before long, the tech giants own a sizeable share of the Chinese market and have become good buddies with Beijing.
This scenario unfolds at a time when Donald Trump’s inward-looking policy upsets Silicon Valley’s efforts to expand its global empire, and when the US Congress further deregulates the internet industry, allowing internet service providers (ISPs), for example, to collect and trade user’s private data. So the tech giants decide to go to bed with China.
What does this have to do with you using your smartphone in, say, Sydney?
Well, if you have a Facebook presence, it means your social network information may now be used in a few additional ways, without your knowledge. Perhaps a few China-bashing news items, shared by your friends, will disappear from your news feed. And if you rely on Google, YouTube, Amazon or Uber, the data you accumulate during your daily routines may now empower not just the Little Sisters (that is, advertising companies), but also Big Brother himself.
According to urban geographer and unionist Kurt Iveson, surveillance cameras at the University of Sydney generate half of the internet traffic on campus. All the research, the paperwork, the social media back-and-forth, the videos people watch and the online games and music they play, all this online traffic, when added together, barely matches the terabytes of information generated by the surveillance feed.
That’s a pretty big achievement for those tiny cameras looking down at you in the corridors and from the street lamps.
The ‘big’ in Big Brother and Big Data
China has big ambitions. Its interests and investments in infrastructure on a global scale are well known. It will only be a matter of time before Beijing realises that digital assets are as vital, perhaps even more valuable, than highways and airports.
The Chinese Communist Party already has a good record of endorsing corporate platforms in the New Economy. Last November, China embraced the “disruptive” innovation of Uber and similar services. It became the first country to legalise the smartphone ride-hailing business on a national scale.
… a country that has consistently shown itself to be forward-thinking when it comes to business innovation.
Now you probably see why Silicon Valley might want to divorce Trump and have an affair behind Tiananmen.
Your digital rights
Maybe it’s not such a good idea, after all, to hastily agree to whatever terms and conditions tech companies hand down to you in tedious fine print. You don’t know your rights. You don’t know who has your data. But do you care?
As an individual, your power is limited. Using a virtual private network (VPN) can be a good start, but which VPN service can you really trust? This is a pertinent question because what if the VPN you use turns out to be a honeypot collecting data about you?
Your best shot, then, is to join a movement – such as a citizen group – to raise awareness or a watchdog organisation that guards against the mishandling of private data by telecommunication companies.
Other good places to seek refuge and spread the good word include non-government organisations that promote solidarity with IT-sector workers and hacker groups who develop new crypto technology. You don’t have to know programming or coding to join them, as even the best hackers will need other kinds of help.
Cities like Sydney have many such organisations. Plenty of folks are working on digital rights issues. Join them to protect your data from being infringed by Big Brother, his Little Sisters, and even telcos and ISPs.
Even if China doesn’t plan to take down its Great Firewall any time soon, that doesn’t make protecting your own data – personal information that reveals so much about your life – any less important.
As long as you have signed over your rights to corporations, they can still sell out big to Beijing, Moscow or whoever else is peeping from afar, at this very moment, into your campus or workplace CCTV system.
Over the past few months, Australians’ civil rights have come under attack.
In April, the government’s data retention law came into effect. The law requires telecommunications companies to store customer metadata for at least two years. Metadata from our phone calls, text messages, emails, and internet activity is now tracked by the government and accessible by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Australia’s data retention law is one of the most comprehensive and intrusive data collection schemes in the western world. There are several reasons why Australians should challenge this law.
First, it undermines the democratic principles on which Australia was founded. It gravely harms individuals’ right to privacy, anonymity, and protection from having their personal information collected.
The Australian Privacy Principles define limited conditions under which the collection of personal information is permissible. It says personal information must be collected by “fair” means.
Despite a recent ruling by the Federal Court, which determined that our metadata does not constitute “personal information”, we should consider whether sweeping collection of all of Australian citizenry’s metadata is consistent with our right to privacy.
Second, metadata – data about data – can be highly revealing and provide a comprehensive depiction of our daily activities, communications and movements.
As detailed here, metadata is broad in scope and can tell more about us than the actual content of our communications. Therefore, claims that the data retention law does not seriously compromise our privacy should be considered as naïve, ill-informed, or dishonest.
To date, the government has not presented any concrete empirical evidence to indicate that this risk has substantially changed. Democracies such as France, Germany and Israel – which face more severe terrorist threats than Australia – have not legalised mass data collection and instead rely on more targeted means to combat terrorism that do not jeopardise their democratic foundations.
Fourth, the data retention law is unlikely to achieve its stated objective and thwart serious terrorist activities. There are a range of widely-accessible technologies that can be used to circumvent the government’s surveillance regime. Some of them have previously been outlined by the now-prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
Therefore, in addition to damaging our civil rights, the law’s second lasting legacy is likely to be its contribution to increasing the budgetary debt by approximately A$740 million over the next ten years.
How can the law be challenged?
There are several things we can do to challenge the law. For example, there are technologies that we can start using today to increase our online privacy.
A full review of all available options is beyond the scope of this article, but here are three effective ones.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) can hide browsing information from internet service providers. Aptly, April 13, the day the data retention law came into effect, has been declared the Australian “get a VPN day”.
Tor – The Onion Router is free software that can help protect the anonymity of its users and conceal their internet activity from surveillance and analysis.
Encrypted messaging applications – unprotected applications can be easily tracked. Consequently, applications such as Signal and Telegram that offer data encryption solutions have been growing in popularity.
Australian citizens have the privilege of electing their representatives. An effective way to oppose continuing state surveillance is to vote for candidates whose views truly reflect the democratic principles that underpin modern Australian society.
The Australian public needs to have an honest, critical and open debate about the law and its social and ethical ramifications. The absence of such a debate is dangerous. The institutional accumulation of power is a slippery slope – once gained, power is not easily given up by institutions.
And the political climate in Australia is ripe for further deterioration of civil rights, as evident in the government’s continued efforts to increase its regulation of the internet. Therefore, it is important to sound a clear and public voice that opposes such steps.
Finally, we need to call out our elected representatives when they make logically muddled claims. In a speech to parliament this week Tuesday, Turnbull said:
The rights and protections of the vast overwhelming majority of Australians must outweigh the rights of those who will do them harm.
The data retention law is a distortion of the logic embedded in this statement because it indiscriminately targets all Australians. We must not allow the pernicious intent of a handful of terrorists to be used as an excuse to harm the rights of all Australians and change the fabric of our society.