This week NBN Co announced pricing changes for the National Broadband Network.
It includes a new plan boasting a download speed of 1 gigabit per second and an upload speed of 50 megabits per second for $80 a month.
These are 20-fold improvements on the maximum NBN speeds now. Almost a decade since the first customers were connected, NBN Co is thinking about a genuinely 21st century offering in terms of speed and price.
The NBN is late, over budget and slow. Australia places 58th globally for fixed-line broadband speed. Not only do the NBN’s advertised speeds lag international standards but the actual speeds often don’t come close to what is promised.
Customer interest as a result has been unenthusiastic. NBN Co may well need to take a massive write-down on its assets because they don’t look like they’re worth A$50 billion.
All of this was entirely predictable, based on politicians failing to remember three basic lessons from Economics 101.
1: Technology often outstrips imagination
The history of innovation is littered with examples of remarkably important things being invented with no clear purpose in mind, or by accident, and then exceeding our wildest expectations.
Penicillin and vulcanised rubber (which led to the tyre for automobiles) were both invented by accident. The world wide web was developed as a means of communication among particle physicists. Most of us carry around in our pocket a computer (mobile phone) roughly as powerful than the world’s faster supercomputer circa 1985. Those have turned out to be pretty useful.
When the Coalition decided to scuttle Labor’s NBN plan for fibre-optic cable to every premises, on the basis that “fibre-to-the-node” and using existing copper telephone wires to the premises would be much cheaper, this is what the chief spruiker of the Coalition’s NBN plan, Malcolm Turnbull, said about broadband needs in 2010:
There isn’t much or anything you can do with 100 Mbps that you can’t do with 12 Mbps for residential customers.
The breathtaking lack of insight and imagination in this comment is responsible in no small part for the Flintstonian broadband infrastructure Australia now has.
Prioritising speed of roll-out (which hasn’t even happened) over speed of internet (which sure has happened) was a massive mistake.
2: Positives justify subsidies
You having fast internet is good for me when we connect. When consumers can connect quickly to a business’s website that’s good for the business. It makes it more profitable for businesses to invest in their internet operations. This has benefits for other consumers and even other businesses.
A great illustration of this is in Dunedin, New Zealand, where there have been all sorts of business-to-business spillovers from the city having the fastest internet speeds in Australasia. The ABC’s Four Corners program has highlighted how this has revolutionised New Zealand’s video-game development industry, among other things.
Economists call spillover effects to third parties externalities. Pollution is a negative externality, while the benefit of fast internet is a positive externality.
A sound business model for the NBN ought to recognise the positive externalities and ensure they are incorporated into the price mechanism, by offering a partial subsidy to encourage people to sign up. Like the reverse of a carbon price.
One of the NBN’s key problems is the way successive governments structured national investment in it. Setting up NBN Co as a quasi-corporate entity needing to make a commercial rate of return on the roughly A$50 billion investment in the network was a huge mistake. It was the opposite of providing a subsidy.
The telecommunications companies who retail the NBN have complained that NBN Co’s wholesale price points mean it is hard for resellers to make a profit. It’s a kind of quality death spiral: an unattractive product means fewer people buy it, leading to the product getting worse, leading to even fewer people buying it.
3: Uniform pricing doesn’t work
Finally, it’s never a good idea to charge everyone the same price when there are different costs to serve different people.
The idea was that higher returns from easy-to-service city homes would subsidise the higher costs of service homes in regional and remote areas. But city homes, precisely because they are cheaper to service, have other options. If not enough city customers signed up to the NBN, prices would be driven up, making the network even less attractive to city customers. It’s textbook adverse selection, just like in health-insurance markets.
The government tried to get around this by banning competition. But that’s never really possible, especially from technologies not yet invented. Like 5G. The 2010 business case assumed no more than 16% of households would go wireless. Oops.
As economic journalist Peter Martin wrote in 2011:
NBN will never make a return on the cost of its capital or meet its customer targets if it faces competition. Its corporate plan says so, at point 1: “The plan assumes effective regulatory protection to prevent opportunistic cherry picking […] the viability of the project is dependent upon this protection.”
What to do from here
Multiple governments have bungled the NBN. But there is a way to salvage things – a bit.
Holding constant the technology (fibre-to-the-node), the best thing the government could do is write down its investment massively – ideally so low that it can flog NBN Co off to someone who can be subject to access regulation – ensuring, like other utilities, ownership of infrastructure doesn’t stymie competition – and make a modest rate of return.
Our super funds are always sticking up their hands for infrastructure investment. This would be a good one.
Ideally, though, the technology should be fixed. Fibre-to-the-premises was always going to be expensive, but it was also going to be fast, and as future-proof as we could get.
Lack of imagination and inability to think past 12 Mbps less than ten years ago should not hold the nation back now.
This article is part of our occasional long read series Zoom Out, where authors explore key ideas in science and technology in the broader context of society and humanity.
When Australia joined the global internet on June 23, 1989 – via a connection made by the University of Melbourne – it was mostly used by computer scientists.
Three decades later, more than 86% of Australian households are connected to the internet.
But it was a slow start. At first, network capacity was limited to very small volumes of information.
This all changed thanks to the development of vastly more powerful computers, and other technologies that have transformed our online experience.
One of those technologies is probably in front of you now: the screen.
Look at how you view the web, email and apps today: not just on large desktop screens but also handheld devices, and perhaps even an internet-connected wristwatch.
This was barely imaginable 30 years ago.
Connected to the world
Australia too had networks during the 1980s, but distance and a lack of interest from commercial providers meant these were isolated from the rest of the world.
This first international link provided just 56 kilobits of national connectivity. A 20th of a megabit for the whole country! That is not even enough to play a single piece of music from a streaming service (encoded at 128kbs), and it would take a week for a movie to be transferred to Australia.
But at that time digital music, video and images were not distributed online. Nor was the internet servicing a large community. Most of the users were academics or researchers in computer science or physics.
With continuous connection came live access. The most immediate impact was that email could now be delivered immediately.
At first, email and internet news groups (discussion forums) were the main traffic, but the connection also gave access to information sharing services such as Archie (an old example here) and WAIS, which were mostly used to share software.
There was connection too, in principle at least, to the newly created world wide web, which in June 1989 was just three months old and largely unknown. It wouldn’t become significant for another four years or so.
This turning-on of a connection was not a “light in a darkened room” moment, in which we suddenly had access to the resources that are now so familiar to us.
But it was a crucial step, one of several developments maturing in parallel that created the technology that has so drastically transformed our society, commerce and daily lives. Within just a few years we were surfing the web and sending email from home.
The technology develops
The first of these developments was the internet itself, which was and is a cobbling-together of disparate networks around the globe.
Australia had several networks, ranging from the relatively open ACSNET (now called AARNET) created by computer science departments to connect universities to, at the other extreme, proprietary, secure networks operated by defence and industry.
When Melbourne opened that first link, it provided a bridge from ACSNET to the networks in the United States and from there to the rest of the world.
Just as important were developments in the underlying technology. At the time, the capacity of the networks was adequate – just. As the community of users rapidly grew, it sometimes seemed as though the internet might utterly break down.
By the mid-1990s bandwidth (the volume of digital traffic that a network can carry) increased to an extent that earlier had seemed unimaginable. This provided the data transmission infrastructure the web would come to demand.
Another development was computing hardware. Computers were doubling in speed every 18 months, as had been predicted. They also became much cheaper.
Computer disks were also growing in capacity, doubling in size every year or so. The yet-to-appear web would require disk space for storage of web pages, and compute capacity for running servers, which are applications that provide a door into a computer, giving users remote access to data and software.
In the 1980s these had been scarce, expensive resources that would have been overwhelmed by even small volumes of web traffic. By the early 1990s growth in capacity could – just – accommodate the demand that suddenly appeared and homes were being connected, via dial-up at first.
A new operating system
But it is a third concurrent development that is, to me, the most remarkable.
This is the emergence of the UNIX operating system and of a community of people who collaboratively wrote UNIX-based code for free (yes, for no charge). Their work provided what is arguably the core of the systems that underpin the modern world.
At that time, operating systems (like iOS on today’s Apple phones) were limited to a single type of computer. Code and programs could not be used across machines from different manufacturers.
UNIX, in contrast, could be used on any suitable machine. This is the reason UNIX variants continue to provide the core of Apple Mac computers, Android phones, systems such as inflight entertainment and smart TVs, and many billions of other devices.
The open source movement
Along with UNIX came a culture of collaborative code development by programmers. This was initially via sharing of programs sent on tape between institutions as parcels in the mail. Anyone with time to spare could create programs and share them with a community of like-minded users.
This became known as the open source movement. Many thousands of people helped develop software of a diversity and richness that was beyond the resources of any single organisation. And it was not driven by commercial or corporate needs.
Programs could embody speculative innovations, and any developer who was frustrated by errors or shortcomings in the tools they used could update or correct them.
A key piece of open source software was the server, a computer system in a network shared by multiple users. Providing anonymous users with remote access was far from desirable for commercial computers of the era, on which use of costly computing time was tightly controlled.
But in an academic, sharing, open environment such servers were a valuable tool, at least for computer scientists, who were the main users of university computers in that era.
Another key piece of open source software was the router, which allowed computers on a network to collaborate in directing network requests and responses between connected machines anywhere on the planet.
Servers had been used for email since the beginnings of the internet and initially it was email, delivered with the help of routers, that brought networked desktop computing into homes and businesses.
When the web was proposed, extending these servers to allow the information from web page servers to be sent to a user’s computer was a small step.
What you looking at?
The last component is so ubiquitous that we forget what is literally before our eyes: the screen.
Affordable computer displays in the 1980s were much too limited to pleasingly render a web page, with resolutions of 640×480 pixels or lower, with crude colours or just black and white. Better screens, starting at 1024×768, first became widely available in the early 1990s.
Only with the appearance of the Mosaic browser in 1993 did the web become appealing, with a pool of about 100 web sites showing how to deliver information in a way that for most users was new and remarkably compelling.
The online world continues to grow and develop with access today via cable, wireless and mobile handsets. We have internet-connected services in our homes, cars, health services, government, and much more. We live-stream our music and video, and share our lives online.
But the origin of that trend of increasing digitisation of our society lies in those simple beginnings – and the end is not yet in sight.
This article was amended at the request of the author to correct the amount of data accessible from the initial link.
With natural hazard and climate-related disasters on the rise, online tools such as crowdsourced mapping and social media can help people understand and respond to a crisis. They enable people to share their location and contribute information.
But are these tools useful for everyone, or are some people marginalised? It is vital these tools include information provided from all sections of a community at risk.
Current evidence suggests that is not always the case.
Online tools let people help in disasters
Social media played an important role in coordinating response to the 2019 Queensland floods and the 2013 Tasmania bushfires. Community members used Facebook to coordinate sharing of resources such as food and water.
Crowdsourced mapping helped in response to the humanitarian crisis after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Some of the most useful information came from public contributions.
Twitter provided similar critical insights during Hurricane Irma in South Florida in 2017.
In the rush to develop new disaster mitigation tools, it is important to consider whether they will help or harm the people most vulnerable in a disaster.
Who is vulnerable?
Extreme natural events, such as earthquakes and bushfires, are not considered disasters until vulnerable people are exposed to the hazard.
To determine people’s level of vulnerability we need to know:
- the level of individual and community exposure to a physical threat
- their access to resources that affect their capacity to cope when threats materialise.
Some groups in society will be more vulnerable to disaster than others. This includes people with immobility issues, caring roles, or limited access to resources such as money, information or support networks.
When disaster strikes, the pressure on some groups is often magnified.
The devastating scenes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 revealed the vulnerability of children in such disasters.
Unfortunately, emergency management can exacerbate the vulnerability of marginalised groups. For example, a US study last year showed that in the years after disasters, wealth increased for white people and declined for people of colour. The authors suggest this is linked to inequitable distribution of emergency and redevelopment aid.
We need to ask: do new forms of disaster response help everyone in a community, or do they reproduce existing power imbalances?
Unequal access to digital technologies
These technologies inherently discriminate if access to them discriminates.
Lower digital inclusion is seen in already vulnerable groups, including the unemployed, migrants and the elderly.
Global internet penetration rates show uneven access between economically poorer parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, and wealthier Western regions.
Representations of communities are skewed on the internet. Particular groups participate with varying degrees on social media and in crowdsourcing activities. For example, some ethnic minorities have poorer internet access than other groups even in the same country.
Research shows participation biases in community mapping activities towards older, more affluent men.
Protect the vulnerable
Persecuted minorities, including LGBTIQ communities and religious minorities, are often more vulnerable in disasters. Digital technologies, which expose people’s identities and fail to protect privacy, might increase that vulnerability.
Unequal participation means those who can participate may become further empowered, with more access to information and resources. As a result, gaps between privileged and marginalised people grow wider.
For example, local Kreyòl-speaking Haitians from poorer neighbourhoods contributed information via SMS for use on crowdsourced maps during the 2010 Haiti earthquake response.
But the information was translated and mapped in English for Western humanitarians. As they didn’t speak English, vulnerable Haitians were further marginalised by being unable to directly use and benefit from maps resulting from their own contributions.
Any power imbalances that come from unequal online participation are pertinent to disaster risk reduction. They can amplify community tensions, social divides and marginalisation, and exacerbate vulnerability and risk.
With greater access to the benefits of online tools, and improved representation of diverse and marginalised people, we can better understand societies and reduce disaster impacts.
We must remain acutely aware of digital divides and participation biases. We must continually consider how these technologies can better include, value and elevate marginalised groups.
Billy Tusker Haworth, Lecturer in GIS and Disaster Management, University of Manchester; Christine Eriksen, Senior Lecturer in Geography and Sustainable Communities, University of Wollongong, and Scott McKinnon, Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Wollongong
The United States and Australia are deliberately restricting the place of Chinese telco Huawei in their telecommunications landscapes.
We’re told these changes will be worth it from a security point of view.
But Huawei infrastructure is already ubiquitous in telecommunications networks, and we have other avenues available to us if we’re concerned about cybersecurity.
In the end, halting involvement of Huawei in Australia will be felt directly by customers. We will have to be satisfied with below-par 5G internet speeds and delayed service rollouts.
And we probably won’t be able to use Google Play on Huawei smart phones after 2020.
Huawei offers the best 5G
5G is a mobile phone network that promises top speeds, especially in highly populated areas. Australia has been expecting the network to be broadly up and running by around 2020 – there is limited availability in some central business districts right now.
Top 5G speeds can reach up to 10 gigabits per second, 20 times faster than 4G. This means movie downloads in a matter of seconds – as opposed to minutes with 4G. A mobile phone, gaming laptop or smart TV can communicate with a 5G network at a response speed of 1 millisecond, as opposed to 30 milliseconds with 4G.
Huawei, the world’s biggest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, is leading the 5G race. The Chinese company is around 12 months ahead of its competitors Nokia and Ericsson.
Huawei has been involved in providing 3G and 4G services in Australia since 2004 – reportedly working with Vodafone and Optus, but not Telstra or NBN Co. Huawei built a private 4G network for mining company Santos, and digital voice and data communication systems for rail services in Western Australia and New South Wales. This includes radio masts, base stations and handheld radios, but not the core network.
This stems from apparent Australian and US government concerns that Huawei infrastructure could allow the Chinese government to collect foreign intelligence and sensitive information, and sabotage economic interests.
Costs passed on to consumers
Australia’s telecommunications networks have already felt the impact of the Coalition’s Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms announced in August 2018.
These reforms “place obligations on telecommunications companies to protect Australian networks from unauthorised interference or access that might prejudice our national security”.
The guidance effectively put the companies on notice, implying that use of Huawei could violate cybersecurity laws. No company wants to be in such a position. Continuing with Huawei after being informed that the company may pose a national security risk could bring legal and reputational risks.
The result is companies such as Optus and Vodafone were left scrambling to re-negotiate 5G testing and rollout plans that had been in the works since 2016. Optus has already delayed its 5G roll out.
Most operators do use additional manufacturers such as Nokia and Ericsson for networks and testing. But it’s already clear from cases in Europe that such companies have been slow to release equipment that is as advanced as Huawei’s.
Costs incurred by such changes and the delays in rolling out high-quality services are absorbed by mobile phone companies in the first instance, and eventually passed on to the consumer.
Given existing frustrations with the NBN, customers will continue to wait longer and may have to pay more for top 5G services.
Customers who prefer to use Huawei-made phones could be hit with a double whammy. Recent actions by Google to suspend business operations with Huawei could prevent these customers from having access to Google Play (the equivalent of Apple’s app store on Android devices) in the future.
Huawei is already here
But it’s doubtful Huawei has assisted such efforts. Technical flaws detected in Italy are reported to be normal in the sector and not due to a backdoor.
Germany has decided to introduce a broad regulatory regime that requires suppliers of 5G networks to be trustworthy, and provide assured protection of information under local laws.
A similar approach in Australia would require telecommunications equipment to be tested before installation, and at regular intervals after installation for the lifetime of the network, under a security capability plan the supplier is required to submit.
More broadly speaking, the Coalition has pledged A$156 million to cybersecurity, aimed at developing skills to defend against cyber intrusions and to improve the capabilities of the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC). These plans could reasonably be timed with the expected launch of 5G at the end of 2020.
Added to this, the 2018 Assistance and Access Act – commonly referred to as the Encryption Bill – already requires all telecommunications manufacturers to protect their networks and assist national security and law enforcement agencies to share information. Huawei is subject to this legal obligation.
If there are security fears about 5G, those same fears would exist in respect of 4G that has been installed and is supported by Huawei in this country for more than a decade.
It’s not clear what we gain by blocking Huawei’s involvement in Australia’s 5G network.
These laws amend the Commonwealth Criminal Code, adding two substantive new criminal offences.
Both are aimed not at terrorists but at technology companies. And how that’s done is where some of the new measures fall down.
The legislation was rushed through with neither consultation nor sufficient discussion.
The laws focus on abhorrent violent material, capturing the terrorist incident in New Zealand, but also online content created by a person carrying out a murder, attempted murder, torture, rape or violent kidnapping.
The laws do not cover material captured by third parties who witness a crime, only content from an attacker, their accomplice, or someone who attempts to join the violence.
The aim is to prevent perpetrators of extreme violence from using the internet to glorify or publicise what they have done. This will reduce terrorists’ ability to spread panic and fear. It will reduce criminals’ ability to intimidate. This is about taking away the tools harmful actors use to damage society.
What the legislation aims to do
Section 474.33 of the Criminal Code makes it a criminal offence for any internet service provider, content service or hosting service to fail to notify the Australian Federal Police, within a reasonable time, once they become aware their service is being used to access abhorrent violent material that occurred or is occurring in Australia. Failing to comply can result in a fine of 800 penalty units (currently $128,952).
Section 474.34 makes it a criminal offence for a content service or hosting service, whether inside or outside Australia, to fail to expeditiously take down material made available through their service and accessible in Australia.
The criminal element of fault is not that the service provider deliberately makes the material available, but rather that they are reckless with regards to identifying such content or providing access to it. Reckless, however, has been given a rather special meaning.
What we’ve got right
There is a clear need for new laws.
Focusing on regulating technology services is the right approach. Back in 2010 when I first raised this idea it was considered radical; today even Mark Zuckerberg supports government regulation.
We’ve moved away from the idea of technology companies of all types being part of a safe harbour that keeps the internet unregulated. That’s to be welcomed.
Penalties for companies that behave recklessly – failing to build suitable mechanisms to find and remove abhorrent violent material – are also to be welcomed. Such systems should indeed be expanded to cover credible threats of violence and major interference in a country’s sovereignty, such as efforts to manipulate elections or cause mass panics through fake news.
Recklessness as it is ordinarily understood – that is, failing to take the steps a reasonable person in the same position would take – allows the standard to slowly rise as technology and systems for responding to such incidents improve.
Also to be welcomed is the new ability for the eSafety Commissioner to issue a notice to a company identifying an item of abhorrent violent material and to demand its removal. When the government is aware of such content, there must be a way to require rapid action. The law does this.
Where we’ve fallen down
One potential problem with the legislation is the requirement for internet service providers (ISPs) to notify the Australian Federal Police if they are aware their service can be used to access any particular abhorrent violent material.
As ISPs provide access for consumers to everything on the internet, this seeks to turn ISPs into a national surveillance network. It has the potential to move us from an already problematic meta-data retention scheme into an expectation for ISPs to apply deep packet inspection monitoring of everything that is said.
Content services (including social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and regular websites) and hosting services (provided by companies such as Telsta, Microsoft and Amazon through to companies like Servers Australia and Synergy Wholesale) have a more serious problem.
Under the new laws, if content is online at the time a notice is issued by the eSafety Commissioner, the legal presumption will be that the company was behaving recklessly at that time. The notice is not a demand to respond, but rather a finding that the response is already too slow. The relevant section (s 474.35(5)) states (emphasis added) that if a notice has been correctly issued:
…then, in that prosecution, it must be presumed that the person was reckless as to whether the content service could be used to access the specified material at the time the notice was issued…
While the presumption can be rebutted, this is still quite different from what the Attorney General’s press release (dated 4 April 2019) claimed:
… the e-Safety Commissioner will have the power to issue notices that bring this type of material to the attention of social media companies. As soon as they receive a notice, they will be deemed to be aware of the material, meaning the clock starts ticking for the platform to remove the material or face extremely serious criminal penalties.
As the law is written, the notice is more of a notification that the clock has already run out of time. It’s like arguing that the occurrence of a terrorist act means “it must be presumed” the government was reckless with regards to prevention. That’s not a fair standard. The idea of the notice starting the clock would in fact be much fairer.
Under this law, a content service provider can be found to have been reckless and to have failed to expeditiously remove content even if no notice was ever issued. In some cases that may be a good thing, but what was passed as law, and what they say they intended, don’t appear to match.
Hosting services have the worse of it. They provide the space on servers that allows content to appear on the internet. It’s a little like the arrangement between a landlord and a tenant. With hosting plans starting from around $50 a year, there’s no margin to cover monitoring and complaints management.
The new laws suggest hosting services will be acting recklessly if they don’t monitor their clients so they can take action before the eSafety Commissioner issues a notice. They just aren’t in a position to do that.
A lot still needs to be done
As it stands, only the expeditious removal of content or suspension of a client’s account can avoid the new offence. The legislation does not define what expeditious removal means. There is nothing to suggest the clock would start only after the service provider becomes aware of the content, and the notice from the eSafety Commissioner doesn’t start a clock but says a response is already over due.
This law is designed to apply pressure on companies so they improve their response times and take preemptive action.
What’s missing too is a target with safe harbour protections, that is, a clear standard and a rule that says if companies can meet that standard they can enjoy an immunity from prosecution under this law. That would give companies both a goal and an incentive to reach it.
Also missing is a way to measure response times. If we can’t measure it, we can’t push for it to be continually improved.
Rapid removal should be required after a notice from the eSafety Commissioner, perhaps removal within an hour. Fast removal, for example within 24 hours, should be required when reports come from the public.
The exact time lines that are possible should be the subject of consultation with both industry and civil society. They need to be achievable, not merely aspirational.
Working together, government, industry and civil society can create systems to monitor and continually improve efforts to tackle online hate and extremism.
That includes the most serious content such as abhorrent violence and incitement to violent extremism.
Trust, consultation and goodwill are needed to keep people safe.
In the wake of the Christchurch attack, the Australian government has announced its intention to create new criminal offences relating to the livestreaming of violence on social media platforms.
The Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Bill will create two new crimes:
It will be a criminal offence for social media platforms not to remove abhorrent violent material expeditiously. This will be punishable by 3 years’ imprisonment or fines that can reach up to 10% of the platform’s annual turnover.
Platforms anywhere in the world must notify the Australian Federal Police if they become aware their service is streaming abhorrent violent conduct that is happening in Australia. A failure to do this will be punishable by fines of up to A$168,000 for an individual or A$840,000 for a corporation.
The government is reportedly seeking to pass the legislation in the current sitting week of Parliament. This could be the last of the current parliament before an election is called. Labor, or some group of crossbenchers, will need to vote with the government if the legislation is to pass. But the draft bill was only made available to the Labor Party last night.
This is not the first time that legislation relating to the intersection of technology and law enforcement has been raced through parliament to the consternation of parts of the technology industry, and other groups. Ongoing concerns around the Access and Assistance bill demonstrate the risks of such rushed legislation.
Major social networks already moderate violence
The government has defined “abhorrent violent material” as:
[…] material produced by a perpetrator, and which plays or livestreams the very worst types of offences. It will capture the playing or streaming of terrorism, murder, attempted murder, torture, rape and kidnapping on social media.
The major social media platforms already devote considerable resources to content moderation. They are often criticised for their moderation policies, and the inconsistent application of those policies. But content fitting the government’s definition is already clearly prohibited by Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat.
Social media companies rely on a combination of technology, and thousands of people employed as content moderators to remove graphic content. Moderators (usually contractors, often on low wages) are routinely called on to remove a torrent of abhorrent material, including footage of murders and other violent crimes.
Technology is helpful, but not a solution
Technologies developed to assist with content moderation are less advanced than one might hope – particularly for videos. Facebook’s own moderation tools are mostly proprietary. But we can get an idea of the state of the commercial art from Microsoft’s Content Moderator API.
The Content Moderator API is an online service designed to be integrated by programmers into consumer-facing communication systems. Microsoft’s tools can automatically recognise “racy or adult content”. They can also identify images similar to ones in a list. This kind of technology is used by Facebook, in cooperation with the office of the eSafety Comissioner, to help track and block image-based abuse – commonly but erroneously described as “revenge porn”.
The Content Moderator API cannot automatically classify an image, let alone a video, as “abhorrent violent content”. Nor can it automatically identify videos similar to another video.
Technology that could match videos is under development. For example, Microsoft is currently trialling a matching system specifically for video-based child exploitation material.
As well as developing new technologies themselves, the tech giants are enthusiastic adopters of methods and ideas devised by academic researchers. But they are some distance from being able to automatically identify re-uploads of videos that violate their terms of service, particularly when uploaders modify the video to evade moderators. The ability to automatically flag these videos as they are uploaded or streamed is even more challenging.
Important questions, few answers so far
Evaluating the government’s proposed legislative amendments is difficult given that details are scant. I’m a technologist, not a legal academic, but the scope and application of the legislation is currently unclear. Before any legislation is passed, a number of questions need to be addressed – too many to list here, but for instance:
Does the requirement to remove “abhorrent violent material” apply only to material created or uploaded by Australians? Does it only apply to events occurring within Australia? Or could foreign social media companies be liable for massive fines if videos created in a foreign country, and uploaded by a foreigner, were viewed within Australia?
Would attempts to render such material inaccessible from within Australia suffice (even though workarounds are easy)? Or would removal from access anywhere in the world be required? Would Australians be comfortable with a foreign law that required Australian websites to delete content displayed to Australians based on the decisions of a foreign government?
Complex legislation needs time
The proposed legislation does nothing to address the broader issues surrounding promotion of the violent white supremacist ideology that apparently motivated the Christchurch attacker. While that does not necessarily mean it’s a bad idea, it would seem very far from a full governmental response to the monstrous crime an Australian citizen allegedly committed.
It may well be that the scope and definitional issues are dealt with appropriately in the text of the legislation. But considering the government seems set on passing the bill in the next few days, it’s unlikely lawmakers will have the time to carefully consider the complexities involved.
While the desire to prevent further circulation of perpetrator-generated footage of terrorist attacks is noble, taking effective action is not straightforward. Yet again, the federal government’s inclination seems to be to legislate first and discuss later.
With the federal election now officially underway, commentators have begun to consider not only the techniques parties and candidates will use to persuade voters, but also any potential threats we are facing to the integrity of the election.
Invariably, this discussion leads straight to digital.
In the aftermath of the 2016 United States presidential election, the coverage of digital campaigning has been unparalleled. But this coverage has done very little to improve understanding of the key issues confronting our democracies as a result of the continued rise of digital modes of campaigning.
Some degree of confusion is understandable since digital campaigning is opaque – especially in Australia. We have very little information on what political parties or third-party campaigners are spending their money on, some of which comes from taxpayers. But the hysteria around digital is for the most part, unfounded.
Why parties use digital media
In any attempt to better understand digital, it’s useful to consider why political parties and other campaigners are using it as part of their election strategies. The reasons are relatively straightforward.
The media landscape is fragmented. Voters are active on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, so that’s where the parties need to be.
Compared to the cost of advertising on television, radio or in print, digital advertising is very affordable.
Voting, persuasion and mobilisation
While there is certainly more research required into digital campaigning, there is no scholarly study I know of that suggests advertising online – including micro-targeted messaging – has the effect that it is often claimed to have.
What we know is that digital messaging can have a small but significant effect on mobilisation, that there are concerns about how it could be used to demobilise voters, and that it is an effective way to fundraise and organise. But its ability to independently persuade voters to change their votes is estimated to be close to zero.
The exaggeration and lack of clarity around digital is problematic because there is almost no evidence to support many of the claims made. This type of technology fetishism also implies that voters are easily manipulated, when there is little evidence of this.
While it might help some commentators to rationalise unexpected election results, a more fruitful endeavour than blaming technology would be to try to understand why voters are attracted to various parties or candidates, such as Trump in the US.
Digital campaigning is not a magic bullet, so commentators need to stop treating it as if it is. Parties hope it helps them in their persuasion efforts, but this is through layering their messages across as many mediums as possible, and using the network effect that social media provides.
Data privacy and foreign interference
The two clear and obvious dangers related to digital are about data privacy and foreign meddling. We should not accept that our data is shared widely as a result of some box we ticked online. And we should have greater control over how our data are used, and who they are sold to.
An obvious starting point in Australia is questioning whether parties should continue to be exempt from privacy legislation. Research suggests that a majority of voters see a distinction between commercial entities advertising to us online compared to parties and other campaigners.
We also need to take some personal responsibility, since many of us do not always take our digital footprint as seriously as we should. It matters, and we need to educate ourselves on this.
The more vexing issue is that of foreign interference. One of the first things we need to recognise is that it is unlikely this type of meddling online would independently turn an election.
This does not mean we should accept this behaviour, but changing election results is just one of the goals these actors have. Increasing polarisation and contributing to long-term social divisions is part of the broader strategy.
The digital battleground
As the 2019 campaign unfolds, we should remember that, while digital matters, there is no evidence it has an independent election-changing effect.
Australians should be most concerned with how our data are being used and sold, and about any attempts to meddle in our elections by state and non-state actors.
The current regulatory environment fails to meet community standards. More can and should be done to protect us and our democracy.
This article has been co-published with The Lighthouse, Macquarie University’s multimedia news platform.
Have you ever considered that what you type into Google, or the ironic memes you laugh at on Facebook, might be building a more dangerous online environment?
Regulation of online spaces is starting to gather momentum, with governments, consumer groups, and even digital companies themselves calling for more control over what is posted and shared online.
Yet we often fail to recognise the role that you, me and all of us as ordinary citizens play in shaping the digital world.
The privilege of being online comes with rights and responsibilities, and we need to actively ask what kind of digital citizenship we want to encourage in Australia and beyond.
Beyond the knee-jerk
The Christchurch terror attack prompted policy change by governments in both New Zealand and Australia.
Australia recently passed a new law that will enforce penalties for social media platforms if they don’t remove violent content after it becomes available online.
Platforms may well be lagging behind in their content moderation responsibilities, and still need to do better in this regard. But this kind of “kneejerk” policy response won’t solve the spread of problematic content on social media.
Addressing hate online requires coordinated efforts. Platforms must improve the enforcement of their rules (not just announce tougher measures) to guarantee users’ safety. They may also reconsider a serious redesign, because the way they currently organise, select, and recommend information often amplifies systemic problems in society like racism.
Discrimination is entrenched
Of course, biased beliefs and content don’t just live online.
However, we can all play a part in reducing harm online.
There are three aspects we might reconsider when interacting online so as to deny oxygen to racist ideologies:
- a better understanding of how platforms work
- the development of empathy to identify differences in interpretation when engaging with media (rather than focusing on intent)
- working towards a more productive anti-racism online.
Online lurkers and the amplification of harm
White supremacists and other reactionary pundits seek attention on mainstream and social media. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to name the Christchurch gunman to prevent fuelling his desired notoriety, and so did some media outlets.
The rest of us might draw comfort from not having contributed to amplifying the Christchurch attacker’s desired fame. It’s likely we didn’t watch his video or read his manifesto, let alone upload or share this content on social media.
But what about apparently less harmful practices, such as searching on Google and social media sites for keywords related to the gunman’s manifesto or his live video?
It’s not the intent behind these practices that should be the focus of this debate, but the consequences of it. Our everyday interactions on platforms influence search autocomplete algorithms and the hierarchical organisation and recommendation of information.
In the Christchurch tragedy, even if we didn’t share or upload the manifesto or the video, the zeal to access this information drove traffic to problematic content and amplified harm for the Muslim community.
Normalisation of hate through seemingly lighthearted humour
Reactionary groups know how to capitalise on memes and other jokey content that degrades and dehumanises.
By using irony to deny the racism in these jokes, these far-right groups connect and immerse new members in an online culture that deliberately uses memetic media to have fun at the expense of others.
The Christchurch terrorist attack showed this connection between online irony and the radicalisation of white men.
However, humour, irony and play – which are protected on platform policies – serve to cloak racism in more mundane and everyday contexts.
Humour and satire should not be hiding places for ignorance and bigotry. As digital citizens we should be more careful about what kind of jokes we engage with and laugh at on social media.
What’s harmful and what’s a joke might not be apparent when interpreting content from a limited worldview. The development of empathy to others’ interpretations of the same content is a useful skill to minimise the amplification of racist ideologies online.
As scholar danah boyd argues:
The goal is to understand the multiple ways of making sense of the world and use that to interpret media.
Effective anti-racism on social media
A common practice in challenging racism on social media is to publicly call it out, and show support for those who are victims of it. But critics of social media’s callout culture and solidarity sustain that these tactics often do not work as an effective anti-racism tool, as they are performative rather than having an advocacy effect.
An alternative is to channel outrage into more productive forms of anti-racism. For example, you can report hateful online content either individually or through organisations that are already working on these issues, such as The Online Hate Prevention Institute and the Islamophobia Register Australia.
Most major social media platforms struggle to understand how hate articulates in non-US contexts. Reporting content can help platforms understand culturally specific coded words, expressions, and jokes (most of which are mediated through visual media) that moderators might not understand and algorithms can’t identify.
As digital citizens we can work together to deny attention to those that seek to discriminate and inflict harm online.
We can also learn how our everyday interactions might have unintended consequences and actually amplify hate.
However, these ideas do not diminish the responsibility of platforms to protect users, nor do they negate the role of governments to find effective ways to regulate platforms in collaboration and consultation with civil society and industry.
The national broadband network (NBN) has been a major issue in federal election campaigns for close to a decade.
And the 2019 version of the NBN bears little resemblance to the futuristic, egalitarian earlier editions.
Despite years of controversy, cost over-runs, and delays, the coalition government says our $50 billion national network is finally nearing completion.
But Labor’s Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has set out some different priorities should her party achieve government in the coming election. One of these is a “digital inclusion drive”, aimed at improving access to the internet for older Australians and low-income households.
In addition, Labor is making no immediate commitment to replacing copper connections with fibre.
Instead, if elected, it will fund service and reliability fixes for those on the copper NBN, and impose service guarantees for small businesses and consumers. It will examine what has happened to the economics of the network, looking at its cash flow, pricing, capital structure, and future options for network upgrades.
Labor’s policy will disappoint those hoping for a fast-tracked return to that party’s original (2009) vision of high-speed fibre for (almost) everyone. But its 2019 plan is an important acknowledgement that network infrastructure is only one part of the NBN story.
Affordability and digital inclusion
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) provides data on the affordability of internet services for Australians since 2014. It shows that recent, modest improvements seen by some households have been matched by declines in affordability for a number of Australia’s more digitally excluded groups.
The results for low-income households, single parents, people outside the labour force, Indigenous Australians, and people with a disability remain poor.
The good news for Australian consumers is that the pricing of mobile services has improved, reflecting competitive pressures and the reduced cost of delivery as a consequence of investment by network owners.
But when we look at fixed broadband services — the kinds of connections used by most households — recent price increases by NBN have led to a decline in the number of low-cost plans on the market. This change post-dates the most recent ADII report (2018), and the effects are beginning to work their way into the market.
Communications costs matter
Communications services have a knock-on effect in many other areas of life and work.
Access to high-speed broadband can reduce the costs of using other services considerably. This makes critical activities like banking, seeking government information, looking for work, or studying much easier.
But when we speak of the cost savings linked with online services, we need also to bear in mind the flip-side of those savings: the much higher costs borne by those, often less well-off, citizens who must access services offline.
If an individual on a low income lacks electronic access to banking or government information, the cost of commuting to do these things in person can be prohibitive — and especially so for Australians living in remote or regional areas.
For children at school and adults in education or training, a lack of access to the internet means many will fall behind their peers, as access to educational materials and online content becomes a core part of the modern education experience. This has implications for Australia’s ability to take advantage of the next wave of digital transformation.
Australia’s digital divide is not going away
Expensive for everyone
The costs of inequitable internet access are directly felt by many families, but the broader costs are borne by society.
And so digital exclusion now has the potential to be a drag on Australia’s economic growth and productive potential for decades to come.
For individuals, conducting activities offline may be time-consuming and expensive. But that’s also true for the government. It’s estimated that even taking half of government services online would save around A$20 billion.
Aside from the costs of lower productivity, economic growth and tax receipts, inequitable access means that the material savings from automated services may never be realised.
Affordable access to broadband also supports the cost effective delivery of core government and other services – such as health – to regional and remote locations.
Although addressing inequitable access will involve costs in the short term, effective policy measures to improve affordability are likely to generate considerable national benefits.
Infographic: Budget 2019 at a glance
How to improve affordability
At this stage Labor is not saying what it might do to improve internet affordability for low-income households.
The idea of writing down the NBN has been widely discussed. It does, however, have serious implications: it will be very costly to taxpayers.
It will also limit the ability of the NBN to invest in future network upgrades and threaten the economics of uniform national pricing, the NBN’s key promise of equity for regional and remote Australia.
That could mean a return to the pre-NBN communications landscape, with regional and remote Australia relying on increasingly obsolete communications infrastructure while metropolitan Australia moves ahead.
A direct increase in cash payments is likely to improve living standards materially for those in poverty, but more money for low income households doesn’t necessarily mean that broadband will be within their reach.
The creation of a concession at a retail level would make the telecommunications companies responsible for selling products at a cheaper rate, which in an era of reduced margins appears unlikely to occur.
Also, a series of retail concessions can lead to consumer confusion, as the scope of each scheme and the discounts on offer vary wildly. We’ve seen these problems in the energy sector.
Another option is to create a wholesale concession, a measure that has been promoted by consumer advocates. This would involve the government paying NBN to put a wholesale product into the market that retailers could purchase and retail to low income households.
A nationally uniform concessional service would allow retailers to compete in offering affordable services to low-income households, boost NBN take-up and consequently its revenue and financial viability.
Focus on inclusion
While the introduction of a concessional arrangement would involve government picking up a part of the tab for service delivery, it offers sizeable benefits.
By ensuring NBN access for low-income households, the government avoids forgoing a large proportion of the savings that should accrued from the digital transformation of government services (and the benefits to be gained from improving services).
It would also prevent a lower take-up of NBN services and revenues. Without such an arrangement, questions will continue to be raised about the financial viability of NBN, its repayment of outstanding debt to government and whether there needs to be a write-down.
The take up of broadband has historically seen improvements in average household income, productivity, and the creation of new kinds of work and services.
In order to maximise the benefits of the current wave of digital change, we’ll need a broader public debate, that goes beyond the relative merits of fibre and 5G.
Policy will need to address the challenge of affordability, invest in digital literacy, and ensure that all Australians can access the services that they need.
While there are many improvements that can and should be made to our national network infrastructure, a focus on the larger problem of digital inclusion is both welcome, and overdue.