Hacks and leaks distract from NZ Inc's real digital meat

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 01/09/2014

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OPINION: One of the joys of being unemployed at the moment is being able to spend time on things I normally miss, like picking up the kids from school and spending time in the garage.

I've got an old Ford engine I've been working on and my idea of a good time is tinkering over the old Pinto block, while drinking black coffee and listening to Radio New Zealand National. National Radio has been through a few changes in the last year with a new CEO, some new voices on air along with the retiring of a few olds ones and a flash new mobile website. Even regular afternoon show "The Panel" has had an injection of new blood, though few if any are under the age of 30 (or perhaps even 40).

I was listening to the "Panel" last week and the subject was Nicky Hager's new book Dirty Politics. One of the panellists made a telling comment, namely the number of allegations, counter allegations and rapidly evolving nature of the online discussion made it a very hard discussion to prepare for, as little was clear at that stage apart from the fact that Whaleoil's Cameron Slater had had his email hacked, several players used pretty toxic language and there was a fair amount of leaking going on. Since then, a lot more has come to light, culminating in the resignation of a cabinet minister, and a bunch of new questions about the role of bloggers and paid leaking.

Leaking is nothing new in politics - consider the leaking of the Mexico/US border treaty to the New York Herald way back in 1848 - but what is new is the digital context.

On the internet, the source material - along with its origination and metadata - is often archived in ways that is unknown to the creator but perpetually recoverable to others. And with the instant frictionless and anonymous distribution afforded by the likes of Twitter, leakers can themselves take centre stage.

If you had looked at the New Zealand digital agenda heading into the election a month ago it was quite different. The big four issues were: the proposed digital bill of, broadband access and costs and the rollout of UFB, income tax base erosion by global web giants, and the Government's role in ICT (including whether there needs to be a technology equivalent to chief science officer Peter Gluckman).

These subjects have meat to them and could spur internet productivity and economic growth .

Two policy areas in particular - the accelerated rollout of UFB and the digital bill of rights - could deliver meaningful change to the web's ability to allow small and medium-sized businesses to grow and innovate faster and ensure local internet freedoms are protected. However any such conversation has been largely absent.

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Looking further afield it's been interesting to see that, while the world was reeling from the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in the Ukraine, the Russian parliament passed a new law that requires all internet companies to physically store all Russian citizens' personal data inside the country. They've been given 24 months to comply.

This means that if companies like Amazon, EBay, Alibaba or Facebook want to continue to have Russian customers and members, they need to physically set up data centres within mother Russia. Under the guise of preventing offshore hackers and criminals from accessing personal information, the law effectively gives Russian regulatory authorities the ability to enter such data centres and extract the same information for their own purposes.

The Russian Association of Electronic Communication (RAEC), a local industry lobby group described the new law as "the iron curtain all over again" and consistent with the overall corrosion in net neutrality. There is already a requirement for bloggers to register as news media if they have more than 3000 followers.

One of the useful things about programmes like The Panel or facilities like the comments section on Stuff.co.nz is that they provide useful context to events. I reckon the substantive events in Russia provide a context for the importance of good digital policy debate at home.

Hopefully in the last four weeks leading up to the election there's still time to see some meaningful discussion of digital matters that could deliver tangible benefits and protections to New Zealand Inc.

- Fairfax Media

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