InternetNZ IT ministers' debate breaks new ground

InternetNZ's online IT ministers' debate Thursday night raised a few eyebrows as well as a few laughs."

IT and communications minister David Cunliffe faced off against long-time rival Maurice Williamson and Green party spokesman and resident tech expert Mikaere Curtis in a debate carried live via R2's video link and IRC chat. The event was chaired by former InternetNZ chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, with questions asked by Computerworld's Paul Brislen and Kate McLaughlin of the National Business Review.

While technical issues with sound quality produced a few laughs -- Cunliffe described Wellington-based vice president David Farrar as sounding like the "voice of God" at one stage -- the evening went off without a hitch, albeit with much technical support and hard work from R2's Richard Naylor and son Jeremy.

However, it was the MPs everyone was interested in hearing from and indeed it was hard at times to shut them up.

Both Williamson and Cunliffe are well known in the IT industry and their views well aired, although Williamson did manage to surprise a few with his views on Telecom's current broadband regime.

However, Curtis proved to be up to the task and his background in development work shone through. He was able to respond on the fly to questions ranging from peering exchanges through to software patents and electronic voting. His knowledge of Slashdot minutia kept him in good stead with the IRC fans.

Williamson says he would not put up with Telecom's current broadband regime if he were minister. Any move by Telecom to restrict what customers can or cannot do with their broadband connection would not be tolerated, he says.

"It's like NZ Post telling you what you can and can't write in a letter you send. It's not on."

Williamson says it would be a breach of contract for Telecom to introduce any form of rate shaping or packet dropping to avoid the increasing march of technology from new applications like VoIP or peer-to-peer.

He also said any argument from Telecom that it would have to be compensated for any loss of property rights in an unbundling situation no longer holds water.

"When I became minister and we inherited the situation left us by the outgoing government, I received advice from the Crown Law Office that they'd sold the whole company without looking closely at the asset register and we were in a difficult position if we wanted to intervene in any way."

Williamson will be remembered as the minister of communications who repeatedly threatened Telecom with regulation but in the end didn't regulate the company or the industry at all.

That's all changed now, however, says Williamson.

"Enough time has passed now that we can say look that's no longer relevant and if we need to regulate, then so be it."

If anything, the debate was marked more by the three parties' similarities than their differences on most issues. Whereas Cunliffe says he wants to see an industry run along the lines of "as much competition as possible, as much regulation as needed", Williamson prefers "as much competition as possible, as little regulation as possible".

However, all three parties are interested in one common goal for the next session in the House regardless of who wins the election: wireless networking for MPs.

Williamson says the debating chamber has no broadband access points and in fact in his earlier days he was thrown out of the House "By one of our Speakers" for daring to bring his laptop into the chamber.

All three MPs expressed their desire to work together to change all that and Williamson says it would improve parliament if MPs could continue to work on documents and email while in the chamber.

"At the moment, mum and dad turn up in the public gallery to see Parliament at work and find three people in the chamber and wonder what's going on. I'd be in there far more if I could take my laptop in," he says.

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