Editorial: Note to InternetNZ: First impressions count

Is InternetNZ's constituency its 300 members or the people who pay domain name fees?

One of the nicest things about being editor of Computerworld is that I get to chat about technology in other media. The most regular spots are on TVNZ’s Breakfast and on Radio NZ with host Kathryn Ryan (shout out to Donald Clark who alternates with me).

The only brief I have is that I must talk about ‘technology’. The day before I am due to appear I email a summary about what I’m going to talk about (by the way I’ve gained huge respect for the hosts on both TVNZ and Radio NZ as they manage to sustain lengthy live shows in which they are confronted with a huge variety of topics).

So it was that last week I thought up the idea of talking about InternetNZ’s NetHui. My TVNZ appearance on the Wednesday morning marked the start of the three-day conference at Sky City in Auckland. With a cheap ticket price of $40, the event was a sell-out with 600 registrations.

As InternetNZ is a charity and collects millions of dollars each year in domain name funding – a form of public funding – I thought it would be of interest to New Zealanders. And I liked the way NetHui had been marketed, apparently it was about “openness, participation and making sure the internet works for all of us”.

The trick of course was to find the hook for a television audience, bearing in mind I had about two minutes to speak. The day before, at the InTAC event (a pre-NetHui conference to discuss the technical aspects of telco networks) I thought I’d found it. The keynote speaker, Lev Gonick from Ohio, talked about interesting uses of fast-fibre networks and one of them was a three-dimensional, high-definition hologram dance performance. I thought it was pretty cool and so did the Breakfast show producer. A quick call to the NetHui organisers and we’d arranged for some footage to show on the programme the next day.

“Don’t worry if you don’t live in Auckland, you can still attend virtually,” I told co-host Toni Street (or words to that effect), “just go online and check it out.” I gave the NetHui web address twice. “If you live in Invercargill, Matamata, Christchurch and have a decent copper line connection you can participate virtually,” I enthused.

Then I rocked up to the event. I’m writing this on the Wednesday afternoon and I’m sure thatNetHui had heaps of exciting moments and interesting discussions, but they did not take place in the first two hours.

The MC began with a fun competition about internet knowledge, but he ruined it when he gave out the prize to the woman who won it and made a crack about photos of naked women being 80 percent of internet traffic. He then showed a photo of a naked woman. This prompted a Twitter apology from Lance Wiggs: “At @nzgather we talked about sexist attitudes at conferences. Sad to see it here at #nethui by external MC. Apologies from this councillor.”

(I might have let that pass if the previous day at the InTAC event the MC hadn’t begun by welcoming the women in the room and pointing out there was maybe just three of us. Imagine if he’d said “shout out to all the Maori people in the room, all three of you”. Really, really bad.)

OK, silly sexist comments aside, the keynote for NetHui – the very first speaker in an event brimming with people excited about the internet – was former Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour , who is now a lawyer for US firm Fulbright & Jaworski. She gave an hour-long presentation dissecting recent privacy rulings against Twitter, Google, Facebook and MySpace. Clearly an issue of great importance and I have no doubt of great interest to many in the room, but it was not inspirational.

“Lacks excitement and narrows the scope, instead of setting a broad agenda,” noted one delegate.

If you had tuned into the NetHui webcast, knew only a little about technology but were keen to learn more, I doubt you would have lasted five minutes. It was a very specific, almost scholarly presentation about a topic that, while important, is hardly going to stir up tech fever.

InternetNZ, you need to do better. You collect millions of dollars in public money every year, and you only have 300 members.

A NetHui is a fantastic idea but opening a community event with a lawyerly discussion on internet privacy shows an almost wilful lack of interest in engaging with mainstream New Zealand. As for the casual sexist remarks from two MCs... ugh.

*This Editorial appeared in the print edition of Computerworld published on Monday July 16.

Lance Wiggs has written a response published on his blog here

Please note the name of keynote speaker Pamela Jones Harbour has been corrected (thanks Lance for pointing that out).

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