Partial unveiling of censored Adams briefing fails to satisfy Labour

Ombudsman orders partial release of redacted material in February briefing to incoming ICT Minister Amy Adams

A revised version of post-election briefing notes to ICT Minister Amy Adams has revealed some points that were redacted in the original public document, issued in February. But these at best give partial answers about key issues in the portfolio and continue to raise questions about the points that are still redacted, says Labour ICT spokesperson Clare Curran.

The briefing notes were prepared by the Ministry of Economic Development. The partial release of new material in the briefing follows an order from the office of the Ombudsman.

Curran says some of the points that have been restored leave her wondering why they were so sensitive as to have been redacted in the first place.

Paragraph 39, for example, flags the uncertainty about Sky TV’s allegedly restrictive contract terms and their effect on use of the Ultra fast Broadband (UFB) network.

“It has also been questioned whether there are inappropriate barriers to the availability of premium content to distributors other than Sky in New Zealand, and whether this will impede take up and the benefits of the UFB,” says the restored section. “That doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know,” Curran says; “but it’s interesting that [Adams] didn’t want us to know that”.

A planned review of the 1989 Radiocommunications Act is newly disclosed, in Paragraph 65, but only in general terms. “I agree it's time to review the Act,” Curran says, “but it would be good to know the terms of reference and scope of that review.”

The only clue is in a restored passage that says “the Act’s provisions with respect to interference came under scrutiny in 2009 when Telecom’s new XT network detrimentally affected the Vodafone and 2degrees networks. The parties ultimately resolved the issue commercially, but certain provisions in the Act may need to be strengthened to provide greater regulatory certainty.”

A review will set significant background for negotiation on spectrum rights for fourth-generation technologies, says Curran. No more information has been made available on the timetabling of spectrum auctions or allocations. She says she understands these are likely to be deferred until next year, holding back the plans of potential investors in 4G, possibly as an outcome of pressure from iwi.

The following section of the briefing, on copyright law, is also partly restored and indicates concern by government over whether current laws discourage innovation. A long and controversial review of the Copyright Act’s provisions on digital content took place from 2008 to 2011 and a broader revision of the Act is planned for 2013.

“Digital content creation is becoming increasingly important from an economic perspective and concerns have been raised by users around whether copyright laws discourage the development of new digital content and innovation, and protect out-dated business models,” says the restored paragraph.

Acknowledgement of this problem is “heartening” to see, Curran says, but spokespeople in Adams’s office seem to be downplaying its importance in comments to media, she adds.

New Zealand’s economic sovereignty over digital communication is vital to the encouragement of “weightless” exports, says Curran. In view of continued US pressure for uniformity in intellectual property law under the ongoing Trans-Pacific partnership negotiations, “one would hope the government is taking these questions seriously,” she says.

“The Communications and the IT Policy Team intends to work with the Intellectual Property Policy Team within the Ministry (which reports to the Minister of Commerce), to assess whether the 2008 amendments [to copyright legislation for digital media] encourage the appropriate balance between protecting intellectual property holders’ rights to encourage innovation while ensuring there is good access and opportunities to use information on the internet, which is also important for innovation,” says a restored passage in the briefing.

Referring to the original and continued redactions in the briefing, Curran says “it’s embarrassing for a minister to treat her portfolio with arrogance and the public with contempt.”

The revised version of the briefing document may be viewed here.

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