On the record with InternetNZ president

In part one of Q and A with Frank March he discusses internet governance and government-backed broadband rollouts

InternetNZ president Frank March telecommutes for the Ministry of Economic Development four days a week from his home in Motueka. He claims to be “20 percent retired”. As an MED official, he can’t talk about official government policy, but agreed to speak to Stephen Bell about internet governance and the government-backed broadband rollouts.

What are the priorities in internet governance?

It’s not a high priority for government in the areas MED is working in. It’s a very high priority for InternetNZ, which is obviously partly driving my involvement. InternetNZ manages the .nz registry and has a high interest in providing world-class domain-name registry services and also, I think, world leadership in policy development and industry self-regulation of a top-level domain.

So that’s a major priority for InternetNZ through its subsidiary companies, NZ Registry Services and the Domain Name Commission. That’s one aspect of it; but historically InternetNZ’s interest has gone much wider than that, into the sort of general issues that arise with the recurring themes of change of business models, privacy, copyright – all these issues keep popping up time and time again.

And at the moment there’s a major international move to increase government control over the internet, from countries such as Russia, Brazil, China and a bunch of others and resistance to that from many other countries, mainly in Europe, particularly the UK and the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; also some of the Asian countries such as Singapore, Japan and Korea and some of the South American countries are quite resistant to increased government involvement.

The tension is primarily between the International Telecommunications Union (a United Nations body) and ICANN and the US government and that’s coming through in a number of ways.

It’s an age-old struggle because many governments see free flow of information across borders as a threat; obviously China has its Great Firewall, Iran has restrictions in place, and particularly in light of what happened with the so-called Arab Spring, a lot of countries with oppressive regimes are scratching their heads wondering how they can protect themselves from spontaneous combustion at the popular level, [facilitated] by internet and mobile technologies. So there’s an ongoing tension between an open innovative internet, largely free of controls, and one that is controlled, channelled and carefully managed by governments. I think that tension is never going to be resolved; it’s always going to be there at some level.

InternetNZ is obviously on the non-government-control side. That’s not in conflict with NZ government policy.

But you do have some disagreement with Internal Affairs’ child exploitation filter?

Child protection is obviously one of those trigger issues to do with the internet, where sometimes ideas of due process and judicial oversight tend to go to the wall and the nature of the problem tends to assume central stage.

The child exploitation filter doesn’t really fit in that category, in that it’s been properly overseen and carefully thought through and is, at this stage anyway, voluntary. Nevertheless, from an InternetNZ perspective it has real problems.

First, it interferes with the end-to-end principle of the internet, which is so important for innovation; it interferes with the transmission of information from one point of the internet to another, and anything which does that is dangerous in terms of an open internet. It’s got other problems too; it’s web-based only; it doesn’t deal with point-to-point data transmission, emails and a whole range of non-web applications. It can lead to a dangerous false sense of security.

The work that the DIA does through its censorship enforcement people is excellent and they’ve had many significant successes in terms of tracking down child pornographers and so on. But I think the filter is a step in the wrong direction. There are better solutions which can tackle the problem at another level.

Having said that, I think that if we are going to have [a filter] the way DIA is going about it is probably as good as one can expect.

How did you get into ICT and the internet?

It’s a long history. I’ve been in the workforce for getting on for 50 years. I did a PhD in chemistry at Canterbury University in the mid 1960s. Part of that degree was involved with X-ray crystallography, which was a major user of computing resources at the time. I became interested in computing as a result of that. I had no formal training; there were no computer science courses other than basic training in Fortran. I got into it through practice.

I travelled round the world doing post-doctoral work [particularly] in Canada and the UK, involving computing at different levels. Then when I came back to NZ I was taken on by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. They wanted someone with research background who could talk to scientists about using computers more effectively in their research work. This was in 1976 and the use of computing for general applications was pretty minimal.

I was taken on by part of the Physics and Engineering Laboratory called the computer research section. They were developing networks to connect scientists from all round the country to computers based in Wellington. There was no commercially available software to do the job.

I was consulting to them, but one of the key developers left and I found myself doing bits-and-bytes computing in the communications area, which I both enjoyed and was good at. I’ve stayed in computer communications ever since. I got involved in the early days of the internet in New Zealand. I’ve kept that interest through my work with MED, because of the work we did in the early days of broadband with the Probe project.

Basically, it was a government subsidy to encourage the spread of broadband from what was a very narrow base at the time to ensuring that about 70 percent of the country had broadband coverage of one sort or another.

I’ve not been involved at all with the urban fibre initiative, or the rural broadband, but all of that is a successor to the early work we did in Probe. A lot of the ideas you see coming through – how that’s divided up the country and encouraged competition on the ground – came out of the early Probe work. These days I’m not so involved with broadband but with the internet in the more general sense.

Do you think broadband development has gone in the right direction?

Yes, I think the major development that New Zealand can be very proud of is the total acceptance of the need to differentiate horizontally between Layer 2 and the higher layers. So the basic infrastructure is run by one group of companies and the higher level by a totally different group of companies, and there’s intense competition at Layer 3 and above. I think that’s world leadership in a way. It’s excellent. No doubt criticism can be made around the edge, but the acceptance of that essential point of separation between Layers 2 and 3 is critical to modern network design, and it will have profound implications for the future, I think.

Do you agree with Steven Joyce that with the increased competition made possible by UFB and RBI the question of SkyTV’s monopoly will sort itself out in time?

I can’t give you my personal view on that, because I’m not going to comment on government policy. Let’s just say that I think the emergence of competition in that area is vital and the InternetNZ position is that it needs to be encouraged and we should probably go beyond waiting for it to emerge.

You mean we should make some proactive moves?

That is the InternetNZ position.

Are there any other areas where you think there could be more government leadership?

You could go on endlessly about the need for better control of development and so on; but I think things are headed in the right direction. There’s always more work to be done. I think the open-data development in government is particularly important. It’s starting to use the technology for access to information on the scale that the technology is capable of.

Better control of development?

I understand part of the aim of the DIA oversight is to encourage less wastage in government computing; all of that’s good stuff. There have been horrendous wastages in the past, as we all know. Having some oversight so major projects don’t get out of hand is probably a pretty good move.

There was Police [Incis] the National Library [failed NDIS joint project with Australia], and there was a major disaster in the health sector in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Not that they haven’t occurred in the private sector as well, but they’re always much more visible in the public sector.

What should be the approach to avoiding more of those?

Basically common-sense oversight; a determination to get better value for money. It’s no guarantee against future disasters and overspending but it should minimise them; [government should] encourage best practice in major-project design and development.

Tomorrow: In part two of this Q & A, Stephen Bell questions Frank March on whether InternetNZ could take over the role of TUANZ in the user space.

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