Kiwi panel contributes to international 'cyberspace' conference

Computerworld journalist Stephen Bell joins David Farrar and Douglas Harre in a discussion on the state of the internet

A major UK government-supported conference on “cyberspace” touched New Zealand when the British High Commission convened a panel of commentators in Wellington to consider some of the leading conference themes, including safety and security on the internet, e-government and protection of personal information.

The New Zealand meeting was one of several panel sessions in participating countries. Abridged versions of each meeting are to be put up on the conference website. The local panel consisted of Douglas Harre, representing NetSafe, blogger David Farrar and this reporter.

The internet and the law

Legislative co-operation across countries is productive in tightly defined categories of offence, said Farrar; he gave the example of child pornography or spam, where there is a common understanding of an online activity that does harm.

But an attempt to combine legislative systems designed within different cultures poses the danger of an unduly restrictive “lowest common denominator” system of regulation and of simplistic “remedies” such as UK prime minister David Cameron’s airing the idea of shutting down Twitter to avert riots of the kind that recently hit British cities. Cameron quickly thought better of that suggestion in the face of public protest.

Computerworld pointed out that the theory behind differing legislative systems, particularly between states within countries, was that there would be a contest of ideas; many citizens would vote with their feet and gravitate to the state with the most appropriate legislation for their needs.

We are at an early enough stage of the internet’s evolution for such a contest to still be valuable; we should not be in a hurry to freeze too much into transnational law.

All panel members favoured education rather than restriction as a means of encouraging good behaviour online by the emerging generation of “digital natives”. Too much regulation, panellists agreed, may inhibit learning. Online safety skills should be taught positively “just as you teach road and water safety”, said Harre. Filters in place on New Zealand school computers are rapidly becoming irrelevant when children come to school with smartphones.

“In theory, it’s illegal for anyone under 14 to be on Facebook,” said Farrar; “but there are whole classes of six-year-olds on it; they just add ten years to their age. Do you educate them on how to use Facebook, or just say ‘they shouldn’t be on there; let’s pretend they’re not’?”

A pragmatic approach is best; perhaps a “Facebook lite for kids” should be set up, he suggested.

Interaction with government

There is huge opportunity for digitally assisted processes to make citizen interaction with government easier and to further democracy by easing interaction on the formation of laws, said Farrar. “As a small business owner, I love interacting with Inland Revenue – I never thought I’d say that. If there’s a problem nowadays, I don’t spend two days on the phone any more; I use their secure email service.”

A lot of statistical and geospatial information collected by government agencies and paid for by the taxpayer is now released, through open.govt.nz, Computerworld said, but it took a private open-data initiative by interested and net-savvy citizens to begin that debate.

The digital divide is no longer between families who can afford computer equipment and those who can’t, Harre said; it’s now about efficient access to the internet, which can be a matter of location. Government has a role in smoothing out those differences, he said. Older people used to manual interaction with government agencies and other organisations can be apprehensive about something as apparently simple as using an ATM.

There is a role for government, he said: “How do we address the needs of those people who either don’t have access or don’t want to have access.”

Part of the latter is a fear that government agencies will exchange too much data with one another, said Computerworld. Personally identifying smartcards, treated with suspicion in the past, are an idea that could perhaps be revived now many people are used to chip-cards for banking.

Public-key encryption could ensure that data on the card relevant to my social welfare needs could only be accessed by social welfare agencies and only with permission.

Farrar suggested a digital identifier could be issued with every passport.

However, the internet has its own ways of ferreting out identity, or establishing a reputational record (for example of TradeMe dealings) independent of an official identity, he said.

Harre and Computerworld pointed to the high regard and practical effectiveness of New Zealand privacy legislation in deterring abuses of personal data.

There is a digital divide across countries, panellists acknowledged – though with some “developing” nations’ citizens dispensing with the PC stage and enthusiastically adopting smartphones, the question arises whether some have leapfrogged citizens of allegedly developing countries.

Harre testified to seeing this on a recent visit to Kenya. Assisted by economical Android-based phones, “education, health and other government services are being delivered through an increasingly sophisticated mobile network.”

Farrar, after praising the One Laptop Per Child scheme to put cheap computers in the hands of rich and poor children alike, cautioned against trying to tackle too much in one conference.

London conference

Media reports, official commentary, tweets and blogs coming from the London Conference on Cyberspace earlier this month show, as David Farrar said in the New Zealand panel session, an unmanageably sprawling canvas of issues that could have provided matter for a dozen events.

One prime focus for debate and comment, however, is the detection, policing and punishment of “cybercrime” across national boundaries. A number of delegates spoke highly of the European Union’s Convention on Cybercrime – also known as the Budapest Convention – which attempts to harmonise national laws. The convention has been signed by 30 countries. New Zealand is considering signing but has not yet done so, says a spokesman for Justice minister Simon Power.

Anti-virus company founder Eugene Kaspersky, however, expressed doubts of the treaty’s efficacy.

He champions the formation of an international police force for the internet.

The conference’s set-piece speakers, including British Prime Minster David Cameron and US Vice-President Joe Biden (contributing via video feed) have made noises about preserving freedom of expression on the internet. “No citizen of any country should be subject to a repressive global code when they send an email or post a comment to a news article,” Biden said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to have attended the conference, but was prevented by the death of her mother.

Despite the assurances, observers expressed fears that the cyberspace conference had set a direction towards attempting some form of increased internet regulation. The theme “hands off the internet” was strong among tweeters and bloggers.

Some, including Kaspersky, say the deliberations of the conference have probably come too late. Kaspersky says eight years ago he was urging serious consideration of the issues now being discussed.

Even the title of the conference came in for criticism. “Cyberspace” is a term coined in the days before the internet became a reality, commentators say, and reflects a view of it as a realm independent of the physical world.

The title, one commentator said, appears at variance with Cameron’s assertion that “the internet is not separate from society; it is part of society and mirrors society.

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