InternetNZ happy with a low public profile

Part two of Q and A interview with InternetNZ CEO Vikram Kumar

In the second part of Computerworld's Q and A interview with Internet NZ CEO Vikram Kumar he discusses the organisation's public image.

What kind of profile do you think InternetNZ has with New Zealanders in general; those not knowledgeable about the internet? Do you want a better profile there?

Absolutely; I think we took a big step in doing that with NetHui. There is always going to be a subset of the community that are interested to joining us as members and a much larger number of people who, like us, have an interest in protecting and promoting the internet.

I think NetHui was a way of reaching out to that community and encouraging them to come together.

Did you get that many non-technically-minded people at the event?

We got about 500 with a good mix from all segments. How many times did you hear the words “fibre” or “copper”? Not that many. So it was by no means a traditional network or telco conference. It was a conference [that attracted] people who use the internet as a tool; what they were interested in were the social, cultural, economic and educational outcomes.

Where do you go from there?

Part of it is to keep the momentum going and part is to widen the [perspective] to outside the main cities of Wellington and Auckland. Something like 80-85 percent of the people who came were from Auckland and Wellington. We know there are many people outside those cities who have a real interest in the social, cultural and economic impact of the internet.

Are we interested [in such people]? Absolutely. But that is not to say we are trying to persuade them to be members of InternetNZ.

Do you think InternetNZ has the right profile to interest that audience, or does it still look a bit geeky?

We asked our membership and the answer was mixed. Some thought our profile is proportionate to what we are trying to achieve, while others thought it was insufficient.

There are meetings I have been to, about the internet, where no-one has heard of InternetNZ, so it’s still percentage-wise a small group of people who know about the organisation and what it does. And the organisation is quite happy about that.

We don’t want a high public profile for the sake of it. Our profile needs to be proportionate to what we want to achieve and as we change what we want to achieve, we will change our profile.

InternetNZ attracts some criticism for having a huge income from .nz and not using that as outside people think they should.

That is a diminishing opinion, I think. We are an open and transparent organisation. If anyone doesn’t like a particular thing about it, the easiest thing to do is to become a member and become a force for change. People have done that in the past. It is up to the membership; we are absolutely member driven.

I think what may not be well understood is that we have a structure with a parent and two subsidiaries [the Domain Name Commissioner’s Office and the NZ Registry] who are focussed on .nz.

Those two subsidiaries and what the parent does need to be taken as one block rather than focussing on InternetNZ itself. Any country manager undertakes a number of activities and functions. We have separated those functions; the result is that we have a domain-name country code that is well-run, rock solid and protects the rights of registrants. Whatever anyone else might say, we should be proud of that.

But a country-code manager doesn’t simply run the top level country-code domain, that person performs other functions, such as representing the broader interests of the internet community.

It is InternetNZ as the parent body that takes on those functions. The revenue that comes in is used as a charity should; very strictly in furtherance of our objects. I don’t buy into this notion that we are doing something we should not be doing.

We are doing much more than we were three years ago. The policy and advocacy work is done by four people; I wonder whether people know that. We are a tiny organisation and I am more than satisfied that we make a huge impact.

The way that we are doing more isn’t by getting more staff, it is by building partnerships, supporting other organisations and investing in community projects. To me that is a key element of what I want to achieve with InternetNZ, that we don’t have to do everything ourselves. Our success should be the success of everyone else we work with.

Can we talk about Hector’s World? Liz Butterfield [founder and director] was on the Council at the time a $200,000 loan was made to the organisation. You appreciate that the decision might look a bit nepotistic from outside.

Liz wasn’t involved with the decision-making. Our good governance practices were fulfilled in that case. But I think with Hector’s World - yes $200,000 is a large sum of money.

I have looked back at the Council minutes of that time and it is pretty clear that the intention was to give a grant to get Hector’s World up and running, and to have a mechanism by which, in the event that the company succeeded commercially, InternetNZ would be able to participate in the upside. That’s why it was structured as an interest-free loan.

It was clear from the minutes it was always meant to be a forgivable loan; so in a sense it was more like a grant. It was shaped as a loan to allow InternetNZ to benefit if there was any benefit. We’re working now with Hector’s World to maximise the benefit to the community of the intellectual property that was created.

In what way?

We have got an ongoing partnership with NetSafe, which is the parent body of Hector’s World, and we see a lot of the assets that Hector’s World created being used by NetSafe to create educational material for schools and for parents, for example. There is some very good stuff there and we are discussing how we can maximise its benefit to the community.

We are really comfortable that NetSafe will maximise whatever gain they can from the investment.

There were changes in your budget for next year in that grants area.

The big change is that we have doubled the amount we spent last year on proactive leadership. There are two reasons for that; the first is that it’s a strategic priority for us; secondly last year the amount of grants and community investment we did was about double what we spent on our leadership. The Council wanted us to put a more equal emphasis on the two.

Last year we gave out about $500,000 on community projects and we spent less than half of that on proactive leadership.

So what “proactive” initiatives will you spend the increased budget on?

Copyright and data caps; digital dividend – that’s the 700 MHz spectrum auction [as a result of the analogue television switch-off].

What role do you see InternetNZ playing in that spectrum redistribution?

I see us articulating wider community interests. The 700 MHz spectrum is hugely valuable, and so far most of what we have heard is from the government and from mobile companies.

Vodafone and 2degrees have taken positions and Telecom is reasonably neutral. What we haven’t heard is any expression of the interest of people and organisations in New Zealand. It is about innovation and competition; it is about rolling out services in a certain sequence.

So the role we will be playing in the digital dividend is to articulate what the community’s best interests are. There is a consultation paper coming out from MED this month and we are gearing up our analysis of the issues involved. We want to take a stance on behalf of the interests of people and businesses.

It is fairly complex; you have got technical considerations and market and economic factors

You referred in the InternetNZ annual report to government’s increasing presence in trying to regulate the internet. Isn’t that a case of treating the internet simply as part of society?

There is a difference between regulating what people do on the internet and regulating the internet itself. Section 216 of the Criminal Procedure Bill is a classic example of the difference.

The way that was originally drafted made the ISP liable for what people did in terms of breaching name-suppression orders on websites and networks. We said the primary problem is the person breaching name suppression, not the medium by which it happens. The Select Committee supported that view and has recommended that s216 be scrapped.

InternetNZ has a unique strength in trying to reflect the multiple views of what the internet represents. Businesses, government, individuals companies; that is the internet ecosystem and that is what we must represent.

See part one of Q and A interview with Vikram Kumar here.

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