From an unbundling surprise to some action on spam

2004 In Review: Government

Arguably the government’s biggest influence on the ICT arena during 2004 was in telecommunications policy, leading off with the surprise U-turn on local-loop unbundling; but this will be commented on voluminously elsewhere.

It was a year that marked the spread of the Probe broadband incentive under the impetus of both central government and regional bodies, most with a local government connection.

This was also the year — the first since 1999 — when government began formulating a refresh of its “digital strategy”, aimed both at the industry and the general public. A draft report has been issued and widely commented on (with a mix of endorsement and criticism) and we await the emergence of the final report, expected in March 2005.

Since the previous annual round-up was done in the penultimate Computerworld issue of 2003, it missed recording the final act in the biggest embarrassing reversal of that year, the shrinkage and eventual disappearance of GoProcure, the government’s ambitious project to induce agencies to use a common system for procurement of goods and services. In the end, GoProcure expired simply through lack of interest, leaving Police, one of the most significant pilot clients, with some speedy “Christmas shopping” to do. In March, Police signed with Tranzsoft, an existing procurement partner, to handle their future needs.

The year seems refreshingly free of major public sector IT collapses, aside from the continuing battle to get the country’s future definitive record of laws and regulations working. The problems of the Public Access to Legislation system sparked an independent technical evaluation and an acknowledgement that one of the central features, the rendering engine which turns data into a form suitable for printing, was not up to the task and the initial choice would have to be reassessed. A virtual media blackout has surrounded the affair, helped by the fact that, as a branch of Parliament the client, the Parliamentary Counsel Office, is not subject to the Official Information Act.

Some nervousness was generated over the ageing and allegedly unstable state of the Ministry of Social Development’s Swiftt benefits system and related applications. While vociferously denying to Computerworld and questioning MPs in the House that the system was in danger of collapse, MSD quietly began building a new software structure, beginning with a case management system from Irish company Curam.

The Department for Courts also acknowledged problems and delays with its case management application, after a year or so of denials that anything major was wrong. It fell to new masters the Ministry of Justice to begin the fix.

More significant to the industry in general was adequate opportunity for local companies to bid for government ICT contracts; an informal body, ICTX, has made some headway in discussions with government over a unified and fairer interface with the industry

Legislation, as ever, impacted New Zealand’s information society, with copyright law continuing a deliberate reform. The promulgators of a more liberal regime got a bit of a scare when Australia cut across its own reform with a free-trade agreement with the United States which entailed adopting some of that country’s principles of intellectual property protection, tougher than what Aussies were used to and had been working towards. Our government sought to persuade that if and when it got into free-trade negotiations with the US, nothing in intellectual property law would be traded away without full consultation with the New Zealand people.

The government got nervous about the beginnings of Microsoft’s digital rights management regime, with the SSC instructing agencies not to enable the early features. It expressed concern that Microsoft’s ownership of root encryption keys posed a danger of government losing control over its own information.

Legislation did a delicate dance with voluntary industry codes in the ISP arena, with InternetNZ continuing to evolve a Code of Practice for providers under the watchful eye of a government which had threatened that the absence of a code may bring government licensing for ISPs, then withdrew that threat but with no promise of permanently abandoning the idea..

ISPs got a small gesture of recognition of their unique situation from amendments to censorship legislation which modified the definition of trading illegal material to remove threats of legal action simply for providing access unknowingly to such material.

Where another negative aspect of the internet is concerned — spam — the government positively expressed its backing for a law, in addition to voluntary codes, education and the protection of technology. Associate IT Minister David Cunliffe promised he would do his best to get a law into Parliament by the end of the year. We wait with bated breath.

Bell is a Wellington reporter for Computerworld

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