Labour’s ICT Policy

Whale Oil blogged yesterday a leaked copy of Labour’s ICT policy, which was due for release today. There’s a mixture of good and bad in it. Let’s look with the two big bad issues.

Labour is proposing to levy a special Internet tax on Internet users to fund copyright holders, plus it is effectively proposing that the Government gain the power to regulate the non-broadcast media, allowing it to fine and censor newspapers and maybe even bloggers.

Let’s start with the Internet users tax.

Labour will also investigate the viability of a small copyright levy on Internet access, which would develop the digital platform for accessing Kiwi content mentioned above. Funds raised could go to content creators through an arms length collecting and distribution arrangement.

So vote Labour if you want a tax on Internet users. And like many taxes it might start small but over time it would grow. At first it might fund a content distribution system. Then it might fund projects which close the digital divide. And then it might fund Government websites (as they are done for the benefit of users not Government).

Just as I am against the Government’s DIA filter, because one day it might expand to be a filter against other content, likewise I am against any Internet tax on users.

Not let us look at the plans to control the media. This is not new – Labour looked at the same in their last term of office.

The consultation will also consider the regulatory mechanisms for content that is carried on broadcasting and telecommunications networks. It may be that the functions of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, the Press Council and the Advertising Standards Authority could be brought together.

Now let us be very clear about this. The BSA is appointed by the Government, and has the power to not just uphold complaints but to fine broadcasters, order statements to be read on air and even to take a broadcaster off the air. The Press Council on the other hand has no powers, except its printed opinions.

Now in a merger (not just a sharing of backend functions), what do you think is more likely to happen under a Labour Government? That the BSA will be replaced by the Press Council or that the Press Council will be replaced by the BSA? But it gets even worse than that – the combined regulator would have power over all content carried on telecommunications networks. So this Government appointed regulator could rule on content on blogs (for example), and if it retains BSA powers even order a blog off the Internet.

The BSA has the powers it has, because the airwaves are deemed the property of the Government, and the BSA so to speak is a condition of leasing them. But newspapers and the Internet are not the property of the Government, do not need Government permission to be used, and the Government should not have content control over them beyond the normal laws of the land.

The only acceptable converage of content regulation is if the self-regulatory model of the Press Council and ASA is extended to broadcasters rather than the BSA model extended to press and the Internet.

So having got past the two big negatives, let’s look through the rest of the policy.

Labour believes a single network regulator for Telecommunications and Broadcasting has merit.

Now on the network side, I agree. I think the two sectors are converging and in terms of competition issues, a single regulator would be sensible.

Labour will investigate creating a Ministry of Communications and IT, based in the Ministry of Economic Development, to bring together all policy involving broadcasting, communications and information technology issues.

A Ministry within a Ministry? So is the CEO of the MCIT responsible to the SSC or to the CEO OF MED?

Labour would appoint a Chief Technical Advisor, who would have responsibility for producing technology roadmaps for New Zealand, for overseeing NZ‟s national digital architecture driving the uptake of ICT across society.

I quite like this proposal, based partly on what Obama did.

Labour will complete the fibre rollout in urban areas within the limit of the $1.35bn of funds available for investment by Crown Fibre Holdings.

Labour at the last election did not commit to fibre to the home. Their total broadband package was $300m compared to $1.5b for National, which would have funded a collection of discrete projects but not a nationwide roll-out to 75% of NZers. It is good they have appreciated the importance of fibre to the home and are committed to carrying on with the spend.

Labour will conduct a public discussion about the objectives and the process for the spectrum auction, and how the proceeds from the auction should be spent in New Zealand, before the auction occurs.

A lot of the document is about reviews and discussions. I thought one could be a bit bolder than that on the spectrum auction. it’s apple pie and motherhood.

Labour will increase funding to Computer Clubhouses for the most vulnerable communities in NZ. Labour will also increase funding to Computers in Homes in order to make more rapid progress in bridging the digital gap. (We have allocated up to $2.7 million a year for the expansion of these two initiatives.)

That’s a nice specific commitment, and they are both very worthwhile projects. Of course we have yet to see how the spending promises will be funded, apart from presumably greater debt. But to be fair the amounts here are fairly modest.

Labour affirms that the fundamental human right to impart and receive information and opinion necessarily includes the ability to access the Internet in order to give practical effect to the right in today‟s world.

Excellent. A very clear statement.

Labour will introduce a bill within 90 days of taking office to remove from the Copyright Act the ability to introduce account suspension for infringing file sharing as a remedy the District Court can impose.

This has been previously released, and welcomed by me. I note suspensions are not available at the moment, and only can be if a future Cabinet decides they are necessary. However it would be a good thing to get the ability removed.

Labour will enact and implement the draft Patent Bill currently before Parliament that excludes computer software.

This is also National’s position, and Government policy.

Labour will issue a binding instruction to government agencies to implement a whole of government approach to open software.

Some specifics of this instruction would be:

  • Require that when the government pays for software to be created, it will be owned by the government, and will be shared within government and with the public using an open source license.
  • Require all software developed under Crown Copyright to be made available to the public on an open source license.

They look good ideas to me.

Labour will set an aspirational target of 2/3 of government agencies using some form of open source software for a reasonable proportion of their software needs by 2015.

I’m a fan of open source software, and its potential. I think the great value it brings is not the cost savings but the community of developers who can innovate with it. However the aspirational target seems rather arbitrary and populaist to me. Why 2/3rds? Why not 80% or 90% or 100%? And what does a reasonable proportion mean? If an agency uses Firefox browsers will that count?

I’m all for reducing the barriers and inertia in parts of Government to make sure open source software gets considered on its merits. But I think there are dangers in central Government setting an arbitrary target. It is not a case of all open source software is good and all proprietary software is bad. One has to weigh up the suitability for the tasks needed.

Labour will establish a Computer Emergency Response Team for New Zealand.

Most countries have one of these. I’m not sure whether this would be part of the National Cyber Security Centre just opened by the Government, or on top of that.

Overall there are some good aspects to Labour’s policy, and it reflects the work Clare Curran has put in getting to grips with the sector. But I’d be a lot lot happier with it if they firmly ruled out any further content regulation of the media and the Internet, and also ditched their policy to look at having a special Internet users tax to fund copyright holders interests.

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