Get it right, Twitter: Conroy’s not the ACTA minister


opinion Sometimes facts do get in the way with a good Twitter nerdstorm.

The issue started when Mark Newton and Tom Dullemond twittered about Senator Conroy not knowing about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). This was retweeted a lot, using the hashtags #nocleanfeed and #openinternet.

But to what extent should Senator Conroy should be aware of the ACTA negotiations? Only partially.

The fact is that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) would be in charge of the Australian side of the negotiations, not Conroy’s Department of Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy (DBCDE).

While I believe that Senator Conroy is a really bad Communication Minister and makes Senator Alston look like an internet geek in comparison, DBCDE would not have much to do with the ACTA negotiations. There may be tech advice being supplied by the department, but DBCDE would be the implementers of the agreement, and only play a minor part in the negotiations.

This is not uncommon in the public service — the classic example is Treasury writing tax law, with the Australian Taxation Office implementing it.

ACTA is clearly about trade, especially global protection of intellectual property and brands (including trademarks, patent and trade secrets). Things like three strikes for file sharing violations, border search and seizures and stronger copyright/patent protection would fall under the Attorney General’s Department (copyright law and criminal justice), the Customs and Border Protection Service, the Federal and State Police agencies and the courts (to clarify and enforce the law through the judicial process).

Even the regulation of ISPs will only be a partial DBCDE job, as parts of the agreed provisions will be covered under the Copyright Act, the Crimes Act and the Corporations Act. Only topics under the Telecommunications Act of 1997 would be handled by the department (unless specifically authorised in other legislation).

ACTA itself is a dangerous treaty, especially if the digital media demands of big media get implemented, and especially so for Australia, as international treaties can bypass the clearly defined powers (under s51 of the Constitution) the Federal Government has, by use of the Treaty Powers (s61). We saw this with the DMCA provisions we adopted as part of the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the US. By ratifying the treaty, we had to reflect DMCA provisions into the Copyright Act. DFAT has pages on ACTA.

Compare this to the Digital Economy — Future Directions paper from DBCDE (PDF). While it does mention the three strikes provision, it does not reference ACTA in any way. It mainly focuses on the implementation of government policy, which will be shaped by the ACTA treaty.

Nothing against Mark and Tom, because the way the government works is complex and requires some hardcore constitutional mental kung fu.

My issue is that Mark and Tom’s tweets were retweeted. Pithy and concise, it was a perfect tweet. I vainly tried to go against it, but how can you explain which branch of the executive is responsible for trade agreements in 140 characters? It is easy to send information into the Twitterverse. My experience is that it is harder to stop a galloping meme of “Conroy should have known” with facts.

Mark and Tom have every right to voice an opinion, and I am glad their voice is respected in the #openinternet debate. For all I know I could be wrong as well. However, what I saw in the “Conroy should have known” meme is the potential that other memes that can be more destructive can gallop freely on the interwebs, and may be harder to stop.

It was a wake up call for me.

Darryl Adams is a government worker and internet tragic. A former IT worker, he still pines for the days of IBM keyboards that go CRUNCH and the glow of green screens. He can be found on on Twitter or on Facebook. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of his employer, the ATO.

Image credit: Alberto Paroni, royalty free