news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has delivered a major speech arguing that government regulation is not the solution to societal challenges posed by the onset of new technology such as the Internet, in contrast to what he said was the Federal Government’s “command and control” approach to the medium.
Since the current Labor Federal Government took power in November 2007, it has attempted to implement a number of measures which seek to control how Australians access and use the Internet. The most high-profile of these was the failed mandatory Internet filter project, which would have blocked Australians from accessing a ‘blacklist’ of banned sites.
However, a number of other measures have also been discussed, from including even the smallest bloggers in media regulation, to the creation of a new media regulator to focus more on the Internet, and also the controversial data retention and surveillance project currently being considered by Federal Parliament, which would see much of what Australians do online logged for law enforcement purposes. In addition, Federal and State Attorneys-General are currently considering new measures to deal with social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Speaking to the National Radio Conference in Sydney last week, Turnbull said: “Labor’s clear bias lies in favour Government command and control of new platforms — whether it be through the Internet filter, through the ‘super-new media regulator’ suggested in the Finkelstein report, through creating a new category of ‘content service enterprises’ as suggested in the Convergence review or an onerous data retention scheme.”
The Liberal MP went on to outline three “very good reasons” why Australia should oppose or “at least be very sceptical indeed” of increasing Government regulation over new digital technologies and platforms. The first reason, he said, was that regulation imposed “a huge cost on the economy and enterprise”, where it may not be needed. For example, much more video was uploaded to online video platform YouTube than was broadcast on television – and yet, YouTube’s own processes were capable of identifying offensive or copyrighted material, without the need for government intervention.
Secondly, Turnbull said, old business models in the media industry were currently undergoing “a radical shift”, and it was important for Government not to put them under “under even greater threat” by implementing wrongheaded regulation.
Finally, Turnbull said, there was “a very real risk” that regulators would be tempted to try and get ahead of technological developments and “strangle the very trends that we out to be encouraging”. “Regulation should not be the quick fix method to deal with emerging technologies,” he said. “Trying to impose old regulatory models on the new media environment will only serve to stifle speech, innovation and competition.”
“Our view in the Coalition is that we need less regulation, not more … All too often, changes to regulation have been made without consideration of the extent of existing regulations or with an overall objective of what the regulations are seeking to achieve,” Turnbull said.
“When in government, the Coalition will aim to streamline existing regulations and remove unnecessary legacy regulations, while focussing on a more flexible and adaptive regime. The test we should apply is simply this: what is the objective the regulation is seeking to achieve? Is it any longer relevant or necessary? If not, the regulations should go. If it is still relevant or necessary, then the next question “can we achieve the objective in a simpler, less expensive manner” and if we can, then we should.”
One example cited by Turnbull was the impact which a social media campaign has had over the past few weeks on radio shock jock Alan Jones. The Shadow Minister argued all of the regulation imposed on the radio broadcast industry by the Australian Communications & Media Authority had not had “any discernible impact” on the broadcasting practices of radio shock jocks, but one social media campaign had had “quite an impact” – with the result that last week, Jones’ show temporarily halted all on-air advertising.
Let’s just take a step back here for a second and consider what Turnbull’s arguing for here. It is very seldom that we hear politicians of any kind, in any first-world country, arguing for less or even the same regulation of the Internet; normally they universally argue for more control. It is simply fantastic to hear that not every poltician thinks the big old evil Internet needs to be reined in for the good of the people — at least one politician, Turnbull, wants to simply leave it alone. Amazing.
This speech, along with another major speech given by Turnbull last week on the topic of data retention and Labor’s Internet filter project, do much to illustrate a sharp difference in approach to the Internet between Labor and the Coalition.
Turnbull is correct that since it took power in 2007, Labor’s instant response to any issue relating to the Internet has been to legislate and regulate. From blocking access to content, to investigating methods to control Internet media and social media, and monitoring what Australians do online, Labor appears to believe that the Internet is the big evil, and that the correct approach is to stamp out this Internet freedom thing before it becomes a threat to the Government (while paradoxically working on its National Broadband Network project, which will massively boost Internet access in Australia). Labor loves the Internet, it appears, as long as you’re using it for approved processes.
In comparison, the Coalition has often been critical of Labor’s Internet “command and control” approach. It was Turnbull and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey who effectively killed the Internet filter project, by discussing the issue inside the Coalition and eventually pledging to vote down any filter legislation (because the Greens also opposed it, this meant that legislation would not make it through the Senate), and Turnbull has also recently heavily criticised the Government’s “onerous” data retention plans. Similarly, Turnbull has been a big supporter of social media freedom.
Of course, it’s also hard not to feel that quite a lot of these Internet freedom and deregulation ideals are also quite dependent not upon official Coalition policy, but more on the whims of various members of the Shadow Cabinet of the day. Turnbull might personally be in favour of Internet freedom, for example, as a leader of the progressive branch of the Liberal Party, but does Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, a conservative leader, have similar feelings? It seems pretty unlikely. To me, this makes it hard to take the Coalition completely seriously on these issues – if the Coalition won government and a different politician from the conservative side of the fence (that is, not Turnbull) was appointed Communications Minister, would we see a policy backflip in this area?
It’s important to note that it was a Coalition figure, then-Communications Minister Richard Alston, who first introduced broad censorship of the Internet in Australia a decade ago. And Coalition attorneys-general have similarly taken very similar approaches to Labor attorneys-general when it comes to controlling and monitoring the Internet as well.
In the end, it all comes back to policy. Speeches by politicians are fine and dandy. But it’s when those speeches become concrete policy documents – that Australians can hold them to – that the fluffy clouds of idealism becomes the harsh concrete of reality. And in Australia, as in other jurisdictions, our politicians have a bit of a bad history when it comes to forming policy dealing with the fast-moving world of the Internet.