FoI activists mock Conroy’s big red button



blog Those of you with a passing interest in all things Stephen Conroy may recall the good Senator’s fervent attempts to protect Australia’s fragile young people and appease the demands of conservative lobby groups through the late 2010 launch of a big red cybersafety button application which allows the vulnerable to simply click for online safety information and assistance at any time. The move generated derision from the technical community at the time and isn’t regarded as a hugely effective move by the Communications Minister, although no doubt his department would be able to provide statistics showing that it’s been downloaded an acceptably large number of times.

But what you may not know is that some of the more high-profile members of Australia’s Internet community are currently waging something of a war against the button through filing Freedom of Information requests about it, presumably to demonstrate the Government’s ineptitude in implementing the project.

For instance, in late November last year, online rights activist Geordie Guy filed a FoI request with Conroy’s department seeking to ascertain the terms under which the button was to be distributed as an app through Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. The result? Guy sourced documents showing that Apple rejected Conroy’s button from being included as an iOS app, essentially because it’s just a glorified website link.

Guy details the reasoing on his blog:

“On November 29 I used Right To Know, a new Australian website that streamlines FOI requests, to try and figure out why the Department of Broadband, Communication and the Digital Economy’s “Cybersafety Help Button” wasn’t available for the iTunes App Store. Having reviewed the reasons an app might be rejected, the only one I thought could apply was that it was insufficiently innovative or didn’t do anything new and exciting (paraphrasing), and for a $100,000 software development project that sounded rough.

Turns out I was right. DBCDE released documents a few hours ago, and they detail the trouble the department had getting various platforms to adopt the application. Troubles and glitches vary, but Apple rejected the app because it was just a link to a website. A $100,000 link.”

if that wasn’t bad enough, noted Conroy critic Mark Newton has now joined the fray, filing a new FoI request with Conroy’s department seeking the actual source code of the button.

“Dear Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy,” Newton wrote in an email to Conroy’s department today, “documents released under FOI in late 2012 indicate that DBCDE contracted out development of “Cybersafety Help Button” applications for various platforms to third party software developers. I request disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act of source code delivered to the Commonwealth pursuant to relevant software development agreements.”

Although it does seem as though this is quite a frivolous use of the Freedom of Information process, I can’t help but be amused by what’s going on here. Conroy’s department essentially launched the cybersafety button as a sop to show that it was doing something about cybersafety … despite the fact that as a policy it was obviously completely ineffective. Just like the botched mandatory Internet filter project. And now several of the same activists who helped lay the filter to bed are now essentially mocking Conroy’s big red button through the FoI process. There’s a message here that politicians should pay attention to. Don’t take on the Internet. You’re never going to win. And your mistakes will hang around for years.

Image credit: DBCDE


  1. As an iOS developer I want to know how I can get paid $100,000 for a red button app. Hell even If I got $1,000 I would be laughing all the way to the bank.

  2. Although others will no doubt form their own opinions, I’m not sure I agree with Renai’s characterisation of these activities as “frivolous.”

    The Government has spent several hundred thousand dollars on these things, first for Microsoft Windows, then for a selection of mobile platforms. They’re all basically the same thing: A widget on the screen which, when activated, invokes a web browser pointing at ACMA’s website.

    On a Windows system, you can achieve roughly the same outcome by visiting the ACMA website, and dragging the icon on your browser’s URL bar onto the desktop as a shortcut. Add a custom icon (like, say, my twitter avatar), and Bob’s your uncle, instant Cyber Safety Button: the thing that Prime Minister Gillard spent time during a slow news day yesterday highlighting as one of the Government’s cyberachievements.

    You can do the same thing on a Mac or a Linux box, which is only interesting because DBCDE hasn’t seen fit to “protect” the Mac-using or Linux-using population, so if you want it you’ll have to do it yourself. Now you know how.

    So anyway, far from being frivolous, it strikes me that drawing attention Government waste and ineptitude is precisely the sort of thing that the FoI process is supposed to facilitate, even if, by Government standards, a few hundred thousand bucks counts is small-fry.


    – mark

  3. Yeah I don’t think it’s frivolous either although my reasons differ slightly. Mark’s talked about the fact it’s useless and expensive and both those things are true and the crux of why I requested the information, but WHY it’s useless is my primary concern. It’s expensive because for government to do anything is expensive. $100,000 at the end of the day is basically the minimum cost of an initiative like this (more was budgeted, it came in under). That’s because you first need a legal examination of the project, then allocation of resources, and all sorts of initial steps that are the same no matter what and all those cost money. Yeah it cost heaps, yeah that sucks, not the biggest problem.

    The uselessness comes from the fact that government is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Somewhere in DBCDE some folks sat down and said “cyberbullying, is a thing. It’s like bullying but… cyber.” They then tried to discern what was cyber about cyberbullying as distinct from just regular everyday being a jerk on the Internet and either got it wrong or determined that there is no difference (because materially there’s not), and then they went to solve the problem anyway. The big red button of bedwetting terror doesn’t do anything. OF COURSE IT DOESN”T, what would it do?! That’s why the thing got such derision in the technology community at the time, but it was nice to see that the department’s contractors and Apple all officially confirmed it.

    That’s what I was trying to highlight. I don’t think the government is listening though, they’ve just launched a multilateral protocol with a bunch of social media companies who are incorporated outside of Australia’s jurisdiction to further combat the cyberness of cyberbullying. That won’t achieve anything either, and I’ll point that out when it doesn’t too.

    • I would like to hear more about your thoughts on this. Having been spoon-fed media stories about the scurge of cyberbullying, it is nice to have some questions raised such as ‘what is cyberbullying anyway?’

      I think there is probably a distinction between being a bully and being a jerk. Then there is also a distinction between being a bully in face to face situations, or using electronic mediums like SMS or the internet.

      But while these distinctions are real, are they important? If they are important, then why are they important? Conroy’s button has failed to address the problem, but is that because the problem doesn’t exist – or because it isn’t what people assume it is?

      Now you have got me looking at this situation in a different light, which is always a good thing. I would like to know if you think there is any kind of underlying problem, and if there is, are there any kind of responses that the government could take that would be more effective?

      • If I’m being completely candid I believe there probably are some things about bullying which have changed where some forms of communication technology have changed it and there’s probably some things that can be done to address that. For a start, teachers and parents (who are the ones who have historically been positioned to intercept antisocial behaviour in children) may not understand as well as they could that the geographical and time boundaries for the behaviour of changed.

        As an example, teachers are able to discipline a student of theirs that bullies another in their school historically (and offer assistance to the victim), but emerging communications technologies mean a student at my school can bully a student at yours inside of school time. Ideally educators would understand this and there would be protocols where schools could handle cross-jurisdictional disciplinary issues like that.

        As part of the big red button not solving any problem it doesn’t solve this one because it’s significantly better to empower and inform authority figures and mentors than it is to give a child a way to contact the government for help that they already had anyway (in part because victimised children don’t go to authorities for help, much less the government, otherwise bullying would be stopped immediately each time it started). That information and empowerment should be something the Department of Health and Aging does in a campaign like the ones where we are informed and empowered about say domestic violence, because to the extent it’s a problem at all it’s a similar one to that. There was never, never a problem where victims couldn’t contact the government for help with people being mean to them.

        In terms of it being jerkiness, in a bunch of circumstances it really is just that. If it’s more than that it’s either a police or mental health issue in which case see the above again.

        Just my $8.02

        • Thanks for the thoughtful response.

          Again, it is making me look at the subject from different angles, which is great. It looks like the government’s response was along the lines of “This bullying is ‘cyber’ so our fix must also be ‘cyber’ and what is more ‘cyber’ than a mobile phone app?”

          Naturally, the channel used by bullies doesn’t need to dictate the channel used to address the bullying. As you say, the traditional method of managing such a situation involves parents, teachers etc – and by giving them awareness of this new channel, then they can manage these situations appropriately.

          But I do wonder if there are ways to use technology to help more? For example, if the app was to point out the location of the nearest ‘safe’ house, or the nearest counsellor based on your current location etc (not so much use inside schools, but maybe outside them). Or was to start recording sound and video, with a time and location stamp, so that the bullying (if it is physical) can be logged.
          Of course, I am sure there are already lots of tools out there to help parents help their kids. Filters and blockers etc. That then becomes a matter of education.

          I guess that tech can help with bullying, whether it is ‘cyber’ or not. But how can the government help with that? I’m not sure, but the big red button is obviously not the answer.

          • It looks like the government’s response was along the lines of “This bullying is ‘cyber’ so our fix must also be ‘cyber’ and what is more ‘cyber’ than a mobile phone app?”

            Maybe. There’s a few problems with that though, and most of them fall under the general heading that kids don’t think about technology. Kids don’t think about cyberbullying, online banking, smart TVs or digital society. They just think about bullying, money, watching shows and other people. Adults, maybe the ones that work at DBCDE, remember a time where this technology didn’t exist or at least remember when it wasn’t pervasive and transparent, but kids don’t. There is no such thing as cyber anything. To most kids there’s not even such a thing as an app, there’s just a thing they can do with their phone. Maybe there’s just a thing they can do.

            But I do wonder if there are ways to use technology to help more? For example, if the app was to point out the location of the nearest ‘safe’ house, or the nearest counsellor based on your current location etc (not so much use inside schools, but maybe outside them). Or was to start recording sound and video, with a time and location stamp, so that the bullying (if it is physical) can be logged.

            Kids don’t use technology this way. Adults do. When the current crop of kids become adults they still won’t.

            Child victims of bullying don’t report that they are being bullied, either to someone at a safe house, a consellor or someone else. If they discuss it they discuss it with other kids. There are legion legal problems with recording sound and video with time or date stamps starting from the fact it’s illegal surveillance and finishing up at the time you’re canvassing the idea of the government giving children the ability to record video of each other which could result in truly amazing levels of international news coverage when its revealed Australia’s world-leading child pornography laws and government supplied video tools collide.

            We can’t use adult perspectives on the benefits of technology to help children out in social problems. The good news is we have heaps of experts in other parts of the government like health, family services and education who know broadly what the issues are around bullying and some strategies to help either stop it or deal with it when it happens. All we need is for the ALP to stop burying Australia’s department of the Internet in gagging sackfuls of money which they spend trying to popularise and regulate fictional differences between reading abusive text off a 7 inch screen and hearing abusive yelling from across the playground.

  4. Mark,

    No need to worry about DBCDE striking it down for frivolousness. Only the information commissioner can do that upon review. It’s not like the time the Commonwealth Ombudsmen said your were frivolous and vexatious (and questioned your capacity) that time you complained about ACMA.

    • But… this only has instructions for Apple iPad, iPhone or iPod devices.

      There is still no protection for Macs !!!!

      • I haven’t head of a cyber-hipster. And if they did exist, why would they need a Big Red Cyber Button?

        Regular hipsters don’t need protection do they?

  5. If nothing else at least the government is continuing in the internet tradition of ensuring there are plenty of big red buttons that don’t do anything.

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