Policy, Politics & The Web: Same Old Democracy!

Tom Worthington FACS

Director, Tomw Communications Pty Ltd and Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra

A response to the presentation "Policy, Politics & The Web - A New Democracy? Technology v Culture", by Victor Perton MP, Victorian Shadow Minister for Technology & Innovation.

For Session 2 "Policy, Intellectual Property Rights, Commercial Practices" segment of Digital publics: a debate, Thursday 6 December, 7pm - 10pm, Treasury Theatre, Lower Plaza 1 Macarthur Street, East Melbourne
This document is Version 2.0, 5 December 2001: http://www.tomw.net.au/2001/fibresch.html


  1. What is a Respondent?
  2. Thirteen years ago
  3. September 11th 2001
  4. Wireless Used for the Same Old Things
  5. Parliament Downsized and On-line?

What is a Respondent?

As the "respondent" for this session I was not exactly sure what I should do, so I looked the word up in the Macquarie Concise Dictionary:

1.  Law ( in some civil proceedings) a defendant. 2. someone who responds or makes reply. [Latin: answering]

While I have a copy of the Macquarie Dictionary on the shelf behind my desk, I didn't turn to it to look up this word. Instead I went to the dictionary web site and did a search, cut and pasted the answer into this web document. The online dictionary has an interface just like a web search engine: you type in a word and it gives you search results. In fact the search for "respondent" returned another word as well:

noun the person alleged to have committed adultery with the respondent in a suit for divorce (no longer legally relevant in many jurisdictions).

However, this definition seemed less relevant. ;-)

As well as being able to search for words, the on-line dictionary does something the paper one will not do: allow you to add words. Like a web search engine, you can suggest content for the dictionary, with a simple web form. This is a type of democracy which counters the Orwellean threat of the language itself being controlled by powerful external influences.

Thirteen years ago

Thirteen years ago, I was the Information Systems Administrator at the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. This included responsibility for what were then called "ADP". We had what was then a radical new multi-processor network for tracking complaints. As executive committee member of the local Australian Computer Society branch I was responsible for professional development, I wrote worthy articles for the IT press on midrange computer systems and new programming languages, none which was of any interest to the general public.

Part of my job was to prepare the ADP strategic plan, which included disaster recovery. The plan allowed for the loss of the head office building, with all equipment, records and staff (including myself). Copies of the data and programs were held in an off-site. In the event of a disaster destroying head office, the state offices had standing instructions to contact our contract IT staff, authorize them to recover the backup tapes and rebuild the system.

September 11th 2001

Spike in packet loss around 1400 GMT 11 September 2001Thirteen years later on the morning of 12 September 2001 the Australian National University Public Affairs Division as me to field some of the calls from the media for comment on the crash of aircraft into the World Trade Centre. One aspect of the disaster was the effect of the loss of computer and telecommunications facilities and on the functioning of world communications and commerce. It was a chilling experience to spend the next few weeks explaining in press and radio interview the procedures put in place for such an event. It was frustratingly difficult to get across to the media that this was not an unforeseen happening and we had plans to deal with it.

The Flight Deck of the USS Blue RidgeIn 1990 I left the Ombudsman's office for Headquarters Australian Defence Force to provide advice and assistance on IT policy for defence. September 11th has dramatically alerted the general public to the threat of attack. However, how to protect a democratic country from such attacks while implementing the internet revolution has been a constant topic of debate in the IT community. In many ways the success of that revolution has been the way the internet has become less of a public issue and is now seen as a normal tool of communication.

On the morning of September 12, my first reaction was to turn to the web. I prepared a web site with material for the media to use and searched for relevant resources to include. Mailing lists I am a regular member of started discussing events, there were live reports from people on the spot and announcements of new lists and sites dedicated to the issues. What most impressed me was that there was no panic and little hype. While the TV and radio repeated the same few facts over and over, there was solid, detailed and authoritative information available on-line. There was also rumor and hyperbole, but such is the nature of information.

In formulating policy for the use of the Internet for the Australian Government and now as an independent consultant, I look for precedents in older technology. This is because while technology may change, human needs do not.

Wireless Used for the Same Old Things

In June I talked at the 11th Annual Internet Society Conference "A Net Odyssey - Mobility and the Internet" in Stockholm. As well as sessions for delegates to the conference, there were also numerous meetings of Internet Society committees, which, in effect, constitute the world government of the Internet. A number of Australians are involved in guiding the development of the Internet and were in attendance. There were about 800 delegates to the conference, with a particularly large representation from developing countries.

Cafe Connect Wireless computingOne of the delights of the event was the availability of wireless Internet connectivity. A wireless Ethernet LAN was set up at the venue with wireless Ethernet cards were loaned out or sold at a discount. It was even feasible to play video of the event, via the wireless network. The result was a considerable number of delegates wandering around with a laptop open in one hand. But the novelty quickly wore off and this just became another tool.

At the Australian Computer Society Council meeting held in Sydney in November, one of the councillors brought with them a wireless base station and a handful of wireless cards. More than half the delegates used these during the meeting, for downloading late additions to the agenda and background material. Some of the uses were less serious, with digital photos of the delegates being sent silently back a forth across the room (a hi-tech version of passing notes in class).

Parliament Downsized and On-line?

"... the public interest argument for access to networked services can be advanced at the political level. Genuine democracy, if it is indeed an aim of Australian society rather than a mere slogan, demands that information infrastructure comprise inherently democratic structures, provide access to information to the population as a whole, and deny large protected spaces within which narrow interests can arrange resource allocation and public policy to suit their own interests." from ACS submission to the Broadband Services Expert Group, "Vision for a Networked Nation - The Public Interest in Network Services", 17 May 1994

My suggestion for the 1998 Constitutional convention was to make practical changes to the machinery of Government, rather than worry about what the Governor General was called:

Needless to say, the idea of downsizing and outsouring being imposed on them was not welcomed by politicians. ;-)

Some items:

  1. IT issues and Internet Resources Related to the US Disaster, 12 September 2001
  2. To The USS Blue Ridge by Helicopter , 1999
  3. Online education requires more than technological innovation, On Line Opinion, 2000 ISSN 1442-8458:
    Online development provides the opportunity to involve outside professionals in course development. However, the infrastructure to do this will be needed. Impediments can be as trivial as the delay in allocating staff user-ids to external course designers who are honorary staff members, but not registered on the computerised payroll. Universities will need to clarify intellectual property rights to courseware developed. Now universities assume they own the courses which staff prepare. This is reasonable when the same staff deliver the courses in person. However, if a course is delivered to thousands of students around the world and sold to other institutions, the author can expect a share of the revenue.
  4. Summary of The Cambridge Phenomenon from the book "Net Traveller", By Tom Worthington, 1999:

    In the Cambridge phenomenon (Segal 1985), Segal Quince & Partners argue that the growth of high technology industries around Cambridge came from informal contacts, modest locally arranged financing and organic growth from existing small independent companies. This report can be difficult to find (it predates the web), so this summary was prepared. The report argues that an ethos of self-confidence of the University of Cambridge inspired start-up companies around the University. The ability to retain intellectual property rights allowed University people to try exploiting their ideas with new firms. The Cambridge Science Park was established to cater to the demand from firms, rather than create that demand.

  5. Plagiarize and be pilloried, LINK Mailing List, Fri Nov 16 2001 - 09:25:29 EST:

    IT students and consulting companies be warned: stop plagiarising "Outsourcing and contracting out of IT products and services" issued 6 August 1997 by the Australian Computer Society <http://www.acs.org.au/president/1997/outsrc/paper.htm#RTFToC4>.

    A lecturer at a university became suspicious over a student project, did a web search and found the material was from the ACS paper. But they also found it used in a US consulting company's web site describing their services. I did a search and found another US company which appears to have copied it from the first company.

    A group of students at a HK university also seemed to have copied slabs of the ACS document. The student's work was in a MS Word document and I guess they felt safe, but web search engines now index these.

    I have written to the organisations concerned asking politely for them to attribute the material or face more formal action.

    If you are going to plagiarize, don't put the result on the web and don't use something which has been submitted in evidence to the Australian Senate <http://www.acs.org.au/president/1997/outsrc/outsrcpr.htm>. ;-)

Request for Comments

Comments, corrections and suggestions would be welcome. The author is available to give in-house presentations and consultation. Special rates are available for Australian Government agencies.

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Further Information

  1. Author's home page

Copyright © Tom Worthington 2001.