ICT Ministers Debate - TVNZ7/Streamed Live Event.

I was fortunate enough to be in the studio audience at the Avalon TV Studios a few hours ago, when the first live televised/streamed Elections Debate for 2008 was held. ICT spokespeople from Labour, National, ACT and the Greens fronted up infront of Moderator Damian Christie and journalists Fran O’Sullivan and Russell Brown to discuss the issues of the day regarding Broadband, the Digital Divide, Online Privacy and more.

The rest of this article is a bit ramshackle, but I wanted to get this out in writing while it was still fresh in my mind. Apologies...

For the record, the politicians involved were Labour’s Minister of Communications Hon David Cunliffe, National ICT Spokesperson Hon Maurice Williamson, ACT Leader Rodney Hide and Greens ICT Spokesperson Metiria Turei.

The video was live for the first hour on TVNZ7 (a digital only channel) and the whole event was accessible via video stream through TVNZ and debate.net.nz.... with feedback via online chat, and real time SMS polls.

On the whole I thought the evening went very well, the key players involved (TVNZ and InternetNZ) did a good job and based on some of the faces I saw in the audience, a goodly degree of interest from the right areas was observed.

After the first few minutes I started jotting down notes from the discussion, basically my own personal opinions regarding the policies being outlined by the party representatives. I should note that these are indeed personal viewpoints, they're not representative of any of the groups or organisations or companies I have or have had any alliegance to...

The issue of Broadband is a contentious one - so much has been made of the need to make high speed internet available to as many people as possible, enough that there's been Election Policy around it for long enough.
This was the first subject broached and my initial thought was that Labour's ICT Minister - Hon David Cunliffe - started up reciting Labour's achievements in office (and kinda ignoring the question of what the policy was going to be in a forward-looking sense). However I did feel that the policy that was eventually outlined was pretty realistic - some fairly decent speeds in the 10-20Mbit range being accessible to up to 90% of NZ's population within 5 years and a baseline minimum within that time of 1Mbit to pretty much everyone. (Whether, in 5 years time, those sortsa speeds meet our realistic likely requirements in that time is up for grabs - technology changes so fast that 100Mbit figures may be much more in demand by 2013. I'd want to see a plan that kept going beyond 20Mbit.)

In comparison, Hon Maurice Williamson as the Opposition (National) ICT Spokesperson came out guns blazing: They want Fibre into 75% of homes within that time. And seem to think that it's not only doable - with ~$3 Billion investment - but that this is a smart move. Whilst I laud this - I'd love that sorta speed - This goal of the National Party came up multiple times throughout the evening but it ws very light on detail, and doesn't appear to address lots of factors. They talk about a Govt-coordinated commercial-partnership-driven project but with central management you do risk going back to the monopoly-over-the-lines situation that existed before Telecom was privatised.
There was also a lot of questioning (from other ministers) about whether this was a smart use of that money - note the 25% of people not covered by this initial spend - and the question I wanted to see answered was 'what's the point of gigabit to the home if International - where the majority of content is - is still bottlenecked to hell and back?
And what about the amount of labour required to install fibre-to-the-home to 75% of NZ Homes within the timeframe specified? (Figures bandied about included 24/7/365 installation crews for 6 years...!)

Have to admitt when the above two views are compared, Labour's looks more realistic.

ACT, when opening up on the Broadband stake, went off on what I considered to be a fairly tangental viewpoint - harping on about competition, the need for investment and for the economy to grow. All very good things - but not really directly answering the question. My initial feeling was that Rodney Hide pretty much skipped over the initial point, though I also feel he redeemed himself later on in the evening - though he did risk essentially being seen as 'fluffy' and without substance.

The Greens spokeperson Metiria Turei admitted early on that she wasn't a 'geek' and I think like ACT, the small parties suffer in that their limited representation means that they are wearing multiple hats, and the old phrase '... master of none' comes to mind. Still, all credit for Ms Turei in her efforts. The Greens policy was cautiously optimistic - they value the growth of broadband (and particularly availability to all) but have some concerns with the policies coming out of the major parties (that was my read on it, but my notes are vague at this point.)

Cyber Safety
As the Internet becomes more and more universal, the fact that it is an open, unmoderated and 'wild' environment becomes more significant. Some discussion on this matter followed; chiefly around whether we're trying too hard to police the Internet (too many cybercops?) and the privacy concerns that result. The Greens in particular want to see the Privacy and Bill of Rights laws reviewed - with limitations on the ways in which the Government can exchange data about individuals (essentilly nuking the concept of Single-Sign-On for access to an individuals government information) and revised positions on the ways in which information on an individual can be released, and how it can be accessed by individuals (to ensure accuracy, etc). I see pros and cons to this viewpoint.
This section, like many others during the evening, began to quickly turn into a National-vs-Labour slagfest (with recent issues in both camps being alluded to regularly) but I should also note that the joshing was fairly jovial in tone. A healthy atmosphere, I thought, and one that shows that people with rival views should still be able to work together, especially when the good of the people is their common goal.

Broadcasting, Copyright etc
This was brought up in the context of the blurring line between online content and broadcasting (think Youtube) and another perspective is this: As Broadband links get better, we have the option of streaming TV. Eventually your means of getting access to Television may be via a broadband link; with sufficient bandwidth on a reliable enough link, you'd never know the difference. The Greens weighed in here with the view that they want to ensure provider neutrality, which struck me as a fairly good argument.
The Nats weighed in with the opinion that existing privacy laws are going to be irrelevant because things we say and do are so quickly made available on the Internet, that there's nothing we can do once they're online, so why try? (This attitude I disagree with; without laws to dissuade people, true anarchy would result and you'd see a hellova lot of defamation going on.)

This was going to be an interesting one, with ACTA brought up soon enough. The Greens are very strongly against ACTA - and Ms Turei seemed fairly well read up on this one, good on her. Another point raised was possible tie ins with the US Free Trade Agreement announced just today, and any likelyhood of the US using our adherance to ACTA, or otherwise simply our agreement to let the US leverage our copyright laws to their benefit - as a negotiating point. The response from Mr Cunliffe was that it was still under negotiation, and I take this point - as was noted by Russell Brown, the Aussies got walked all over on this one and I don't want to see NZ addressed the same way. I think that point was gotten across successfully enough though.

ACT's position on Copyright was that they want to recognise the property rights of the people who create content, but they don't want to make the ISPs responsible for playing policeman. Mr Williamson and the Nat's agreed with this - and FWIW so do I.
Format Shifting was also discussed and this was essentially seen as 'OK' - the ommission of digital video from the recent amendment to the copyright act was also mentioned (with Mr Williamson observing amusingly that he wishes he hadn't voted for it now!).

One interesting point that came up along the way was the issue of Privacy as mentioned earlier. The issue of Privacy is largely tied to convenience. For elaboration can I recommend this Youtube Clip that was posted to a local geeky-oriented mailing list just recently. It's very interesting.. especially if you use social networking sites such as Facebook...

But anyway.

Free and Open Source Software
This came up briefly; the Greens are very pro F/OSS and ACT also want to see it in play. Seen as important from a Local Procurement POV (Local developers using F/OSS for its relative cost and flexibility). Hilighted that the Ministry of Education (among other departments) still offer systems that aren't accessible from Linux and other F/OSS platforms... Labour's viewpoint was that they didn't want to dictate what platform should be used, only that that content should be accessible from whatever platforms are in-use. This much seems fair - lets render to a standard which gives us choices, not opt for a closed single-vendor solution. (Mr Williamson didn't seem to be aware that there were any systems that didn't play nice with F/OSS web clients... The Greens were able to cite a clear example. I'm sure he'll be looking into it now.)

A pre-recorded query sent in via Skype from Mark Seward, an expat now in Melbourne, enquired as to the NZ Govt's take on IPV6 and the need to urgently get down that path before IPV4 exhausts. The Minister (Mr Cunliffe) noted that the Govt are engaging InternetNZ on this matter actively with workshops scheduled for the new year. (I do want to know why NZ Govt didn't have a bigger representation at APNIC 26, though....)

Infrastructure in General
A general desire to see Red Tape squashed came out of both the Nat's and ACT. This is both good and bad, IMHO. Resource Consents are seen as a sticking point for infrastructure investment - but I don't want to see the situation changed such that Cellphone towers and the like are able to go up without the proper consultation. (Not like we havn't heard of that one before.). A general agreement that civil works should include the laying of ducts suitable for blowing fibre down.
An interesting observation - Mr Hyde opined that Unbundling of the Local Loop was the wrong thing to do. (This got a big response out of the audience.) His big viewpoint was that there was no right to screw with the rights of the encumbant with regards to their property (the lines). He said it would dissuade investment.
The fact that lines investment has reportedly doubled since unbundling came into effect was cited by Labour as proving this thinking was flawed. Seems fair...

Final point I noted was a query around whether in line with all the other moves, mobile (cellular) broadband data rates should also be dropping. The response from the Minister was again that this would be driven by competition, and is already under way.

So, that's the notes I took.
I found the debate very interesting. It was nice to see some familiar faces in attendance, too. I must say it was good to see (IRL) these various members of parliament interacting with eachother (and the audience, etc) and paying some quite serious attention to these issues. It's also helped me form some better opinions as to how I feel about each parties ICT policies, which was I guess one of their end goals.

Something I didn't immediately take on - but when pointed out, is very true - is that Metiria Turei for the Greens was a little segregated from the others (in terms of the way they were sitting) - I wonder how much of the 'old boys network' really exists in parliament?

I was also dissapointed that impromptu questions from the floor were never taken. Those that were asked were very much pre-arranged. I suppose I shouldnt've expected anything different from a live telecast, however.

As of the end of the night here were the poll results:

Results From tonight's debate, which party's ICT policies most appeal to you?

ACT: (31%)
Green: (19%)
Labour: (27%)
National: (23%)

Bring on the Election... !