In the latest edition of our Leaders of tech Q&A, we hear from Minister for Communications the Hon Michelle Rowland MP. Minister Rowland shares her insights on the criticality of the domain name system (DNS) to Australia, government reform in response to recent high profile cyberattacks, and the importance of Australia’s re-election to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Congratulations on your appointment as Minister. Prior to your appointment, you were the Shadow Communications Minister and you have a long-standing interest in technology (before you moved into politics, you were a lawyer specialising in competition and regulation in the telecommunications, media and technology sectors) - what do you enjoy most about the sector?
There is perhaps no other sector that interacts with every aspect of modern life more than Communications. From broadband reliability, to a healthy and sustainable broadcasting sector, to staying safe online, every Australian has an interest in the communications sector.
I believe that achieving positive outcomes for the communications sector is critical to the future of Australia’s economy and citizens’ quality-of-life. Playing a role in shaping the future growth and direction of the sector is something about which I have always been incredibly passionate.
How will the Albanese government support Australians to harness the internet’s full potential and better enable its economic and social value to be realised?
Bridging the digital divide is something that I am not only personally passionate about, but is a key priority for this Government.
Delivering reliable broadband access is a critical component of this. Since 2009, the National Broadband Network (NBN) has begun to keep Australians connected, supported tele-health and remote education, and boosted economic productivity by expanding access to new customers for small businesses. However, the reality is that many Australians have not been able to enjoy the full benefits of the NBN because many parts of the network weren’t upgraded to the best available technology, especially many areas which still depend upon legacy copper networks.
The Albanese Government is fully committed to unleashing the NBN’s full potential. The 2022-2023 Federal Budget invested $2.4 billion to expand full fibre-access to an additional 1.5 million Australian premises – including over 660,000 in regional Australia. That’s on top of the $480 million in funding we unlocked for NBN’s Fixed Wireless Upgrades within months of being sworn into office earlier this year. This will deliver regional consumers in the fixed wireless footprint better download speeds, faster uploads, and less congestion during busy hour periods. The Government has also supported a re-set in the NBN Co Special Access Undertaking variation process which will be critical in realising the internet’s economic and social value by providing price certainty and promoting efficient investment.
During the last term of Parliament, the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 was amended with bipartisan support. Why is it important for Australians that the .au DNS was considered critical infrastructure as part of the amendment?
The Albanese Government is strongly committed to ensuring risks and threats to critical infrastructure are appropriately managed including broadband and key inputs including the DNS system. This includes by protecting the ‘.au’ which is Australia’s country code domain with registrations by over 4.1 million users. A disruption to a critical domain name system through malicious or criminal activity could have significant cascading implications for Australian businesses, government and the community.
The reforms to the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 (SOCI Act) provide for a more comprehensive critical infrastructure security framework in Australia. The DNS is considered a critical infrastructure asset as it is a critical platform for the reliability and connectivity of the internet. These reforms introduced new obligations for .au DNS which are entirely appropriate to its criticality, such as the requirement to adopt and maintain a Risk Management Program, report cyber incidents to the Australian Cyber Security Centre, and report to the Register of Critical Infrastructure Assets.
According to auDA research, almost all Australians find value in the internet. What key initiatives are you delivering to help improve internet accessibility and digital transformation in Australia?
The pandemic has demonstrated the vital importance of access to reliable internet and strong digital literacy skills for navigating remote working and learning, tele-health, and receiving accurate information.
The Albanese Government is committed to increasing connectivity, bridging the digital divide, improving mobile coverage and supporting communities during natural disasters. The Better Connectivity Plan for Regional and Rural Australia invests $1.1 billion to improve connectivity in rural communities, while our Improving Mobile Coverage Round will see known black spots addressed at 54 identified locations.
We are also committed to improving online safety by equipping young people with critical digital literacy skills. Our $6 million partnership with the Alannah and Madeline Foundation will make a suite of eLearning tools freely available to all Australian schools – not just those who can afford them. The Government’s Be Connected Program is also boosting the confidence and digital literacy skills of older Australians and helping them enjoy the benefits of digital connectivity safely.
This year, we have seen a number of high profile cyberattacks resulting in compromised systems and, in some cases, compromised personally identifiable documentation. What reforms will the government look to implement to better protect Australians online?
The serious cyber security attacks we’ve witnessed in recent months should serve as a warning to all governments, businesses and citizens.
The Albanese Government is working across portfolios around the clock to ensure Australians’ information is protected and to minimise the impact of these hacks. In my own portfolio, we have made new regulations to facilitate critical assistance between telecommunications companies, financial institutions and Government agencies to protect consumers. The Australian Communications and Media Authority has announced that it has commenced a formal investigation into the Optus breach, and will consider its obligations as a telecommunications service provider.
In October, despite strong competition, Australia was re-elected to the ITU’s governing council. What is the importance of this to Australia’s internet ecosystem and the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance?
ITU is the United Nations specialised agency responsible for the standardisation and development of telecommunication networks and technologies. It is a crucial international organisation that is at the forefront of the improvement of access to Information Communication Technologies by underserved communities worldwide.
Australia is humbled to have been re-elected to ITU Council for the 2023-2026 term as a representative of the Asia and Australasia region, which we consider is testament to our strong participation and active engagement in the work of the Union. Being an ITU Council member means Australia can continue to advocate for a multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance that captures the diverse needs of all users including governments, the private sector, and civil society.
Our involvement on Council will help underpin the open, free, stable and secure internet that we value today, and promote inclusion, consensus, transparency and accountability. A seat on Council provides an opportunity for Australia to influence and guide the ITU’s strategic direction.
Enjoy this Q&A? Find our full series, featuring incredible tech leaders here.
The views expressed are the interviewee’s own.