In the latest Leaders of Tech Q&A, we speak to The Hon Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts. Minister Fletcher discusses online safety, the importance of the DNS and multi-stakeholder Internet governance, and helping Australians harness the full potential of the Internet.
1) You started your career in communications in 1996 – a decade after the .au domain was established. There’s been significant progress in the years since. What do you consider has been the most significant technological advancement over this time and how did it impact the way you work?
There has been much progress over the past few decades but I’ll focus on the technological advancement that fits into our pocket - the smart phone.
Only coming along in 2007 after data over mobile arrived with 3G in 2002, today smartphones and tablets give us much the same functionality we’d previously needed a PC for, in a convenient, portable format. The arrival of the smartphone has also helped tackle digital divide as it’s a much cheaper way to get online than buying a PC.
The number of Australian smartphone users in 2021 is expected to increase to approximately 20.6 million users so its take up has been pervasive. For me – as for most Australians – it has changed the way I work and connect with the world and it’s a powerful tool to keep in contact with family and friends.
2) Your portfolio of responsibilities includes urban infrastructure. The domain name system (DNS) is critical infrastructure – now enshrined in the SOCI Act. How important is it for governments, ccTLD administrators (like auDA) and others to work together to ensure the security of the online environment?
The first priority of the Morrison Government is the safety and security of Australians. The domain name system underpins the operation of the internet. Malicious or criminal exploitation of the domain system can compromise users’ ability to conduct business, and go about their daily lives, so it’s critical to work together on this.
As you are aware, the multi-stakeholder model is core to the way the internet operates and has allowed us to respond to the complex challenges the internet has presented. This means that many parts of society have a role to play in making the online environment secure. Government, administrators like auDA, industry and users need to work together. These critical partnerships mean fewer points of weakness and ultimately a safer and more secure internet for all Australians.
3) In November, you released auDA’s new Terms of Endorsement, with a strong focus on multi-stakeholder internet governance processes. In contrast, some governments seem to advocate for a multilateral approach to internet governance. Why is the multi-stakeholder process so important to preserve and champion?
The Morrison Government strongly supports an open, free, safe and secure cyberspace, and a multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance that is inclusive, consensus-based, transparent and accountable.
The multi-stakeholder approach is a decentralised governance model that balances the needs and views of individuals, industry, non-commercial interests and government. This approach reflects the internet’s collaborative origins, and means that all stakeholders are able to contribute to discussions on the technical management and policy of the internet. It also prevents any one group, including government, from exerting undue influence over the future of the internet.
The multi-stakeholder approach is a proven model for responding to the complex challenges that the internet has presented. It has underpinned the success of the internet to date, which has fostered over 20 years of unprecedented innovation and economic growth.
4) Cyber security, online scams and misinformation have featured in the press frequently over 2020 and 2021. What can Australians do to ensure they remain secure online?
Scams are a serious problem. Australians lost more than $300 million to scams in 2021 with many of these scams occurring online. Despite the size of this problem there are lots of resources available and I encourage all Australians to be familiar with the information available at scamwatch.gov.au.
The growth of misinformation and disinformation is harmful to democracy, erodes trust in public institutions and makes the community less informed. More than 4 in 5 Australians reported having experienced COVID-19 misinformation in the 18 months to June 2021.
The Morrison Government is working to combat the spread of misinformation online through the development of a voluntary industry code of practice, with oversight by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
On an individual level, Australians can take a number of steps to protect themselves from misinformation online:
- Check if the source is credible
- Look for the facts, or if the story is just someone’s opinion
- Read the full story – headlines and images can be misleading
- Verify the information via an official source, such as on the AEC’s website for electoral information
- Members of the community can also report harmful misinformation to social media platforms for appropriate action.
5) While COVID-19 has been disruptive and difficult for many over 2020 and 2021, a clear positive has been the rapid digital transformation enabling Australians to work from home, study from home and remain connected to each other. What is the next major digital transformation that you expect Australians to see/experience?
The use and security of personal data will be ever more significant issues. People will be able to use their data to, for example, automatically find the best internet deals or manage their budget across various services. At the same time, people will be ever more vigilant about protecting their data and keeping it safe from scammers and other criminals. The Morrison Government’s Consumer Data Right is an example of a transformative project that seeks to find this balance. The Consumer Data Right empowers people to realise the benefits of the increased security and usability of their personal data, the convenience of doing business online and the simplification of administrative processes. It spurs a wealth of new and innovative products and services designed to facilitate greater choice and control for consumers over day-to-day activities and individual financial futures. Following its rollout across banking and energy, the Consumer Data Right is being expanded to telecommunications.
As a core platform for our journey towards a digitally enabled economy, the Consumer Data Right encourages competition and data-driven innovation to support economic growth and create new, high-value jobs in Australia.
6) With an election on the horizon, Australians are interested to know, how will government support Australians to harness the Internet’s full potential, enabling its economic and social value to be realised?
The Morrison Government will continue to support Australians to harness the internet’s full potential through our major investments in infrastructure, safety and innovation.
We will continue to deliver the underlying physical infrastructure required to harness the potential of the internet, for example through the NBN (accessible to 12 million premises with 8.4 million connected already); NBN expansion (with $4.5 billion invested) and 5G spectrum and other support. We will continue our effort to keep Australians safe on the internet through our Online Safety Act, Anti Trolling and Privacy Bill, and measures to combat disinformation. We will drive innovation – for example through the Prime Minister’s $2 billion commitment to support commercialising ideas, including the three stage “Australia’s Economic Accelerator”, for high potential projects at proof of concept or proof of scale level of commercial readiness stage.
The views expressed are the interviewee’s own