In the latest Leaders of Tech Q&A, we speak to Johanna Weaver, Director of the Tech Policy Design Centre at the Australian National University. Johanna discusses the importance of technology that makes our lives easier and better, and how the Tech Design Policy Centre is disrupting the way tech policy is designed to keep pace with innovation.
What drove you to pursue a career in tech policy and how did you get your start?
If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be tech policy specialist I would have laughed. I started my career as a commercial litigator and then a diplomat. Towards the end of my first diplomatic posting, I picked up a book called Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig. At the core of that book was: “[a] single normative plea: that all of us must learn at least enough to see that technology is plastic. It can be remade to do things differently.”
This concept really spoke to me; it opened my eyes to the fact that tech issues are not just “technical”. I found it liberating to think that technology could be made differently; that we don’t just have to take what was served up to us by technologists. It naturally got me thinking: if we could make technology differently, what should we do differently? And I've never looked back.
In June 2021 you completed your term as Australia’s chief cyber negotiator at the United Nations, can you tell us a little about your time in that position?
Just as technology has changed the way that we interact as individuals or has transformed businesses models, technology has changed the way that countries exert power and influence. In the physical world we have well established rules about what countries should - and should not - do to each other. The negotiations I was involved in at the United Nations were confirming, clarifying, and expanding how these existing rules apply in cyberspace.
To make progress at the UN, all countries need to agree. As you can imagine there is a wide variety of views and interests among 193 countries. “Great power” rivalries, between countries like the US, China and Russia, also play out in surprising ways. It was an extraordinary privilege - and challenge - to lead the Australian delegation. I’m especially proud of our role helping to secure recognition that International Humanitarian Law applies to the use of Information Communication and Technology (ICTs) during armed conflict.
This year, you’ve stepped into a new role as Director of the Australian National University’s newly established Tech Policy Design Centre. Can you tell us why the Centre has been established?
During my time leading Australia’s UN cyber negotiations, I interacted with senior representatives from governments and industry the world over. It became clear to me that every country in the world - big and small - is grappling with how to respond to the impact of technology on society, security and prosperity. Existing governance and regulatory systems are straining to keep pace with the rate of technological innovation. The lag between innovation and regulation is resulting in detrimental impacts on society. It became clear to me that, to keep pace, we need to disrupt the way tech policy is designed and implemented. And that is what the Tech Policy Design Centre has been established to do.
The Tech Policy Design Centre aims to ‘develop fit-for-purpose tech governance frameworks to shape technology for the long-term benefit of humanity’. What does this look like to the everyday Internet user?
We use technology every day; our smartphones, GPS, the computer that makes your car work, social media, online grocery shopping, the list goes on…For the most part, this technology is making your life easier, but is it making your life better?
At the Tech Policy Design Centre we believe technology should make our lives easier and better. Imagine social media that breeds meaningful connections rather than amplifying division. Or online shopping that gives you the power to control what data is collected about you and how it is used. What about if we prioritised development of technologies that made it possible to produce - sustainably and at scale - the food we eat and fibres we wear? All of these are examples of technology that would deliver long-term benefits for humanity. And all of these things are within reach if we get a tech policy setting right.
auDA, like the Tech Policy Design Centre, understands the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance. Can you explain its importance to the future of Australia’s tech landscape?
Technology is not an add on to our lives it is part of our lives. The Internet and digital technologies have become the connective tissue that holds together the fabric of our society. The Internet is simply too important to fall into the exclusive control of any one interest group (be it governments, or companies, or civil society).
The Internet as we know it in Australia has been an extraordinary tool of innovation, freedom and economic growth. But, with a few tweaks it could be – and, in some parts of the world, has already been – transformed into a tool of control and repression. The global multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance is our greatest insurance policy against this. We cannot take the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance for granted. We must actively engage to not just to promote, but also to preserve it.
Given this, how do you balance the need for digital governance with the desire to allow digital technologies to evolve and reach their full potential?
For many people when they hear the word “regulation” or “policy” they hear “red tape” and “restriction”. And, if you look at many of knee-jerk tech policies being implement around the world, I don’t blame them.
But well-designed tech policy will reward innovation, drive economic growth, strengthen democracy, enhance national security and shape an environment (online and offline) in which individuals and communities can thrive.
So, how do we develop well-designed tech policy? Well, as a starting point, we need to mature the tech policy ecosystem, from the politicians, to the public servants, to industry and civil society. And that is our mission at the Tech Policy Design Centre.
The views expressed are the interviewee’s own