James Riley
April 4, 2019

Thanks a lot, we look like idiots

Social Media

Thanks a lot, we look like idiots

Idiot Nation: Making rushed decisions without any consultation or debate

The tech sector was dismayed by the passage of the Assistance and Access bill on the chaotic last sitting day of 2018. The industry had been blind-sided by the controversial encryption laws. No-one thought it was a serious contender to get up or that government could be so craven.

And no-one thought that Labor would capitulate so quickly and completely to the political wedge that government presented.

But what to make of the passage of the draconian social media laws, with threats of massive fines and jail-time for executives, just hours after the bill had been made public for the first time?

Again, there was no consultation with the local industry about its potential negative impact and unintended consequences.

Surely to be blind-sided without consultation once was a disheartening surprise, but for it to happen twice within months highlights a genuine problem.

Whether you believe the issue rests with the poor understanding of the lawmakers or if you think the problem resides with the industry that is talking to them is beside the point.

The lack of consultation is a genuine problem, at a time when decisions made about tech can have dramatic and far reaching consequences, socially and economically.

The reality is that there a serious lack of respect among lawmakers for the tech industry. It has ever been thus for this nation of pretenders.

It is a problem based on a lack of understanding. And the industry must accept that it has contributed mightily to this problem.

Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar was rightly angry in a Twitter tirade late on Wednesday evening when the social media bill passed through the Senate. 

With Mike Cannon Brookes, Mr Farquhar is our most successful tech entrepreneur. In fact, the pair are arguably the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs in any industry.

Given that both the encryption laws and the social media legislation fall directly into the Atlassian wheel-house, you would think that lawmakers might give the pair the same courtesy that has been given to successive media barons, mining magnates, retail giants, paper and pulp billionaires and all the rest of the old economy insiders.

But no. Despite a parliament that boasts a tiny handful of politicians – count them off on one hand – who have an interest in the tech industry or have engaged directly with it, our MPs and Senators know better than the rest of us.

They ‘fixed’ it, in the most embarrassing of ways. These blathering know-nothings suddenly knew all they needed to. There was no need for consultation and no need for debate.

They knew it all, and they ‘fixed’ it, creating international headlines that made us look like the dim-witted backwater dullards we surely are.

I wrote a column a week ago to say that the social media giants had reached a point of influence that required government intervention through regulation. It was a conclusion that even Mark Zuckerberg had already reached, as evidenced by a recent blog post.

This was a column to highlight our own power, and to remind ourselves that we get to decide standards and social norms in this country. We are allowed to discuss these things out loud and to decide our own rules.

How completely ridiculous that these disinterested parliamentarians determine to ‘fix-it’ with zero discussion, zero debate.

We are well into a new era of great technological change that Australia has not yet even started to try to understand.

At a time when we need our lawmakers to understand the technology and its impact on society and on the global economy, we are stuck with ‘fixers’ and mansplainers who have embarrassed us all.

We know that the parliament is full of mainly good people trying to do the right thing, to make a positive contribution.

But having voted for politics ahead of policy on this issue, they should wake up ashamed this morning.

The Australian tech industry must shoulder some blame here. It needs to speak with a single powerful voice. Right now the voice is fractured and frustrated.

And we all look like idiots as a result.

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