Australia’s outsized role in influencing global tech policy

Jason Stevens

“If you control the standards, you control the technology, and if you control the technology, you control the world” – a maxim highlighting Australia’s underestimated influence in global tech policy and perhaps underutilised potential in tech diplomacy. 

As founder and executive director at the Tech Policy Design Centre at the Australian National University, Professor Joanna Weaver’s remarks direct our gaze to Australia’s strategic position in influencing the technological frameworks that shape our collective future. 

“Politicians often overestimate Australia’s power when it comes to regulating tech,” Professor Weaver says on this episode of the Commercial Disco podcast. “By the same token, policymakers and the average citizen on the street probably underestimate the potential impact that we can have.” 

She speaks from experience: As Australia’s former chief cyber negotiator, Professor Weaver engaged with countless governments worldwide, witnessing first-hand the global thirst for clear, precise tech regulation.  She founded the Tech Policy Design Center because “there weren’t any research institutions looking at best practice.” 

With a unique blend of diplomatic experience coupled with legal acumen positions, Professor Weaver brings to this current role an ability to bring diverse stakeholders together – government, industry, and civil society.  

Beyond the immediate challenges of tech regulation, Australia has an influential role in developing policies that could define the future of technology governance in the region and beyond.  

To get there means embracing “productive discomfort,” a key ingredient in designing Australia’s first-ever tech policy curriculum that serves to lower the mistrust between government and industry.  

“If we don’t learn from each other, we cannot regulate effectively,” she says, with a broader mission to shape technology for the benefit of humanity in terms of both domestic and international focus. 

“The platforms we use are global; therefore, our approach to regulating them must at least consider that.” 

The centre is well known for its Tech Policy Atlas, a global resource on technology governance around the world.  

Tech Policy Design Centre executive director Professor Johanna Weaver

Designed as an expansive digital database, the Atlas meticulously catalogues tech policies, regulations, and frameworks from more than 187 jurisdictions worldwide, with thematic connections between privacy and cybersecurity to innovation incentives and digital identity standards. 

The Atlas aims to consolidate these disparate pieces, offering policymakers, researchers, and industry professionals a unified platform to explore, compare, and analyse tech regulations across different regions and domains. 

Professor Weaver is not saying that mapping and understanding tech regulations would ultimately morph into some kind of harmonised global regulatory framework: “That’s never going to happen,” she says. 

However, she believes interoperability is mandatory to harvest the benefits while shrinking the harms.    

She stresses that good regulation doesn’t just restrict; it opens doors by creating a trusted framework within which technology can flourish responsibly. Examples include visa regulations and share buyback legislation.  

Using first principles as the starting point, she doesn’t advocate crafting new laws from scratch. Instead, existing ones must evolve to meet challenges head-on, including those around ethical and responsible AI. 

When gaps are encountered, they can be filled in. “For instance, in the financial sector, the use of artificial intelligence may have some specific characteristics that need to be considered.” 

While Australia is not recognised as a technology hub in the way Silicon Valley or China are tech powerhouses, it has made its mark in new technologies like quantum computing. The challenge is to diffuse these advances for society, a struggle that partners in AUKUS and Quad grapple with.  

She believes these partnerships and different viewpoints are vital in helping Australia assert its influence on global regulatory frameworks that shape innovation at home. 

“I’ve witnessed myself that when we try to advocate on our own, others believe we have an agenda,” she explains. “Likewise, if India negotiates for something, there may be a question, for example, over human rights.” 

The narrative is disrupted when the two nations walk together with a common goal, making their position more powerful, attractive and attainable. 

“We have to use partners,” she says, “and part of the value of the Quad relationship is our differences.” 

While Australia, India, Japan and the US don’t always agree on everything, the argument is compelling to other nations when they do. 

Something often not spoken about in these international alliances is the tension between AUKUS and Quad regarding technology transfer. Last year’s legislation broadly prohibits exporting particular technologies to countries outside the AUKUS agreement. 

“How does it fit if you are Japan or India?” she asks, amplifying the constant balancing act between priorities regarding regional partnerships. 

On one hand, there are significant benefits and financial gains from joining the AUKUS agreement.  

“We’re essentially saying if you develop new tech, we’ll buy it instead of others. So, you have a guaranteed market with us,” Professor Weaver says. 

“On the other hand, it would be problematic if we told you not to sell to anyone else without providing a market.”

 These trade-offs mean different industries have varying views on this matter, and there’s ongoing discussion and debate about innovation in this area. 

Trade-offs in these alliances invite varying industry views, and there’s ongoing discussion and debate about innovation in this area. 

Whatever the outcomes, policymakers should not underestimate Australia’s potential impact, especially on countries that observe and emulate our actions.  

“They look to us for guidance and often replicate our strategies.” 

This episode of The Commercial Disco is proudly brought to you by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency and innovation catalyst.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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