MPs must improve tech policy debate

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Parliamentarians must work to improve their understanding of technology issues in order to improve the quality debate and avoid a repeat of the controversial encryption and metadata laws, according to shadow innovation minister Clare O’Neil.

Ms O’Neil told the Consumer Policy Research Centre Conference on Tuesday that she wants to work with the tech industry to improve the quality of debate in Canberra and address the major digital issues facing Australia.

She said Australian public policy has “fallen too far behind the pace of technological change”.

“That is something we need to change. The Parliament will always lag a bit behind in how it handles new inventions and problems. That’s inevitable and no bad thing – we need to see how a new issue develops and how it affects people, good and bad, before the regulatory solutions become clear. But I think we have allowed things to get too far out of whack,” Ms O’Neil said.

Referencing the recent encryption-busting and metadata laws, Ms O’Neil acknowledged that the debate around tech and innovation in Parliament has traditionally been very surface-level and uninformed.

“When the Parliament does talk about technology, the conversation tends not to be a quality one. We usually talk about tech in the context of a flare-up – a bill is introduced which relates to a pretty specific area of technology which forces a truncated and urgent discussion,” she said.

“Raising big and unfamiliar policy problems in the context of specific and urgent decisions just isn’t conducive to exploring the issues properly. We saw this with encryption and metadata, where even some of the people advocating for the legislation didn’t seem to understand it properly.”

Too many big picture policy questions involving technology were frankly not getting looked at properly.

“What we need is a big, sustained public conversation about how we are going to manage this massive change in our lives.”

Ms O’Neil used the rest of the speech to discuss issues around data privacy, an area where she said the current law is “unclear or insufficient”.

She raised a number of questions around human rights, legislating for global companies, consent, default settings and the ownership of data, calling on the industry to work with politicians to address them.

“I have zeroed in a little bit on data and privacy data because we don’t have forever to get this right. Data is the oil of the 21st century. It is so powerful, and so important, some countries are starting to talk about data collection as the means of a new form of colonialism,” she said.

“When something is this valuable, and this important, huge interests vested in continuing the current approach – where the regulatory framework is clearly insufficient – will dig in. With problems like this one, the longer we delay, the more painful the reform process will be.”

“There is absolutely no doubt that legislators cannot solve these problems alone. We really need your help and engagement.”

Ms O’Neil also made another speech recently focusing on research and development, and urged the government to re-examine the recommendations from Innovation and Science Australia’s report on the issue.

She called for more proactive intervention of government to drive national strategic research and development priorities, an increase in national spending on R&D and an overhaul of the R&D tax incentive.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has also recently promised a focus on new technologies and the future of work in the coming years, saying Labor would not shy away from technological innovation and emerging industries.

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