NBN thin-skinned social censors

Mark Gregory

NBN Co has ramped up efforts to censor critics and has labelled individuals and not-for-profits that provide feedback or are critical of the National Broadband Network (NBN) as trolls, mischevious and disrespectful.

Whilst discussing NBN Co’s social media policy at the Senate Estimates on 28 February, NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow made several comments that were plainly unacceptable for someone at the helm of a government business enterprise (GBE).

They included personal attacks on critics of the government’s failed broadband policy, and his brain-snap clearly demonstrates why Mr Morrow should resign.

Over the past six months, Mr Morrow has made a number of false and misleading statements in the media, has denigrated anyone that is providing negative feedback or criticism of the NBN, and has now gone far beyond what is reasonable for a highly paid CEO of a government business enterprise.

Mr Morrow’s actions must dismay NBN Co’s workforce, which is working diligently to complete the NBN.

The NBN was conceived as a nation building project, and it has been overwhelmed by negative political influence, particularly since the September 2013 Federal election. It is now the subject of the most intensely political debate about an infrastructure project in Australia’s history.

Mr Morrow’s statements to Estimates – where privilege applies – will likely be considered to be defamatory by some of the recipients of this bile.

The Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, who was sitting next to Mr Morrow, should do the right thing and instruct Mr Morrow to publicly apologise to all concerned. At the very least Senator Fifield should take ownership of Mr Morrow’s blatant politicking.

Responding to a question from Senator Scott Ludlam about reports that NBN Co has blocked people on social media “offering feedback or critical comment”, Mr Morrow stated that if people are “mischievous, if they’re insultive, disrespectful we block them … some of them deserve to be blocked Senator”.

Senator Ludlam responded “some of them probably don’t” and that the NBN Co people monitoring social media may be a little “oversensitive”. How true.

Mr Morrow responded that social media brings out “a lot of interesting people … so we are going to block all of those people that don’t deserve to be on there.”

“There are a couple of organisations in particular that are very lobbyious (sic), Internet Australia is one of them, it is run by a couple of people that were failed executives, they are constantly promoting one side of the parties approach on this, their disrespectful, insultive of migrants, so they’re blocked and they will stay blocked.”

I am one of the individuals that have been blocked om social media by NBN Co. It was only a matter of time before my Twitter responses to the false, misleading, mischievous and blatantly political statements and articles being pushed on social media by the NBN Co media team would lead to a block being imposed.

I estimate that I responded to about 10 per cent of NBN Co’s posts over the past six months, and this was clearly too much for the fickle and overly sensitive NBN Co.

NBN Co is acting like an immature child, one that has no idea how to react when someone tells it something it does not want to hear, other than to lash out and attempt to bully its detractors.

It needs to find a more professional approach to dealing with feedback or criticism other than to block and ignore.

To continue to pump out fluff and nonsense about why the multi-technology mix is appropriate for Australia is self-defeating simply because no reasonable fact based argument supports rolling out FTTN today.

NBN Co’s approach to blocking and ignoring the growing criticism will not lead to the outcome that NBN Co’s management team is hoping to achieve.

Senator Ludlam pointed out that NBN Co’s social media policy on blocking is too broad and this might lead to it being overzealously applied, thereby stifling reasonable comment. Senator Ludlam is correct and in years to come, the NBN is likely to be studied for all the wrong reasons.

The politicization of the NBN is now moving into a new phase with the government increasingly desperate to hide the truckload of failed promises, cost blowouts and delays faced by moving to the multi-technology mix approach.

Not only has the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saddled the nation with a lemon, but the government has now taken a position that censorship is a reasonable next step.

Is this really where Australian democracy wants to go? It is taking a slippery slope towards limiting media freedom and silencing critics?

NBN Co now employs a army of media and communications professionals at a cost of about $10 million or more annually to manage the negative feedback of the Coalition’s NBN policy. And the complaints are only going to increase in the lead-up to the next election.

For Mr Morrow to denigrate concerned citizens, those that are prepared to utilize their valuable time to provide feedback and criticism is disingenuous.

Mr Morrow is wrong to adopt an attitude of I’m above those that resort to social media to criticise for social media is the modern policy battleground, and his brain-snap in Estimates clearly demonstrates he needs to reflect on this.

If we look at NBN Co’s board, there are members that also sit on not-for-profit boards. NBN chairman Dr Ziggy Switkowski is the Chancellor of RMIT University. Does the NBN board support the policy of blocking individuals and organisations for being “mischievous” – whatever that means?

Many not-for-profits spend a considerable amount of time involved with public policy debate, sometimes furious debate and Universities are a bastion for debate and freedom of speech. Aren’t they?

What is the NBN Co Board going to do about Mr Morrow’s unsavory performance over the past six months including his estimates brain-snap? Is the board willing to state that it has full confidence in Mr Morrow’s performance, his personal attacks on respected members of the Australian telecommunication industry and fully supports social media blocking of those that have a different view?

NBN Co’s business model is struggling and we’re falling behind the rest of the world in the broadband ranking. NBN Co will face significant threats in coming years as 5G is rolled out, simply because the obsolete FTTN supported by the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a dud and cannot compete.

One only has to take a trip to New Zealand to see how effective a positive nation-building broadband policy can be. By adopting an all-fibre FTTP policy, New Zealand is now seeing the benefits, over 80 per cent of new connections to the ultra-fast network are at 100/20 Mbps with unlimited downloads and feedback is overwhelmingly positive.

A comparison of the Chorus business model with the NBN Co business model highlights why Australians are being forced to pay high prices for low connection speeds.

When you add to this the low speeds that many will face with FTTN, NBN Co is increasingly unable to move customers to 100/40 Mbps thereby needing to have higher prices at 25/5 Mbps and 50/10 Mbps to maintain or grow its average revenue per user.

It is important to note that statements by the government that FTTP would have cost $30 billion more and taken 10 years longer to complete are false, misleading and ministers that spruik this nonsense are only making themselves look like dills.

NBN Co has put on the record at Estimates that to replace the FTTN with FTTdp or FTTP would cost between $6-8 billion, and take a couple of years to complete.

At the Senate Estimates, Mr Morrow admitted that the Coalition’s broadband policy means that the three million plus premises connected to FTTN will need to pay for infrastructure upgrades, and when Senator Ludlam asked about the discredited figures underpinning the NBN reviews, Mr Morrow admitted that for his family there was already a need for a higher connection speed than what FTTN will provide today.

Also of note at the Senate Estimates was the Communication Minister Mitch Fifield’s ridiculous attempt to rewrite history regarding the government’s litany of failed broadband promises. Mr Fifield stated that the Coalition NBN policy was based on the “best available advice at the time”.

The government’s hand-picked non-technical team had to search the world and ultimately found a European consultancy, relatively unknown here, that would provide figures, that were already discredited, to underpin the Government’s NBN related reviews and audits. Could the government find Australian experts prepared to support the figures used – No.

Mr Morrow proceeded to contradict Mr Fifield’s position that FTTN was all that was needed by stating that “when we see that people are willing to pay more than what they are paying today for 25 Mbps, then we will build a business case.”

“You have to be willing to pay above what you are willing to pay today… To pay for a network that is growing like ours, we need to ensure the revenue will grow in a way that will ultimately offer a modest return for the tax payers.”

So after spending $50 billion or more the Turnbull government’s hand-picked CEO at NBN Co has told everyone what we already knew and the government had been working so hard to hide.

Malcolm Turnbull’s NBN is a lemon. It is already obsolete. Australians will be required to pay for the NBN all over again in the 2020s as the current network is being built to satisfy today’s demands, and not tomorrow’s.

Mark Gregory is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering at RMIT University.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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