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Thursday, 7 December 2000
Page: 23744

Mr HATTON (12:15 AM) —I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment Bill 2000. It is a marvellous privilege to be able to speak in the parliament tonight in the dying embers of the parliamentary year. It is so for me on what is our last day of sitting in the 20th century, in the second millennium for the Australian parliament and at the end of our first century of Federation. To speak on this bill tonight about matters that not only are current but go to the core of the central infrastructure of the Internet in the future is a great thing. This bill is about accuracy in naming things. I had hoped that the same accuracy demanded of Internet usage would spill over into the question of accuracy in relation to the determination of the end of the century and the millennium.

I still fail to understand the utter, complete and total stupidity of the marketers who nominated 31 December 1999 as the end of the 20th century and of the second millennium. In fact—this is instructive, and I will make the connection with this bill shortly—the greatest marketing opportunity ever was totally squandered. The 31 December 1999 should have been a universal celebration of the end of the 20th century and the second millennium. The 31 December 2000 should have been universally celebrated as the dawning of the 21st century and the third Christian millennium. There should have been two great celebrations. There should have been one at the end of 1999 heralding the completion of the 20th century and the second millennium, which the year 2000 truly is, and there should have been one at the end of the year 2000 heralding the start on 1 January 2001 of the 21st century, the third millennium and the Centenary of Federation. The last one will in fact be properly and accurately celebrated in 2001. This is in consonance with the first year of the 21st century and the third millennium. Our Federation forebears 100 years ago correctly discerned when the end of the 19th century was. For people 100 years ago, mathematical, scientific and historical accuracy were as highly prized as they are so demeaned at the end of this century.

The bill before us tonight demands absolute accuracy, both numerical and etymological. It does so because of the way the basic infrastructure of the Internet, modern computer naming systems and Internet protocols operate. If we look at the purpose of the current bill, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment Bill 2000, we find that the Bills Digest says it is:

... to give clearer powers to the Australian Communications Authority (ACA) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to direct and manage electronic addressing, particularly Internet addressing. These powers will only be used if industry self-regulation is not effective.

The reason we have this bill and the reason the government does not seek to regulate much at all if it can help it is that this is a backup bill. If the industry is actually able to self-regulate in this area, this bill and most of its provisions need not come into effect. It has in fact been argued by some of the people who gave evidence to the Senate committee that looked into this that the pure existence of the bill may hamper the possibility that self-regulation may succeed.

That is a view I do not share, because, from 1996 onwards—when the actual distribution of domain names in Australia passed by subdelegation from Mr Elz, who worked for the Melbourne Institute of Technology, to the Melbourne Institute of Technology itself—as new entrants have attempted to enter Australia and as there has been competition with people from overseas, the attempts at self-regulation have been disastrous. None of the competitors has been able to agree. There are no set standards. The government instrumentalities—the ACA, the ACCC and the Office of Government Information Technology—are as yet unable to put together in concert with the industry a self-regulatory approach, hence this bill.

My guess is that, when we get into the 21st century, we will end up in a situation where we will have to put this bill into force and move from industry self-regulation to regulation by government. That should not be such a strange thing to contemplate, particularly if you actually see a purpose for the Commonwealth government in a range of different areas and a purpose where it can stand as an independent arbiter within the Australian business community. An example we can readily look at that is really quite good is Australian business names. If you look at how those business names are registered for trade purposes and the current linkage with the Australian business number, which was brought into place in legislation earlier this year, you will see there is a name and an underlying number that reference themselves and are provided through government instrumentalities. Those two things together pin down the nature, the name and referencing of a particular Australian company.

Companies that operate under those Australian business names which are connected to their ABNs know where they sit in the scheme of things. Governments can be sure who they are dealing with and businesses can be sure how they deal with different government instrumentalities. And the conjunction is such that there can be certainty. If there is one thing needed in the business world, it is certainty, and people seek that a great deal. Likewise, within the Internet system, which is simply a connection of all the computers around the world that are hooked up to it, you need certainty in terms of naming, you need certainty in terms of domain name administration and you need certainty in terms of the Internet protocols that are used. This is something that cannot be slapdash.

The core thing that needs to be appreciated is just what this whole thing is about and what the technicalities that are addressed in this bill attempt to do. For that you need a little context and history. Essentially what we are dealing with in this bill is the progression from a backyard, cottage, scientific pursuit through to a more sophisticated and highly complex use of certain protocols through to an even greater series of levels of complexity as this system has developed. In Australia, one man working at the Melbourne Institute of Technology, Mr Elz, gained from the international body in charge of domain name administration the right to allocate names. This bloke did it voluntarily and he was pretty overworked. During the 1980s he was not particularly overworked, because there was not much to the Internet. If I go back in time to look at what was there, in 1982 IBM introduced the first of the personal computers which came to dominate the world. Only 18 years on we have had a magnificent proliferation of computer power, an enormous extension of memory and processor power and, since 1995, the creation of the creature we know as the Internet or the World Wide Web.

The basis of the Internet goes back to the 1960s and the United States military, which was looking for a fail-safe system for military communications in the event of a major conflagration. Together with scientific organisations around the world, they developed the bones of the Internet. What they needed—and they had only a small number of mainframe computers involved in the first place—was a basic way of being absolutely sure which computer they were dealing with when they were addressing it. Assigned to that computer was a unique number so that all the other computers with unique numbers would know which computers they were addressing. Sometimes they were given names, but the number was actually enough.

If we think about the development from 1982 onwards of Microsoft's disc operating system and the precursors to that in the scientific community—the early versions of UNIX and the other systems that were used going back to the first CSIRO system—effectively what we had was called a command line approach. `Command line' simply meant that you typed instructions into the computer. Prior to that they used punch cards. You typed in what you wanted to do. So if you wanted to get to a directory or a subdirectory on the C drive, at the `C drive' prompt you would type in `dir/', and then the name of the subdirectory, and then you would go to it. That command line mentality is actually still in the Internet today. It is actually involved in what we are discussing in these bills because we have two layers that need to be addressed in terms of domain names. The etymological one, the one that deals with naming itself, is a layer that sits above the numerical layer because every computer on the web is given a unique number. So, at base, the unique number is the core of this. The names that we give to various domains simply sit on top of that: they reference the numbers. So in our electorate offices, when we contact Parliament House, we go through and dial up to get access to our Outlook mail. We are actually using a connection to a series of numbers, and that series of numbers gives us, out of our electorate office through the gateway, a Parliament House number, and then from there we go down to our mailbox. We do not see all of that; we see a bit of the names. When the graphical web took off in 1995, what it took off on the back of was a revolution in the way in which we use computers because, from 1982 on, the command line approach that was used in Microsoft's disc operating system was strongly adhered to. We had people of a scientific bent that used computers, and some people who used them for word processing, but basically most people did not have an approach to it.

However, at Palo Alto, at the Xerox Park Research Centre, Alan Kay, the greatest inventor of software and software systems, developed the use of the mouse and he also developed the use of the graphical interface, which was in fact stolen by the people who set up the Macintosh. They wandered in, had a bit of a look around and thought that was pretty good gear and then decided that they would adopt that as the interface for the Macintosh which followed on from the Apple II computer. That created a revolution in the way in which we used computers. That was taken up by Microsoft Windows, and others too, so that now our approach to computers hides two things: (1) it hides the command line interface that is actually still in our current systems of Windows 98—they are not fully graphicaland (2) it also hides the naming systems which are still there in the Internet. This bill today seeks to have a backup so that there can be certainty in regard to the allocation of domain names.

But what is the situation that we will in fact face in the future? If you look at the way in which domain names have been constructed, they have been done in a fairly sensible way. There are higher level, first level or primary level and secondary level domain names. So the three domain names that are in the public area but outside the control of government, which actually controls the dot gov domain name area, are dot com, dot net and dot org. Originally dot com was for companies, dot net was meant for those entities involved in communications, and dot org was for community groups. The second layer provided to that was that those three areas were in fact subdivided by country, so in Australia we have dot com dot au, dot net dot au and dot org dot au, as well as dot gov dot au.

In 1996, the Melbourne Institute of Technology took over control of the allocation of domain names in the dot com dot au area, exclusively. It got that as a subdelegation from Mr Elz, who continued to control the delegation, but who passed it on because the job was simply too complex.

The worth of allocating these names is underlined by the fact that, in the last year, the Melbourne Institute of Technology floated. The stock price soared; it has now come back somewhere to near reality, but this entity makes a lot of money. It costs $50 a year or so on the open market worldwide to get a dot com address, but in Australia, to get a dot com dot au, it is about $140 a year. It is almost three times as expensive; and, as other members have indicated, there are some cut-price deals where you can get one of those other names for $5.99. So it is a business where money can be made.

In Australia, with the current system that we have, with dot com dot au, there is a strong protection, because, in order to be able to register one of those names, you need a current business name. You need to be in business and have that registered name—in effect, have an Australian business number. So there is effectively a government guarantee behind the dot com dot au. This bill seeks to bolster that situation in terms of Australian names. But there are some other possibilities on the horizon. Where the situation is currently a numerical base, a layer on top of names that may or may not reflect individual companies, there is a third alternative, which, over the last three years in particular, has driven forward and done quite a great deal to establish itself. That is found in a company called the RealNames Corporation. They have a system that they call Internet keywords. Internet keywords differ from strict domain names because they operate in such a way that they are directly tied to registered brand names. They are tied in such a way that, if you go into RealNames' web site—or now, because they have extended so much, into a search engine like AltaVista—you can find the name of a company or the name of any other registered entity just by entering the common name. You do not have to put http, you do not have to put www, you do not have to put, or anything else; you simply type in the name of the thing that you are looking for and the underlying technology allows what you are looking for to be found with a great deal of precision.

This bill deals with things as they currently are and the way we normally allocate domain name systems. I would argue that we need to also look ahead at the probable success of Internet keywords as used by the RealNames Corporation as a commonsense way of accessing the Internet and the fact that they bind together product brands, businesses and their common names in the way that those three things are bound together in Australian laws and are protected by the ACCC. As this industry has come to maturation—and there is still quite a long way to go—and confronted the complexities of this naming system, it has become extraordinarily apparent that things need to be done in a simpler way. It has also become apparent that the need for certainty, accuracy and regulation is much greater now than it was in the past. We are not just dealing with the military, we are not just dealing with scientific communities, we are not just dealing with a small number of people connecting their computers worldwide; we are dealing with a massive explosion in the use of interconnectedness through computers which we know as the modern Internet or, as one part of that in particular, the World Wide Web.

This bill does address, as a backup, the key problems that self-regulation in this area has failed to address in the past and will most probably fail to address in the future. There will need to be a fall-back position, because you need certainty and accuracy in this regard. This Commonwealth government has to act in putting this bill through in order to ensure not only the continued growth of access to the Internet and the naming conventions that are there but also to put us in a position to adequately prepare for the next century and the third millennium.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.