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'Click here to reset your democracy': closing the digital divide[speech for Fabian Society Seminar, Melbourne, Australia, July 2000]



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The Digital Divide

Shadow Minister for Sport, Youth Affairs and Assisting on Information Technology

‘Click here to reset your Democracy’ Closing the Digital Divide

Unchain Your Mind

Fabian Society Seminar, Melbourne, Australia July 2000

The baby boomers, a generation born between the years of 1945 to 1960, arrived in the world and claimed a unique inheritance. They reaped the rewards of the heartache, creativity, political struggle and social and industrial progress of their parents’ generation.

From the security of this foundation, the post-War generation displayed an unprecedented willingness to challenge what they had been taught were fundamental presets in society.

The civil rights movement brought the concept of human rights and individual freedom to centre stage. This added a layer of complexity to the linear plane of politics that was the comfort zone of understanding for many.

The civil rights and antiwar movement was at once driven by grass roots disquiet and academic activism, resulting in a dramatic shift in the political debate. By way of the significant hump in the population demographic, baby boomer values were quickly represented in the political arena.

Labor articulated these values through the late sixties and seventies, capturing the hearts and minds of a generation. The Anti-War movement represented the point at which these values achieved real-time relevance, culminating in the election of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1972.

This election marked the coming of age of a generation committed to change. .

Baby boomers came to power early. Quick learners, their capacity to implement and initiate change has accompanied them through their lifetime experiences. Evidence of this can be seen as policy priorities have changed. In pursuit of the ideals, free education was sought and achieved when boomers wanted to be educated. Awards were maintained when as young people, they needed a living wage and job security. Public services were supported because they were needed.

Through the eighties and nineties as the boomer generation moved through the changing phases of their lives, these priorities changed. Whilst the underlying values remained the same, the way they were reflected in society required updating to suit their life experience.

The commitment to Awards drifted when in the midst of a global downsizing trend, there was a smaller pie to be shared by employees, and those with the most skills and experience

Senator Kate Lundy

needed a bigger slice to sustain their lifestyle.

A reduction in Government services and an emphasis on user pays occurred when the boomer generation could afford to pay. The GST is evidence of this. If you are a middle age person with an under developed social conscience who resents paying income tax, then the GST may have had a superficial appeal.

The values of baby boomers continue to guide parties of all persuasions. Policies continue to be constructed to suit the aspirations of this generation. Pursuit of the swinging voter inevitably leads parties to the middle aged and their middle ground.

Max Walsh reflects on the blatancy of John Howard’s pursuit of this demographic territory in this observation from his Bulletin column: "This demographic (baby boomers) has done quite well from the Howard Tax reforms. Apart from the income tax cuts, it also stands to profit from the significant cut in the company tax rate and the halving of capital gains tax."

It is important to acknowledge the existence of this inherent bias that does not necessarily constitute a flaw in our democracy. Indeed it is recognition that our democratic structures are serving our society according to the needs of the largest common group in our population.

However, it also means young people hardly rate a mention. No wonder there is frustration and disappointment.

What is required is an appreciation of the significant impact of this demographic bloc on policy formulation. An appreciation that this impact leads to inequities means that a responsible government will act. Features of this impact include their response to technological change. What shapes this response is experience, opportunity and the message from community leaders.

Often this insecurity relates to a feeling of alienation from the actual technology. These feelings are not the preserve of the boomer generation. For example, the internet can be particularly intimidating for people who have not had to use computers for work, and have chosen or been prevented by circumstance to pursuing an interest at home.

Without the insight that familiarity can bring, it is as though the technology somehow prevents the application of social values to policy challenges that arise. Some political leaders feel they face a landscape barren of values that could serve as ideological markers to guide policy through technological developments. Others, like John Howard, certainly do their active best to obscure the landscape with foggy policy and rhetoric.

As a result, the issues raised by the internet and genetics are finding themselves outside the terms of reference of a generation.

So in recent times, technological progress, and the economic and social impacts of it, have seemingly outpaced that capacity of so many in the leadership generation to implement the necessary policy changes needed to sustain relevance, and hence the confidence of society.

Those who arguably do keep pace with technological progress and drive the restructuring are the younger generations. But unlike the baby boomers, they don’t have the weight of numbers to carry their views forth in the political arena.

During such times, leadership becomes not only important, but critical. Not just the surface level stuff, where leadership that is characterised by the media as one who possesses a confident yet disarming persona. I am talking about leadership that, beneath their talent and personal attributes, possesses a depth of understanding of the pressures and changes taking place, and most importantly, a set of values guiding a vision for the future.

It is important to note these qualities are not contingent upon age. Rather, an understanding that the technological revolution brings a risk of growing further the division in society

between the rich and poor, is required.

Where leadership of this type is lacking, fear and trepidation are born of uncertainty. Feelings of insecurity characterise the lives of many. These feelings arise in times when change outpaces ability of political representation to offer interpretation, understanding and socially just support through the changes.

It is not a coincidence that these feelings of insecurity have come to dominate during the Coalition’s time in power. Clearly, Prime Minister John Howard has made the choice not to offer leadership, but to embrace the politics of fear as a strategy to retain power. By echoing the insecurity in his rhetoric, often by offering platitudes, and reflecting the fears through policies designed to preserve the past, or in some cases evoke the past, the Coalition has demonstrated its inability to adapt to change.

John Howard fits neatly into the category of a baby boomer without the ability to be an agent of change in the Information Age. He has been isolated, not inspired, by the sheer pace of technological change. Instead of reinvigorating his efforts, he seeks refuge old formulas and the politics of division in an effort to retain power. This impact of this on the nation has been devastating.

It is the politics of the short-term. The politics of single election cycle survival. Little wonder there is no place for vision.

Australia comes to the information age which such strengths it is hard to see how we could fail as a nation to sit at the forefront of the social and economic benefits clearly able to be derived from technology. And yet here we are, seemingly going backward in some critical areas of policy as political leaders from other countries leapfrog whole generations of industrial and technological progress in a concerted effort to offer safe, secure and sustainable futures to those they represent.

Conservative politicians and commentators alike characterise those who have dared to take on the challenges of the information age as representative of the ‘elite’ in society. With the division between the rich and poor widening, the underlying, almost subliminal message is that those coping with the change best are responsible, at least symbolically, for the growing division in society. For example, Paul Kelly offered the title ‘techno-elites’ in the recent analysis of Australian society published in the Australian, to those who are technologically savvy. Whilst the theme of the article celebrated the achievements of the ‘techno-elites’, the message was that these people had dared to construct for themselves an unfair advantage through technology that most people could not afford.

This tendency to undermine the internet savvy, early adopters of technology conveniently creates a case as to why some can’t get on the IT bandwagon because of socio-economic or geographic reasons. This demonstrates a willingness to justify, even to perpetuate, mediocrity as the national aspiration, rather than to actively improve the life experience of Australian citizens through public policy that pursues opportunity through the internet.

With rapid and dramatic technological advances in science, information and communication, leaders are finding themselves at the crossroads. The internet is the most significant, single change on both a domestic and global scale and as such, represents the greatest challenge to political leadership.

The impact of the potentially ubiquitous internet on social, economic, commercial, political and administrative organisation of society is testing change management around the world like never before.

Some of these changes can be grasped within the scope of comprehension of some leaders, some can’t. It seems to me the Coalition has seen to it that the changes that sit outside their view of how the world should be, and indeed those changes that could potentially undermine

the success of the baby boomer generation have been actively construed as threatening.

John Howard has been an architect of these threats as much as he has been the one to offer token respite from them. Policies that actively undermine the progression of the internet and policy neglect where there should activity to ensure universal participation in the information society sum up what the Coalition stands for in the information age.

No graver indictment can be cast upon a person who thinks of himself a leader. No wonder the Coalition is described as a government with its ‘head in the sand’, or as Labor leader Kim Beazley so eloquently described the Coalition in his budget reply speech as "a party in love with the past, and at war with the future".

The level of insecurity felt by many in the community, be it expressed through activism, cynicism, fear or apathy, should motivate political parties to explore fully the implications presented by technological development to improve our life experience.

There is both a paradox and an irony in the Coalition’s leadership failure. The paradox is it that the generation that embraced change like none other, and that created the core technologies driving today’s revolution, is now languishing under the leadership of one so stunted in his ability to manage change and so lacking in vision. The irony is that just as it was the boomer generation that built their future from the legacy of their parents, it is now younger people who are building on the technological foundation provided by the boomer generation to pursue their own social and economic aspirations.

That is not to underplay the challenges confronting leaders today. They exist at so many levels - from the universal to the deeply personal - that it is not surprising to find many reacting in fear. From how we manage our privacy to how our cultures are reflected in the converging media, we face brand new questions about our understanding of and right to manage our identities.. Meanwhile, e-commerce threatens to undermine domestic tax regimes. Global corporations and small businesses alike - everyone grapples with the threat of being ‘amazoned’ whilst restructuring their organisations to suit and make best use of the information age.

At political level, the bounds of democracy itself are being explored as the internet creates new ways to build relationships and empower citizens. Finally, government service delivery and the administrative processes that provide organisation and social justice to society are being re-configured for suitability in an information society.

These challenges demand a lateral approach. If ideas are constrained by the methodologies and policies of the past, there is limited chance of success.

The scientists, engineers, political leaders, and economists of the boomer generation made today’s breakneck speed change possible. But, for some, they look at the results an seem to worry that they are experiencing the ultimate success disaster. Things have leapt so far beyond what they could have imagined.

But put aside the fear for a moment, and it becomes clear that there are enduring values that provide guidance relevant to the new challenges.

Those with ideas and the capacity to put them to work for society deserve recognition. Today, one expression of that is appreciating and encouraging entrepreneurs. Valuing entrepreneurship is about recognising those with ideas and the capacity to put them to work for society. Labor can develop our fullest potential by ensuring equal opportunity for those with ideas. Opportunities for entrepreneurial endeavour must not be dictated by socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity or other potentially discriminatory factors.

 

It is the generation growing up with the internet that needs a sound set of engineering,

technical, marketing, administrative and management skills to complement their vivid imaginations and enthusiasm. We want to allow them to make the most of the opportunities presented by change and take their place at the forefront of growth. Education is, of course, the key. It must take priority.

Universal connectivity is a pre-requisite to so many opportunities in the Internet Age. As the platform for participation in the new society and economy, it demands more than just a hands-off, trickle down approach applied through telecommunications pricing and service policy. The growing digital divide is a failing of public policy.

Surely our future is better served by articulating a positive aspiration, an ideal, that visualises Australia as a nation where high bandwidth internet connectivity is ubiquitous? Achieving this vision will require relentless and active intervention through public policy. Challenging the digital divide with the goal of closing it is a foundation principle needed to secure Australia’s future.

Efforts by many governments to date to challenge the growing division within society have proven ineffectual. Overall internet connectivity statistics show a reasonably impressive increase. But, a closer look reveals a widening of the divide along socio-economic lines, between regional and metropolitan communities and between the young and old, be it in age or attitude.

It is not enough to create demand through putting essential services online. This just widens the divide as off-line services are shut down. Nor is it enough to offer a superficial grants program like Networking the Nation. This program has served merely as a coat hanger for rhetoric and a back door way for the incumbent carriers to shore up their dominance in markets where competition is the only way out of the existing monopoly.

Connectivity is not just access to the internet. It is high bandwidth access. The applications of the future will demand it. The digital divide will metamorphose into a division not just between Internet haves and have nots. There will be have high bandwidth Internet, not have high bandwidth and no access at all. Better to anticipate the future and put the policy foundations in place now.

In some parts of the world, political leaders have sought to define "light on the hill" objectives to guide specific policy development.

The European Union has chosen a primarily social perspective in their expression of commitment to preparing the European Union for the future. Whilst implementation presents an ongoing challenge, the ideals and vision have been clearly expressed.

The EU statement, ‘E-Europe’ has three key objectives.

Bringing every citizen, home and school, every business and administration, into the digital age and online; Creating a digitally literate Europe, supported by an entrepreneurial culture ready to finance and develop new ideas; Ensuring the whole process is socially inclusive, builds consumer trust and strengthens social cohesion.

The political message accompanying the initiative is that the changes in technology and the internet are a unique opportunity to be seized. The challenge to manage the changes are identified as representing ‘the central economic and social challenge for the Union."

The e-Europe statement is very blunt regarding its ambitious aims. It states unequivocally that the objective is to get "every citizen, every school, every company online as soon as possible. It does not however try to define a technological solution of what constitutes being online, rather it leaves open all the possibilities for internet access.

Contrast this with the Howard Government. There is no clearly articulated set of values, principles and goals underlying its actions. It just presents us with a series of reactive, ad hoc policies as issues are thrust in its face. Efforts by John Howard to demonise the internet expose the shameless politics of fear that has characterised the majority of the Coalition’s legislative activity relating to the internet since the they came to power.

This is despite the Coalition’s rhetorical claims to understand we are an information economy. It is clear they do not. The National Office of the Information Economy, NOIE, was promoted by the Coalition as their vehicle for change as the information society developed. However, after the last election NOIE status and funding was reduced. Other vehicles, like the Office of Government On-line, suffered a chronic lack of leadership and under-resourcing. Individual department and agencies were shackled by the IT outsourcing debacle, which still continues to wreak havoc.

In an effort to appear to be addressing concerns in the community, the Coalition has used the internet as a scapegoat by building short sighted political campaigns around attempts to censor sexually explicit material online and internet gambling. The rhetoric accompanying these campaigns is lifted directly from the genuine concerns expressed by devoted campaigners against child sex abuse and the harm and suffering caused by gaming and other forms of gambling addiction - in particular poker machines. Does Howard do anything about these concerns? No. Instead he talks tough about the Internet to disguise his inertia. So little understanding does he have of what is happening in the world that he thinks this is a safe option. Instead, he mortgages Australia’s future to buy another election victory.

This shameless use of fear demonstrates how vulnerable the internet, and other new technologies are to being set up as a solution, by way of censorship, to problems of historical proportions. The only purpose served is that the internet is further demonised.

Meanwhile, debates of genuine moment are ignored or completely misunderstood by the Government.

What we understand by intellectual property is the most significant debate occurring with respect to the internet today. As open source technologies develop, our society is revisiting what it understands by the ideals of freedom of speech, education, information and entertainment. The baby boomer generation venerated these principles, but they have not been so directly relevant to so many activities since Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to define them when they laid the foundation for the republic of the United States.

Unfortunately, however, too many political and business leaders seem to fail to see that these ideals are at the core of what they are saying and doing in response to aspects of the Internet. The experiences offered by the internet are for many, nothing more than a threat to the creation of wealth through the control and management of intellectual property. The digitisation of music and video in particular are at the forefront of the IP war that is raging between artists, corporations and consumers.

The story of MP3 offers the most pertinent lesson on how social trends are shaping the direction of intellectual property policy. Napster and Gnutela, both distributors of the software that enables the downloading of MP3 digital music files, have taken on the corporate establishment. The response from the industries that have found themselves at the mercy of a bright idea has been massive litigation coupled with immense political pressure pushing for reactionary, legislation. Where is the political support for this trend that has seen music gain an unprecedented freedom through the internet? And where is the leadership on the need for the exploration of new business models for an industry that is so vulnerable to change?

What is the role of Government? I would argue that it is to ensure an optimal environment for creativity from the perspective of the creator, the artist, the innovator and the inventor. This is an important principle of a knowledge nation. It is not the role of Government to

stifle creativity, but Coalition will do so by legislating to protect and extend the vested interests based on an economic model created in the pre-digital age.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the internet, a focal point of information services, is under-utilised by state and federal governments. As a tool for delivering government and educational information, Internet usage is in a developmental stage. E-government sites are yet to match the presence of commercial web sites. If the Internet is truly to be a unique opportunity to enhance cyber-democracy, governments must grasp it now.

Until recently, the degree of Government intervention was limited to public access and education sector based programs. There are plenty of examples of varying degrees of success to look at. Each state and territory in Australia has introduced a program to put internet-enabled computers into schools. The public library system continues to offer comprehensive and well-maintained internet access through computers located in the libraries.

But statistics show that, despite the increasing numbers of people getting online, the digital divide is still widening. It is necessary to find a solution to growing inequities in connectivity - and quickly.

There are many interesting initiatives connecting people to the internet around the world, some of which have mapped out new ground in their approach. New ground primarily because they break the socio-economic barrier.

From a corporate perspective, companies are re-engineering their business models to be internet-centric. As the internet becomes central to transacting business it has become imperative for companies to have a 'net literate' workforce. Many companies outside the net-savvy hi-tech industries are finding that there is no such thing as ‘new economy’ and ‘old economy’ businesses.

In January 2000, both Ford Motor Co and Delta Airlines announced their mechanism to achieve greater 'net literacy' among their workforce - through offering all employees highly subsidised, flat monthly rate personal computers and Internet subscriptions in their homes. The strategic importance of the skill set that arrives with a net-literate work force was not lost on the other automotive manufacturers and they quickly moved replicate the initiative. The ability to provide corporate content via a portal built by the company was not lost on any of them either. It was for these reasons, and issues about extending working hours by stealth, that, unions expressed concern, despite the connectivity benefits.

In Australia BHP announced that it would subsidise internet access in the home for all of their employees.

Another approach is Virtual Communities. This initiative saw the Australian Council of Trade Unions create an opportunity for affordable access to the membership of affiliated unions. Majority owned by a private consortium, Virtual Communities offers a PC, and internet service provider account for a flat rate of about $10 per week. The initiative has already signed up tens of thousands of subscribers and has been hailed a success. Other institutions are seeking to become part of the deal including the Catholic Church.

For the first time, a strategy to improve internet connectivity that actively sought to break down the socio-economic barriers had emerged. Great interest has been shown in the Virtual Communities model. In addition, the union movement has been quick to learn how to improve on the delivery model whilst retaining strategic control of the important asset they were creating. This didn’t happen with Virtual Communities, where unions hold only around four percent of the corporate asset.

Whilst that means little in financial terms now, if, in the pattern of many dotcoms, the company is eventually floated on the stock exchange, those with a percentage of the

company will potentially reap significant financial rewards.

The NSW Labour Council, in conjunction with the NSW Branch of the ALP have developed another initiative called ‘Get on Board’. This time the unions and the party have secured two thirds of the asset created and allowed private interests to take the rest. It, too, offers the members of unions affiliated with the Labour Council a flat rate deal for a PC and internet service provision.

These corporate and union initiatives offer more than just the connectivity. The unions and companies have a reason to want to communicate with their members and employees. They understand the benefits of building a net-literate constituency. Their initiatives come with a portal capable of offering an array of information and services.

The organisations behind these initiatives faced the same challenges as a Federal Government concerned about improving service delivery to citizens - how to encourage people online, and provide relevant, timely information. The models mentioned above point to the viability of a similar nationally focussed, Federal Government scheme.

In order to deliver services like a social security payment, Governments need to have meaningful interaction with citizens. The internet is a medium which allows the level of intelligent communication needed for high quality service delivery. The aim would be to ensure that recipients of government services have affordable internet access in their home if they choose, and are equipped with the skills to be able to access meaningful services from the relevant government department or agency. It makes good policy sense to pursue a connectivity initiative that draws on the experience of the existing models.

A public space online, would be the vehicle to present meaningful information to citizens. For example, a feature could be an online, interactive civics education program, designed to stimulate interest in democratic participation.

Another important feature of a government service delivery initiative would be that it would provide an opportunity to set the online standard for a high level of scrutiny and public accountability in areas such as privacy and data protection. These issues need individual policy attention, but even in this, the Coalition has failed us.

Despite the preparation of draft legislation, the Coalition has chosen not to legislate as yet for the protection of personal privacy in the private sector. In addition, the Coalition were been caught red-handed trying to use databases of private information, collected for statutory purposes by the government, for a manipulative political campaign. This attempt by the Prime Minister to send a personally addressed letter to promote the GST was found to be an illegal use of the electoral role.

Privacy and security have been identified by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as significant barriers to connectivity for both individuals and businesses.

The public backlash against the Government for these and other indiscretions - such as the attempted give away of the ABN electronic database demonstrates the need for a progressive Government to set the highest possible standards for privacy and data protection. Providing a genuine co-regulatory regime for protecting privacy will inspire confidence in the internet in an age where the trade in personal information for marketing purposes is a multi-billion dollar industry.

But the opportunities presented by an initiative to drive Government-citizen interaction online go far beyond providing examples of best practice information and relationship management. Such an initiative would be an opportunity for a progressive Government to actively close the digital divide from the bottom up.

This is something that none of our existing initiatives do. Education system programs are by definition limited to students and the union initiative requires membership of a participating

union, or as the model expands, religious or community organisation.

A government internet connectivity initiative would factor in socio-economic status and other indicators of inequality for the purpose of establishing socially progressive priorities, giving substance to the objective of closing the digital divide.

Like other connectivity initiatives, hardware, software and service suppliers would need to be involved creating yet another opportunity to ensure that regional deployment of the initiative had maximum possible benefit to local jobs and businesses.

Encouraging local businesses to participate in such a scheme would assist in stimulating the critical information and communications sector in regional Australia and complement much of the opportunity already identified by local councils and regional development organisations. The information and communications sector is one of the fastest growing both in terms of jobs and strategic importance to both new and existing industries.

Skills development programs could be run through the regional education institution to encourage a relationship between the person studying on-line and their local education provider. It would also serve to provoke, if the interest was not already there, the institution to develop their capability to serve their local community.

Earlier this year, Labor identified the important role of Australia Post outlets as providing the physical presence to house internet-enabled computers and hence the public space online. This would build on the range of services offered by an existing culturally acceptable institution that is highly valued by the community.

In a rapidly evolving environment however, there is little wisdom in attempting to specify the technology that will underpin initiatives of this nature. With hardware prices falling and a new range of internet devices being introduced to the market, how internet services reach the home could vary dramatically depending on the type of telecommunication infrastructure and the bandwidth capability of a region. Or maybe just the preference of the user will determine the technology.

A principle of a knowledge nation would be to ensure that limitations are not constructed to reduce future opportunities.

For example, the recent parliamentary debate regarding digital television and datacasting raised the spectre of the set-top box and TV becoming the universal delivery mechanism for accessing the internet in Australian homes. Amongst many other disturbing features of the outcome of this debate in the Parliament, one of the most insidious was how the Coalition raised the spectre of defining streamed content over the internet as a broadcast service for the purposes of the Digital TV legislation. This would effectively exclude the use of the high bandwidth digital spectrum for delivering the internet into homes, representing another victory for those in the Coalition perpetuating incumbents at the expense of diversity.

This is just one example of how easily incredible opportunities for improving media and content diversity can be thwarted by an irresponsible government. Accessing the internet over the digital TV spectrum is potentially a crucial elements in reducing the current inequality of internet access. Only with universal internet access can we ensure everyone is equipped with the tools for participation in the knowledge economy.

In Australia today, the least well off are those who are not equipped to participate in an economy that has evolved faster than they expected and understand. Many of those people are over 40, those I have stereotypically referred to as baby boomers, and many others are their children. The insecurity is in fact felt across all generations.

The Labor Party has always understood that the role of government is to give everyone a fair chance to participate in the success of the national and international economy. Only then can the Labor Party, a party committed to principles of social justice, offer the citizens of

Australia a sustainable and optimistic future. We accept the responsibility of ensuring that no one slips too far behind.

The internet brings specific policy challenges that are new, but the Labor values that will guide us to the best solutions remain the same: values of fairness compassion, freedom, responsibility, democracy and community. We need only remind ourselves that change is not to be feared and reject attempts by those without vision to make us shy away from the opportunities and benefits that will emerge in the future.

Successful Governments are those which understand and communicate the reality of that change, and manage in a way that both creates opportunity and provides security. Labor acknowledges the challenge that lies before us. We must close the digital divide. This contrasts starkly with the Coalition. John Howard at the crossroads has chosen a pathway leading backwards, evidenced by a willingness to foster division in the face of opportunities to close the gap.

The articulation of the Knowledge Nation demonstrates that we know how to apply Labor values in the ever-changing information society. At the crossroads, Labor is both committed and able to taking the citizens of the country forward, through the information age with confidence and clarity. Click here to reset your democracy.