Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Retake the Net wordle

Here’s a wordle made up of the Retake the Net website. It’s not fiddled in any way; this is exactly what came out. It shows our priorities.

RtN wordle

If you think it’s about time that individuals took back the Net for the things it can do for us and for each other, rather than leaving it to large companies and governments, join us now.

posted by colin at 10:24 am  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taking back the Net

The Net used to be under the radar of governments and corporates. Then it got a lot bigger, governments paid it attention and large companies moved in. Some were beneficial, some weren’t and some were neutral. But the ethos of the individual Net user running the whole show got diluted along the way.

It’s easy to lament these things. It’s more fun to do something. A group of us are running some projects under the heading Retake The Net to try to put some power back into the hands of ordinary users. Yes, you and me. Retake the Net is putting together a Bar Camp for 29 October 2011.

The project I’m most closely associated with is called the Policy Auction. (That’s a working title and it will change when we launch.) The basic idea is to provide a platform where people can promote policies – things they think the gummint should do – and put up real virtual currency against them. Hence the auction. Maybe it will make a splash – that’s the general idea. And the timing right before an election is no accident.

About half a dozen people are giving up their time to build this thing, and it’s going to be very cool. But not as cool as it would be if you helped, too. We want to hear from Java geeks, visual designers and comms folk.

There’s a meeting of the Retake The Net crew at Betty’s in Wellington tomorrow night (3rd August). I do hope to see you there!

posted by colin at 9:29 pm  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Think of the children

If there’s anyone left who didn’t know, Parliament passed a Copyright Amendment Act last night under urgency. It has the effect of curtailing the rights of ordinary New Zealanders for the gain of overseas companies.

Yes, there needs to be balance between rights holders and ordinary Internet users. Yadda yadda yadda, we’ve been through the arguments so many times before. This Bill, now an Act, was hugely skewed towards the companies that sit between us and creative artists – check out InternetNZ’s Vikram Kumar or tech journalist Juha Saarinen for more detail.

But that’s not what has really, really annoyed me as well as just about every NZer under 30.

posted by colin at 11:09 pm  

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

So long, Knowledge Economy – we hardly knew you

It wasn’t long ago that the Knowledge Society and its brother, the Knowledge Economy, were all of our futures. Remember the Knowledge Wave conference? That was almost a decade ago now. It posited that we all had a better future if only we would stop just growing nice things and sending them offshore and focussed more on creating intangibles that we could somehow sell for money than trees, views and milk. The future was going to be one where most New Zealanders were engaged in high-earning activities rather than farming or tourism. Except that it isn’t. Sure, we have a sharply growing technology sector – I work in it myself – which is great for the country. But it’s fanciful to think that will ever displace food and wood as our number one. We just have such a good competitive advantage in that area.

Missing technology trends is not unique to the academics and business leaders who promoted the Knowledge Wave. In the mid 90s I went to a presentation to Ministers by a government department (which I won’t name to save its embarrassment) explaining how it was going to build an entire business on helping New Zealanders and the world find things on the Internet. Oh dear.

posted by colin at 12:13 am  

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Disconnection is wrong

That’s the key message I gave to the Commerce Select Committee when I spoke to it today. You don’t get your Internet disconnected if you use it to commit fraud. You don’t get your Internet disconnected if you use it to make threats of violence. Why should copyright infringement, of all things, be such a special offence? And why should it attract a fine of up to $16,000, well above the fines levied on drink-drivers? Are we saying that driving drunk is less of a crime than unlawfully downloading a movie?

I gave the Committee some suggestions on how this law should work – if we have to have it at all. They are all in my submission to the Committee.

posted by colin at 3:41 pm  

Friday, July 23, 2010

Making law the good way

Yesterday I saw two popular quotes being disproved: the old saw about a committee having many stomachs and no brain, and the one about law being like sausage because you wouldn’t want to watch either being made.

I went to observe the Commerce Select Committee hearing submissions on the Copyright Amendment (Infringing Filesharing) Bill, which is the law designed to replace the failed S92A of the Copyright Act. I saw the first three submissions, and I’ll write a little about them below.

But first I want to say that the select committee process really does seem to work. It’s a really important part of New Zealand democracy that bills (that is, draft acts of Parliament) get looked at by small teams of MPs who call for public submissions. Anyone can have their say. And the committees generally listen and do their best to balance the interests and concerns of the people submitting. As a nation, we are blessed by having such an open government process.

posted by colin at 8:27 pm  

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Film industry fails again

There’s a great New Zealand film called “Boy” – it’s a coming of age tale with a uniquely New Zealand flavour to it. It’s been in the cinemas here for three months, and it’s gone down very well. I’m probably not telling you anything you didn’t know, because the film has been well-promoted. I think I saw that it was now the highest-grossing New Zealand movie ever. Well done to Taika Waititi and every one else involved.

That’s what makes it strange that the film industry apparently hasn’t released the film to Australia. There are a *lot* of New Zealanders living there. And it’s not surprising, after all the promotion, that people there want to see the film however they can get it. According to a press release yesterday from the industry, they are indeed getting it, via infringing downloads on the Internet. The film apparently got to the Internet via a member of the industry itself, since the copy uploaded is a “pre-screener” available only within the industry.

What I find odd about this story is that anyone is surprised. Why would they expect New Zealanders and other folk to wait months for a well-promoted hit film? It’s not as though the technology for them to release it in other countries as a paid, legal download doesn’t exist. Why, then, leave a big market like unsatisfied with a legal product when they have alternatives?

The same industry has just claimed that unlawful downloads in New Zealand are costing it $70million. They say things like this all the time, but the truth is that no-one knows and there’s no way to calculate it. The US Government Accounting Office recently published a report saying that all such claims were totally overblown and were no basis for policy.

It’s no accident, of course, that this story blows just as Parliament is considering a Bill to fine people heavily or cut off their Internet for file sharing. The industry has obviously made a calculation about how late in the hype cycle for “Boy” it could go and still get close to the Select Committee hearings, likely to be next month.

This sort of thing has been going on for so long that I’m wondering if it is deliberate. Is it actually cheaper for the film industry to promote a film then not release it in a market, then to go after people who download it and try to seek large fines? Perhaps this is far-fetched, but I’m struggling to see any other reason.

In the meantime, congratulations to Taika Waititi. Let’s hope he gets the chance to get the film distribution industry to see some sense.

Update: Miraz Jordan has written an excellent piece on the same subject – well worth reading as well.

posted by colin at 10:52 am  

Friday, May 28, 2010

Copyright and copywrong

On Tuesday I went to a copyright seminar organized by InternetNZ. The context is that Parliament is consulting on a Bill (a draft piece of legislation) to replace the appalling section 92A of the Copyright Act, which was killed at the last minute in 2009 by the then new National-led government.

Several themes came out from the seminar. The biggest one for me, which was mainly expounded by Nat Torkington, was that there is not a problem that needs to be solved here. Revenues for all the industries that claim to be affected by unlawful downloads are going up very healthily. They claim that their industries are being devastated by the huge volume of copyright infringements, but you would have to say that these claims are not backed up by the evidence. Even so, the so-called content industries are an order of magnitude smaller than the Internet industries they seek to control.

Another theme was the sheer inappropriateness of Internet termination as a penalty for anything. To the government’s credit, it has made termination a last resort which has to be enacted by a court, but even so it’s just not a useful thing to do. You don’t get your Internet connection cut off for far more serious offences. Why should copyright infringement be so special? We don’t cut the road to someone’s house if they have used it to move stolen goods. Just like road access, the Internet is used by everyone in a building, and by others to deliver services to the building.

The Bill sets out a regime of notices that get passed to and fro between a copyright holder and someone accused of copyright infringement, through the ISP concerned. This is mostly aimed at educating the downloader, many of whom don’t realise that they are doing something or illegal, or that they can be caught. This has always been the approach promoted by InternetNZ and it has a lot to commend it, although it was clear at the seminar that there’s still some detail to be worked out in the way it’s set out in the Bill.

Persisting in illegal downloading would lead to the Copyright Tribunal levying a fine. There was a lot of discussion on how much was reasonable. My view is that it should be set at a multiple of what it would cost to get the files legally, say three times the cost on iTunes. We would also need to figure out what to do if the file isn’t available legally in New Zealand but it is elsewhere – I’d probably suggest setting it at the cost in other markets, to provide an incentive for copyright holders to bring things to New Zealand at the same time as everywhere else. As Clare Curran pointed out in her speech in the House on this Bill, the oscar-winning movie Hurt Locker wasn’t made available in this country for months after it was released elsewhere, and not until after it had won its oscar.

The MED officials present were writing furiously for the most part. I’m hopeful that they took a lot of the very sensible points made back to the drafting process. They will probably be advising the Commerce Select Committee which is considering the Bill at the moment.

Talking of which, that committee has called for submissions by 17th June. It’s a really good idea to send them a submission. The process is straightforward – just write down clearly your arguments and what you want the committee to do with the Bill. You can look at this post for ideas. Probably the biggest point to ask the Select Committee for is to remove Internet account termination as any kind of option, because it’s disproportionate and unworkable.

posted by colin at 3:15 pm  

Saturday, April 10, 2010


The Princeton online dictionary define disingenuous as: “not straightforward or candid; giving a false appearance of frankness”. I can’t think of a better way to characterize some of the responses to the Commerce Select Committee’s sensible decision not to allow software patents in New Zealand.

I’m delighted with the decision. I’ve written before about the iniquities of software patents. Here are five reasons not to allow them:

  1. Patents are private monopolies permitted because they are supposed to encourage innovation. Yet there is no shortage of innovation in software in countries that don’t allow software patents.
  2. There is serious harm in software patents because their existence threatens software innovators who can’t tell if some idea is patented and have no way to evaluate a threat from someone who claims a patent over their work.
  3. Allowing software patents lead to unintended bad consequences such as the existence of patent trolls – companies which appear to exist just to threaten developers with patent suits.
  4. Patents cause a large deadweight cost in legal fees. That’s money which simply disappears from the software economy to the enrichment of patent lawyers.
  5. Software patents can’t be awarded fairly. Patents offices and courts seem incapable of making sane decisions about what is and is not an original “invention” in software.

There has been a chorus of approval of the Committee’s decision. But there have also been some people arguing against. Two come to mind:

posted by colin at 5:13 pm  

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tell the government what you think of ACTA

The government has asked for submissions about ACTA, the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, to be sent in by tomorrow. I’ve written one which you are welcome to read.

ACTA has the potential to change the way we use the Internet and to prevent future innovation on it. It’s hard to say for certain, because the draft texts are secret, To be fair to the New Zealand negotiators, they have (if the leaks are to be believed) argued to reduce ACTA’s impact – its collateral damage – on everyday use of the Internet. And they have asked some specific questions about what they should be trying to negotiate.

I’d like to suggest that as many people as possible send in a submission, even if it’s just “do not on any account agree to anything which would make ISPs liable for something they can’t control”. But ideally, take 20 minutes, review this page, then send your arguments and views to by close of business tomorrow.

posted by colin at 1:53 pm  
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