Opinion

Australia’s digitally incoherent politicians are threatening the ad and media industries

The growing incoherence of Canberra's digital policies is threatening Australia's media and marketing industries as well as its tech sector, writes Mumbrella's Paul Wallbank.

A striking thing about the the botched first round of the federal government’s Regional and Small Publishers’ Innovation fund is a what a quaint idea Canberra has of innovation.

Of the 29 successful applications, seven are for content management systems, four are for websites and two are for email services. Welcome to 1998.

While it’s admirable that the federal government would help tardy publishers enter the 21st Century, the other striking thing is how inconsistent the nation’s leaders and public servants are in their attitudes towards the online world.

That inconsistency has been shown in other thought bubbles over the past two years, including the much-hated encryption bill, the series of inquiries into the operation of digital platforms, a largely toothless privacy regulator looking for relevance and the threats of a a digital platforms tax.

A further example of Canberra’s digital incoherence  is the federal government latest anti cyber bullying program, a $19m boondoggle that is the latest of countless online safety initiatives launched by successive Liberal and Labor ministers over the past 15 years.

In the announcement, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, and Education Minister Dan Tehan, promised to develop an industry charter in consultation with parents, industry and other stakeholders over the coming months.

Having announced the consultation process, Fifield immediately pre-empted any discussion, saying: “Now, what this will mean in terms of the Charter are things such as expecting digital platforms to make better use of artificial intelligence to remove material, so as not to rely on users to have to bring it to their attention in the first place.

“And also making better use of human moderators when it comes to ensuring that this material isn’t online.”

The government’s action on cyberbullying and Fifield’s comments were quickly exposed as empty words later that day as a scandal broke where a government staffer was revealed to have sent a vile and abusive text to a News Corp journalist.

For their bullying, and possibly illegal, behaviour, the staffer was put on leave and ‘received counselling’.

It seems bullying by teenagers needs publicly funded task forces and advertising programs, while potentially illegal behaviour by adult government staff members on taxpayer-funded salaries seems acceptable.

While the hypocrisy is outstanding, it is not surprising.

Indeed, government incoherence and hypocrisy isn’t just limited to the Coalition side of politics. Ten years ago the then Rudd Labor government was tying itself in knots over its digital credibility as it gave out laptops and planned a $43bn NBN while also proposing a firewall to cripple Australia’s internet and, yes, a number of cyberbullying task forces.

In opposition, the Labor Party supported poorly thought out legislation like the encryption bill, so it’s highly likely a Bill Shorten government will have no better understanding of the online world than any of its Liberal predecessors.

For advertisers, this digital incoherence and hypocrisy on both sides of politics is a real threat. As advertising increasing becomes automated and goes online, poorly thought out regulations are going to affect the local industry and possibly cripple it.

It’s no longer 1998 and our politicians have no reason to be ignorant about the digital world.

With digital platforms at the centre of our industries, we need to be demanding well thought out and better regulation of our online and digital sectors. The risk of getting these wrong will hurt us all.

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