(mis)adventures in software development...

02 August 2015

Big Government Puppies

Category Technology

Telecommunications and other things Attorney-General George Brandis knows nothing about.

When training puppies, apparently consistency is really important.

If you want your puppy to stay off the furniture, then they should never be allowed on the furniture. Ever. Mixed messages don’t work. Puppies cannot understand nuance. (Come to think of it, neither can politicians, it seems.) If the puppy ever jumps on the furniture, they should be gently but firmly removed. Every time. So that they eventually realise they are not allowed on the furniture.

If, in moments of weakness, they puppy is ever allowed on the furniture, it undermines the message — and the owner’s authority. The dog will eventually realise its owner is weak, and can be exploited. They are then more likely to keep pushing their luck, constantly jumping on the couch in the hope they may be allowed to remain there. They might even get the idea the furniture is their territory, and get aggressive if anyone tries to move them.

Being more of a cat person, I have no idea if this is true.

But in any case, it strikes me that this is a weirdly apt analogy for the relationship between us, and the politicians who supposedly represent our interests.

Politicians, much like mischievous puppies, will always try to push their luck. They will try to get away with as much as they can. Much like we shouldn’t allow our pets to shit on the carpet and have free reign over our furniture, we shouldn’t allow our politicians to blithely expand their powers, remove prudent oversight, or eschew accountability.

For an example of what happens when we do, we just need to take a look at what’s been happening in the Australian telecommunications industry, especially since the Abbott government was elected.

First, this government destroyed all that was good about the NBN. While we can speculate about why exactly they might have wanted to do this (was it for the benefit of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire?), I suspect they did it partly out of ignorance — not understanding the social and economic benefits a universal fibre network would bring — but mostly just because they could. They burned the NBN and scorched the earth afterwards, just to see if they could get away with it. And they did get away with it. Because we didn’t push back strongly enough.

Of course, anyone thinking that was the end of the Coalition’s interest in screwing up the tech industry would have been profoundly naive. Especially with an Attorney-General like George Brandis, whose ego and sense of infallibility is matched only by his complete ignorance of the telecommunications industry and anything technical.

It was only the beginning.

After a hobbled NBN, we got the controversial mandatory data retention. There is no evidence that data retention is effective in reducing crime or terrorism, it possibly makes us less safe because our metadata will be an irresistible target for hackers and identity thieves, and it will be really expensive. Not to mention the burden and red tape it imposes on the telcos, and the inevitable scope creep

But this government didn’t stop there. After that was the website blocking laws, presumably to appease large corporate donors to the Liberal party, like Village Roadshow. Once again, despite no evidence website blocking will be effective at its supposed purpose of preventing illegal downloading — and considerable international evidence that it won’t. And once again adding costs and red tape for the telcos.

They came for our NBN, and we did nothing that stopped them, so we missed out on fast fibre broadband. Then they came for our privacy, and we did nothing that stopped them, so we got data retention. Then they came for our websites, and we did nothing that stopped them, so we got website blocking and internet censorship.

Now, Brandis is once again meddling in areas outside both his portfolio and expertise — with predictably dire results.

The Attorney-General’s Department is planning to introduce more stupid national security legislation targeting telecommunications companies (The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2015) and the telcos are really unhappy. If these laws pass, we will have a guy who doesn’t know what metadata means, and who is confused about even the most basic technical details of the internet — like the difference between DNS and IP addresses — being able to dictate to ISPs what kind of technology they are allowed to use, and to interfere at will with the day to day operations of telcos by requesting arbitrary documents and information.

The proposed legislation exhibits all the typical problems of government overreach. These laws are intrusive and will be expensive to implement. The legislation is vague and there is no justification for these new government powers — it’s unclear what problems these laws are trying to solve. There has also been too little consultation with the industry

Even at the best of times, politicians and government seem to act on the mistaken belief that there is no problem that can’t be solved with legislation — and without unintentional consequences. IT security is a difficult problem, but it’s not one that gets any easier with the Attorney-General’s department breathing down the neck of the entire industry. IT security certainly doesn’t get any easier with technically clueless government bureaucrats trying to dictate technology choices. And even when governments act with the best of intentions — which is not the case here — there is always the risk they will make something worse. Which is why we must be vigilant (and suspicious) of all attempts at governments expanding their powers, and curtailing ours.

If politicians are not put in their place by the electorate, they end up making stupid laws like this. We end up with a situation where politicians end up thinking they are better placed to dictate security than computer security experts.

The telcos are now pushing back, but I suspect their protests are a case of too little too late.

Like a puppy who was constantly allowed to sleep on the couch, and so grows up to be a dog expecting that privilege, they government now knows it can get away with messing with the telecommunications industry in whatever way it sees fit — and it’s not going to give up that privilege without a fight. It’s certainly not just going to back down at the first sign of resistance.

A dog owner who never properly trained his puppy to stay off the couch — who perhaps only meekly objected when the puppy jumped on the couch — has only themselves to blame if the puppy grew up into a dog that refuses to get off the furniture.

So we — as the consumers who will end up paying for all of this — along with the telcos, have only have ourselves to blame. Because we didn’t fight back strongly enough.

With the possibly exception of iiNet, the telcos put up weak resistance to the data retention and website blocking laws, which gave the government more confidence in introducing further intrusion into their operations.

It seems when it comes to combating government overreach, we can’t afford to sit back, and pick and chose our battles. We need to fight constantly and consistently. If we want our puppies to stay off the couch, we need to be consistently firm with keeping them off the couch. So with our meddlesome politicians, we need to constantly fight them off from taking away our freedoms, civil liberties and digital rights. We can’t just think, “I have nothing to hide, so I don’t care about data retention”. Because as we have just seen, things like that tend to be the thin edge of the wedge. There is always much worse to come.

Attorney-General George Brandis is drunk on power, bloated of ego, and oblivious to his own ignorance. And he’s coming for the tech industry.

It’s time for all of us to stand up, menacingly brandish a rolled up newspaper in front of his face, and firmly and loudly say: “DOWN!”

Bad dog, George. Bad. Get down! And stay down”

And if he doesn’t obey our wishes, he deserves a whack on the nose.