ACMA says telecommunications and media laws in Australia are broken

A new report by peak Australian communications body has said convergence has broken most of the media and telecommunications legislation it administers. The Australian Communication and Media Authority report is called Broken Concepts: The Australian communications legislative landscape. ACMA is the government body that administers 26 acts over half a century, accompanied by 523 regulation requirements. Their paper examined the impact of convergence on 55 pieces of legislation and found most wanting. The ACMA said they were either ‘broken’ or ‘significantly strained’ affecting regulation of video games, smartphones, tablets, 3D TVs, untimed local calls, community broadcasting, program standards, cable providers, universal service obligations, emergency calls, spam, media diversity and many others.

ACMA defined convergence characterised by five causes of change: 1. Technological developments 2. The development of a broad communications market 3. Increasing consumer and citizen engagement with the toolset 4. Regulatory globalisation 5. Government intervention (eg NBN). ACMA says digitalisation has broken the connection between the shape of content and the container which carries it. Legacy service delivery used service-specific networks and devices but digital transmission systems have made delivery mostly independent of technologies. Regulation of content based on delivery mechanism no longer makes sense as devices develop multiple functions.

ACMA found seven regulatory consequences of convergence. Firstly, policy and legislation no longer aligns with market realities, the technology or its uses. Secondly, there are gaps in coverage of new forms of content and applications. Thirdly, there is misplaced emphasis on traditional media (television) and communications (voice services). Fourthly, the blurring of boundaries is leading to inconsistent treatment of similar content, devices or services. Fifth, consumer safeguards are not keeping up with innovative services. Sixth, new issues are handled in piecemeal fashion reducing overall policy coherence. Lastly, convergence is causing institutional ambiguity with no one sure which agency is responsible for which regulation.The core acts that govern telecommunications in Australia are the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Radiocommunications Act 1992 , the Telecommunications Act 1997 and the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999. All were drafted before the Internet became entrenched. These acts have been added to by band aid solutions to newer problems such as spam and interactive gambling. ACMA says the Australian communications legislative landscape now resembles a patchwork quilt. There is no overarching strategy or coordinated approach to regulating communications and media in a digital economy.

The report said regulation gave undue weight to the influence of print newspapers and the ability to personalise media consumption magnifies and limits the influence a media service can have on an individual. Also the ability to access broadcast-like content through non-broadcasting services is running a hole through the Broadcasting Act’s promotion of diversity of content (honoured more in the breach by commercial broadcasters). There are 53 other areas of ACMA’s reach broken beyond legislative repair.

ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman said the report highlighted the strain on old concepts struggling with new technology. “The constructs for communications and media that worked 20 years ago no longer fit present day circumstances, let alone the next 20 years,” Chapman said. “These ‘broken concepts’ are symptoms of the deeper change of digitalisation breaking those now outdated propositions, including that content can be controlled by how it is delivered.”

The report dovetails with the federal government’s Convergence Review. The review panel is due to deliver its report in March. It toured Australia earlier this month hearing submissions and will continue to receive input until 28 October. Its framing paper acknowledges changes are required but appears to focus on broadcasting issues rather than the wider telecommunications issue. This new paper is a wake-up call to the seriousness of the problem. Technology and its uses will continue to evolve in unimaginable ways. The trick will be drafting legislation that does not fetter that growth while providing citizen safeguards against unscrupulous behaviour.

NewsStand up and running for a media inquiry

I got an email tonight from grass roots campaigners Getup advertising the existence of a new organisation called NewsStand. It is little surprise Getup would promote NewsStand; the newbie is moulded in Getup’s image (and uses former Getup staff) but with a narrower media focus. The purpose of NewsStand is to demand a parliamentary inquiry into Australian media and they want people to sign an e-petition. “We believe Australia needs a full Parliamentary inquiry to publicly scrutinise the media landscape as a whole: what’s working, what’s not and what we can do to change things for the better,” NewsStand said.

The site’s about page said it was inspired by the Murdoch hacking scandal in the UK. NewsStand was born out of the revelations of unethical and illegal practices which showed the “extent of the power and influence that individuals and companies can have over the news industry”. It quoted a Lenore Taylor article in the Sydney Morning Herald which mentioned NewsStand’s first market research showing 60 percent support for a media inquiry.

NewsStand’s board consists of five members. They are journalism professor and investigative journalist Wendy Bacon, Ben Brandzel who has done fundraising for Barack Obama and worked at, Australia Institute executive director, economist and Greens strategy adviser Richard Denniss, Centre for Policy Development executive director Miriam Lyons and communications consultant Nick Moriatis. They provide direction to a staff of two led by US political strategist Kate Walsh supported by former Getup campaign director Ed Coper.

It hopes to have a blog up and running soon to encourage conversations, assess the validity of sensationalist news, conduct interviews with experts and shed light on the inner workings of the media industry. This is laudable but it should have been up and running with the launch of the website. A blog desperately needs content to survive, not just promises. Like Getup, NewsStand is shilling for donations and is also attempting to harness social media. The @Newsstandau twitter feed has quickly built up 400 followers but disappointingly is following none of them back.

There is little doubt the Australia media is a poor shape. The flabby Murdoch empire will say or do anything to keep power. Just today artist Robert Crumb wrote an open letter to the Sydney Morning Herald saying why he was not coming to a Sydney festival. The fault belongs to the other Sydney rag, the Murdoch Daily Telegraph which published a shocker of an article bylined by Jesse Phillips which described Crumb primarily as a “self confessed sex pervert whose explicit drawings cannot be shown in Australia”. The article cited rent-a-quote moral crusader Hetty Johnson who gave the predictably juicy quote about the “depraved thought processes of this very warped human being”.

No effort was made to talk to Crumb or anyone who might have had a different view. The article was pure trollumnism. Crumb pulled the pin on the trip after the article and made pertinent observations in his SMH letter. “One can see in this example how skilled media professionals with low standards of integrity are able to mould and manipulate public opinion, popular beliefs and, ultimately, the direction of politics,” Crumb wrote. “The majority of the population in most places is not alert to this kind of deceptive manipulation. They are more or less defenceless against such clever ‘perception management’”.

A reminder why NewsStand wants a media inquiry is pertinent: “The inquiry must examine how to promote higher standards, protect people’s privacy while guaranteeing the freedom of the press, stimulate a more diverse media marketplace, and ensure that problems and complaints can be handled simply, fairly and effectively.” Watching the Telegraph at work, it’s no wonder the Murdoch publications don’t want a bar of it.

The fall of Muammar Gaddafi

“While it is democratically not permissible for an individual to own any information or publishing medium, all individuals have a natural right to self-expression by any means, even if such means were insane and meant to prove a person’s insanity” – Muammar Gaddafi, The Green Book

The Arab Spring has delivered a rich summer harvest. Libya is the latest domino to tumble joining Egypt and Tunisia. Syria and Yemen might be not be far behind, despite the grandstanding of long-standing leaders. With the exception of the regime and Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world is rejoicing Gaddafi’s 42 year reign is over.
Gaddafi has been in power since man first landed on the moon, and of civilian leaders in the last century only Fidel Castro, Chiang Kai-Shek and Kim Il-Sung have lasted longer. His overthrow was supported by the left and the right though some on the left agonised over the NATO bombing campaign. That campaign now looks to be the crucial turning point. Gaddafi threatened to crush the rebellion in March. As matters drifted into a three month stalemate, NATO’s bombing of Tripoli in May proved the spark for the revolution. Gaddafi lost support on the ground, a mood the rebels sensed as they moved east.
Gaddafi was reasonably popular at home in the 1970s and 1980s and loved by the European left because he thumbed his nose at the western establishment. Few loved him for his eccentric political philosophies. Gaddafi’s Third International Theory was taken from the mishmash of aphorisms in the Green Book. The book fulminated on matters such as breast feeding and genetic differences and attempted to steer the country in a middle (or muddle) path between capitalism and communism.

His willingness to help resistance organisations such as the IRA and Red Brigades led to pariah status after the 1986 Berlin disco bombing and 1988 Lockerbie bombing. His power internally was never threatened. By the 2000s, he was making a remarkable international comeback. In 2008 200 African kings and tribal leaders pronounced him “king of kings” and African leaders and presidents (many of whom he trained in Libyan camps) made him head of the African Union in 2009.

The West also had a rapprochement with Gaddafi. Bush’s wars after 9/11 left America needing allies. Tony Blair killed two birds with one stone when he praised Gaddafi in 2004 for his support in the War while lobbying for a half billion dollar investment in Libya for Shell. The oceans of oil brought Gaddafi back in from the cold. The US normalised relations for the first time in 28 years under President Bush in 2008.

Though the west finally felt they could do business with Gaddafi, the Libyan public could not. One in five Libyans were employed as informants and surveillance was a normal part of every workplace. Military service has been compulsory since 1984. Gaddafi survived coup attempts in 1969 (two months into the job), 1975, 1977, 1985 and 1993 and having emerged from the military in a coup himself he abolished traditional military rank to avoid having to deal with a powerful leader caste.

Gaddafi made plenty of enemies. The Tunisian actions lit the fire and sparked a civil war. Rebels took the east easily but met sterner resistance near Tripoli. Gaddafi’s willingness to bomb his own people showed his tenacity to survive. But as Juan Cole notes, once enough of his heavy weapons capability was disrupted and his fuel and ammunition supplies blocked, the underlying hostility of the common people could again manifest itself, as it had in February. While his exact fate remains unknown at the time of writing, Gaddafi is a dead man walking. It is a triumph for NATO. The template for military action should now be used in Syria which has also turned its military against its own population.

The building of the Berlin Wall: 50 years on

On 3 August 1961, the leaders of the Comecon Communist bloc met in Moscow. It was the heart of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs invasion failed a few months earlier, and in July President Kennedy requested a 25 percent increase in military spending. The East stood strong but had a soft underbelly: Berlin.

Divided by the Potsdam Conference after the war, scarred by the 1948 blockade and institutionalised by the founding of East and West Germany in 1949, Berlin remained a porous city. Over half a million East Berliners crossed daily to West Berlin to get their dose of capitalism. Many went shopping or to the cinema and discos in the West, 60,000 commuters even worked there. There was no need to defect. The east was cheaper and exotic frills of the west like pantyhose and tropical fruit were just a U-bahn ride away. Westerners also enjoyed the fruits of the border. West German Deutsch Marks were exchanged into East German DM at a rate of 1:4 and westerners got goods cheaply in the East.

However, East Germany was losing its thought leaders. The income gap was stark and anyone with ambition wanted to be in the west. Although some were stopped, hundreds of thousands made it across the border forever. By the 1960s, East Germany had lost 2.5 million trained professionals, 15 percent of its population. The Comecon decided this had to stop before the labour force was drained. At 4pm, Saturday 12 August 1961, East German leader Walter Ulbricht issued the order to close the border. At midnight Sunday, police and armed forces began bolting the city shut. They built the wall in a day and shut streets, the railway, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. The pulsating heart of the city at Potzdamer Platz became a no-go zone. Trucks with soldiers and construction workers rumbled though the sleeping city and tore up telephone wires and streets to West Berlin, dug holes to put up concrete posts, and strung barbed wire across the border. The 100km wall wrapped up West Berlin. In the morning, there was widespread shock. Whichever side of the border you went to bed on 12 August, you were stuck there for decades. The wall captured the imagination, defining the Cold War.

The wall went through four transformations in its 28-year history. It started as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts, but after a few days was replaced with a permanent structure of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire. A third version in 1965 was a concrete wall, supported by steel girders. The fourth built in 1980 had 3.6m high and 1.2m wide concrete slabs with a smooth pipe across the top to stop people from scaling it. By 1989 there was a 91m No-Man’s-Land, an additional inner wall, soldiers patrolling with dogs, raked ground that showed footprints, anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, massive light systems, watchtowers, bunkers, and minefields.

About 200 people were killed crossing this labyrinth and another 5000 escaped over or under it. The only people allowed to cross the border were foreign tourists, diplomats and military personnel. There were three crossing points: Helmstedt, Dreilinden and Berlin Friedrichstrasse. Helmstedt was called Checkpoint Alpha, Dreilinden Bravo and Friedrichstrasse was Charlie. When East German border guards at Checkpoint Charlie checked identification as western soldiers entered the Soviet sector on 25 October 1961, the Americans said the Allied right to move freely was violated. For 16 hours there was an imminent threat of war. The next day both sides withdrew as Kennedy and Khrushchev cobbled together an agreement.

While the 1989 revolutions were all startling in their speed, the fall of the Wall was the most stunning. On 9 November 1989, East German central committee spokesman Günter Schabowski made a surprise announcement: “Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin.” “As of when?” asked an Italian journalist. Schabowski hesitated and improvised: “As far as I know … as of now.”

It was a shock to locals decoding his bureaucratic announcement to realise the border was open. The first East Germans approached tentatively and found border guards were letting people cross. Within an hour, people from both sides crowded to the Wall. Some brought hammers and chisels. Others hugged, kissed, cheered and cried. Schabowski, later imprisoned, said he remembered a Stasi agent telling him: “Comrade Schabowski, the border is open. Nothing to report.”

Now the Wall is mostly gone and the few remaining scraps are tourist attractions. The East and West are reunited though the East still lags. Germany is arguably weaker as a united country with a reunification bill of €1.3 trillion. Trabants litter the streets but few people are calling for the return of the DDR. The Berlin Wall was the supreme monument to the corrosive power of the old regime’s paranoia and distrust.

The politics of social media

“Corporations and politicians worldwide have latched onto social media to advertise their brand and get the message out. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election was supercharged by Facebook and social networking, which became the ultimate tool for gauging public opinion and speaking to the masses. But working with social media can fast go horribly wrong. US Congressman Anthony Weiner’s recent fall from grace was brutal and should be a lesson to all who merge online networking with real-time power chasing. Social media holds power potential for those who play the game correctly. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, hire someone else to do it right. And always keep your pants on.” Paul Barry, The Power Index
Hot on the heels of British plans to shut down social networks to stop rioting, comes news they have already been beaten to it by the US. Demonstrators in San Francisco had planned a protest to condemn the shooting death of Charles Hill. Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers killed Hill on 3 July 3 after they responded to complaints about a drunk man at a station.
A week later protesters shut down three BART stations and planned a second protest last week. This time BART interrupted wireless service for three hours at some BART stations, to “ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.” They claimed they asked providers to stop service, but later admitted they did it themselves as it is allowed to do under its contracts with the providers – Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
The move prompted hacking group Anonymous to hit back. They have planned Operation BART which they said was “meant to teach BART a lesson about the dangers of censoring people…and is supposed to be an educational experience for the operators.” Yesterday, they defaced BART affiliated websites and released user info for the website saying they “are just warmed up.”
Anonymous compared the San Francisco moves to government censorship in the Arab Spring. “In Egypt and Tunisia, we saw people struggling to make their voices heard,” Anonymous said. “We have seen companies such as Telecomix delve into the nastiness of political corruption in an attempt to free those censored individuals from their prisons of silence.”
Whatever the truth of that comparison, the Arab regimes remain suspicious of social networks. This week, an Egyptian has been charged with using Facebook to incite violence. The Egyptian Military Prosecution arrested activist and blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, 26 for defaming the junta and calling for armed rebellion. The court said Mahfouz used Facebook to call for the assassinations of Supreme Council of Armed Forces members and judges. “If justice is not achieved and the justice system fails us, no-one should feel upset or surprised if armed gangs emerge to carry out assassinations,” Mahfouz wrote. “As long as there is no law and there is no justice, anything can happen, and nobody should be upset.”
Mahfouz and others may be helped by the Telecomix site mentioned in the Anonymous post about BART. Telecomix is an international organisation “dedicated to informing the public about internet freedom issues”. Telecomix member Peter Fein likens it to guerrilla informational warfare. “We’re kind of like an inverse Anonymous,” Fein said. “We operate in a very similar way to Anonymous not just IRC (Internet Relay Chat ) but also the non-hierarchical structure. Except they break things and we build them.” When Egyptian authorities cut off the internet and telephones, Telecomix filled a a need for internal communication. “Not for people to be able to talk on Facebook or Twitter to the world, but amongst themselves … so there were a number of tools, mesh technology and so on — that we tried to help people figure out,” Fein said.
The experiences learned in North Africa may need to be re-applied to the Western world. British Prime Minister’s knee jerk “kill switch” proposal for social networks may sound idiotic and undemocratic but that does not mean it will not be tried if he thinks there are votes in it. Cameron’s statement to MPs said they were working with police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services “when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
People will plot violence regardless of the availability of social networks. But as the current Australian Government has shown with its internet censorship plans, moves to limit free speech are justified using tropes such as “not acceptable to civilised society” and protecting “young children”. China too has successfully mastered internet censorship with its Golden Shield (though 30 second Internet response times are throttling innovation). As Electronic Frontiers Foundation says of the Australian proposals, successful technology isn’t necessarily successful policy. “We’re still yet to hear a sensible explanation of what this policy is for, who it will help and why it is worth spending so much taxpayer money on,” said EFF.
Yet it is hardly surprising politicians are so wary of the technology. Most social media widely used today are still in their infancy and remain difficult to understand their use and potential effects. Yet as the Paul Barry quote illuminates, there is a coming of age of online political engagement, According to researchers Jim Macnamara and Gail Kenning (E-electioneering 2010: Trends in Social Media Use in Australian Political Communication) three-quarters of Australia’s federal politicians had a Facebook presence in 2010 while 57 per cent of citizens would like opportunities to comment on policies online and 36 per cent are interested in communication with their MPs online. But old habits die hard. Macnamara and Kenning found most politicians used social media primarily for one-way transmission of political messages, rather than citizen engagement or listening to the electorate. Maybe that will change as the technology matures, but equally likely it will be shackled to ensure powerbrokers keep their pants on.

Assad’s moment of truth or dare

The Syrian city of Hama remains defiant despite a week-long assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. On Thursday Syrian forces took Turkish journalists around the city to show they were back in control. While the government claimed it was ridding Hama of “terrorists”, residents had a different story. They told of told of indiscriminate army shelling, snipers aiming at civilians and corpses piling up in the streets. Human rights groups say 1700 people have died in the crackdown with casualties highest in Hama.
(photo of Hama July protest:Wikipedia)
Hama has long been a hotbed of anti-Ba’athist activity. Shortly after the Ba’athists seized power in Syria in 1963, Islamic groups in Hama rose against the new secular regime. That rebellion was crushed as was another in 1982. Tens of thousands were killed in the Hama Massacre and parts of the city were flattened.
There were echoes in July when 136 people were killed in Hama in the “Ramadan Massacre”. Syrian forces attacked demonstrators using tanks, artillery, and snipers. Hama and Homs were the earliest city to join this year’s Arab Spring but the two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo (home to half the country’s population) have been quiet. New reports from Al Jazeera say north-east Damascus is the focus of a major government offensive.
As one protester puts it, the regime is feeling time is against it after strong international reaction against the crackdown. The security forces want to end anti-Assad protests within weeks.Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect which has ties to Shia Islam. Alawites are 12 percent of Syria’s 22 million people but hold a vastly outsized portion of high-ranking positions in the government and the military. Sunnis consider them heretics.
When the French ruled in the early 20th century, they granted the Alawites their own state. In 1936 the French rejected calls from Sulayman Al Assad against union with Syria. Since then, the Assad family has built its power in the Alawite political movement in Syria. When Hafez Al Assad seized power in 1970, the Alawite community lined up behind him. Hafez authorised the 1982 Hama massacre. Bashar al Assad absorbed the lessons well after becoming president in June 2000 on his father’s death.

Bashar was an accidental president. When his father died, it only took hours for the Syrian parliament to vote to amend the country’s constitution to allow al-Assad to become president lowering the age of eligibility of the president from 40 to 34. Elder brother Basil was originally groomed as Hafez’s successor, and was chief of security. Bashar studied medicine in Britain, receiving a degree in ophthalmology, and headed the Syrian Computer Society. But in 1994 Basil was driving his Mercedes to the airport at high speed during a fog. He slammed into a roundabout and died instantly. Bashar rushed home from London to rejoin the army.

The army remains Bashar’s greatest ally and most of the top brass are Alawite. Assad’s brother Maher controls key military units packed with Alawite soldiers. One security expert told Reuters the regime had been careful about placing Alawite loyalists in all key positions. Sunni officers have risen to high ranks but have very little power to command troops.

If pressure is to be brought to bear, it must come from outside. The US added to its sanctions on Syria on 10 August to blacklist telco Syriatel and the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank. They add to existing sanctions including freezing assets and bans on business dealings, personal sanctions on Assad, as well as Syria’s vice president, prime minister, interior and defence ministers, the head of military intelligence and director of the political security branch. As the Economist puts it, the savagery of the regime’s response has convinced protesters the movement has to continue or face revenge of unimaginable proportions.

Of Nika and Basmati Rice: another twocents worth on the London riots

“Cameron aims to ‘address a broken society’ with more CCTV, less social media, battering rams, water cannons and maybe the army” – @abcnewsintern
In 532 Constantinople was besieged by the worst riots in history. Known as the Nika riots, they resulted in the destruction of half the city and 30,000 deaths. It started when a member of a popular elite sporting group was arrested for murder and quickly got out of hand. But there were wider issues. Emperor Justinian was negotiating peace over an expensive war in Persia and there was simmering resentment over high taxes. Three days after the murderers sought refuge in a church, the angry mob turned its resentment on Justinian at the Hippodrome races. When it looked like he would be chased out of the city, he bought out half his opposition and his army slaughtered the other half.

I was thinking of Justinian as the notion takes hold the British riots exist in a thuggish vacuum. According to the papers lowly scum have risen up in some mysterious “now” that pays no attention to anything that has gone before. It seems the chavish untermensch are incapable of collective memory nor is it possible to admit they might have grievances. Thugs are thugs because “they have nothing better to do”.

Whatever the motivation to cause mayhem and smash other people’s property, the idea the government, the media or the police are trusted institutions to deal with the problem were smashed long before the first pane of glass. The suspicious death of a black man was a spark, but the tinder was bone-dry and sooner or later there would have been an excuse for conflagration. An army of brooms sweeping Kristallnacht 2011 under the carpet won’t stop the disenfranchised coming back for more.

As the Murdoch scandal showed, the British media are part of the problem. The BBC’s contemptuous treatment of an old black man speaking truth to power and the wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of thugs and scum reveals a frightened press desperate to hang on to privileges in the old order. Politicians too, needing to speak reassuring words of toughness to scared constituents, retreat behind paeans to law and order. There is a magical belief this will keep the disaffected off the streets.

The glue that holds communities together is losing its stickiness. Family bonds are harder to keep. Education works only for the wealthy. Religion is irrelevant. Culture is complicated and foreign. International capitalism is a stinking corpse bloated by greed and selfishness. Big business is venal, politicians are corrupt and police are inept. The cult of individualism is rampant, neighbours don’t talk to each other and everyone is suspicious of “the other”. Racism is endemic, the climate is going to hell in a hand basket and no one seems to care. A Norwegian goes berserk and tries to wipe out a political generation. But rather than examine all that, the media is besotted only by the daily minutiae of two useless royals.

Thirty years after the riots of her making, Thatcher has been proved right: There is no such thing as society. Why should the rioters behave? What’s in it for them? A fat pile of nothing, and there is no deterrent. If people will commit a crime for $2 of basmati rice then the slim prospect of jail time or a criminal record is not going to stop them. The criminals at the top end of the scale get away with their crimes, why shouldn’t the small fry try too? Their looting is caught on camera but the liars that run the business world put their hands in the back pockets of millions without youtube evidence.

It is sad for the small businesses that suffered across Britain in the last few days – no doubt Constantinople’s unfortunate merchants paid an equally high price in the Nika Riots. They are on the frontline of a civil war that has a long way to go and like any soft target, will be picked on again. Cameron is no Justinian, nor is the equally ineffectual Ed Miliband. Britain must wait for the reliable rain to relieve the riots, not its robotic politicians.