Tag Archive for 'Australia'

Everest syndrome is the biggest crime in our society

US President Barack Obama made an observation last April:

One of the things every time I come to Silicon Valley that I’m inspired by but I’m also frustrated by is how many smart people are here, but also frustrated that I always hear stories about how we can’t find enough engineers, we can’t find enough computer programmers.  You know what, that means our education system is not working the way it should, and that’s got to start early.

A country facing recession and high unemployment, and yet Silicon Valley is in a talent crunch where companies like Google and Facebook have resorted to constantly acquiring companies now just for the talent. How so?

My friend Mike Casey (more on him below) and I  have come to call this “Everest Syndrome”. It’s where our smartest men and women are wasting their potential in middle management of a large corporation. Where they climb the corporate peaks for the elusive goal of getting to the top, many killing themselves along the way and only to find out how lonely it is at the top.

I believe it is the biggest crime of our time, as these people should be at the forefront of our economy, driving its progress and ultimately increasing our standard of living.

The Everest view

Sketching the picture with some stats from Australia
I’m good friends with the guys that run Grad connection, the largest graduate recruitment website in Australia and the fifth biggest jobs portal in the country. I asked one of the founders Mike Casey to pull out some numbers to illustrate how graduates enter the workforce. Although their total database is much higher, we were able to get 17,887 students who specified a specific course they had studied — which represents about 12% of the 150,000 students that graduate each year.

While I’m sure we could get more scientific on this sampling approach as there’s a bias on their employers and hence graduates, it still paints a fairly representative picture on the broad base ‘commercial’ disciplines. Gradconnection has just five categories which account for 88% of the total sample population, which are as follows:

  • Commerce: 31%
  • Accounting: 20%
  • Banking: 18%
  • Information Technology: 11%
  • Law: 8%

Accounting and banking means 38% of graduates end up in financial services, and the lawyers grow that professional services group up 8% to 46%. (For context, services make 71% of the Australian economy — with the topic of this post referring to the now distinguishable quaternary sector emerging.) That’s not a good thing and here’s why.

Student eeePC user

A story by the storyteller
I went to a school that made me think doing a business degree was the right thing; and when at university, thought working at a big bank or professional services firm was the ultimate goal and what would make me successful in life. Those things in themselves are not a bad thing, but the attitudes they created were: at high school, I thought the people studying art were wasting time; and at university, I convinced a former school mate to make our newspaper venture a non-profit university society rather than an actual business that his father was willing to bank roll. The reason? I didn’t want to threaten my studies by a project, that would prevent me from “something important” like getting a job at a big firm.

That attitude I had — fostered by my environment — is pathetic. (Although ironically, this “non-profit” which challenged us to find a useful product/market fit exposed me to the Internet and led me to develop my first business idea of electronic newspapers…which fortunately never went passed the business plan.) Everyone can similarly liken it to how every good family has children that become lawyers or doctors, because that’s considered a good direction in life. My father — a lawyer of nearly 50 years now –often complains about the over-supply of lawyers in the industry: there just isn’t enough work to go around to sustain all these graduates.

 

We need graduates that originate value
I’m a chartered accountant and I’m proud to have survived the grueling process to become one. But like all professions, my training  has me biased towards being a service provider. Service providers add a lot of value and we need them, but the thing is that they are optimisers of value, not originators of value.

If you had a nasty court case to handle due to a marriage breakdown, business conflict or car accident — then my father is a God-send because he can help you solve those issues with his expertise. But what happens where you don’t have any marriage, business or car issues that require his help? Well, you’re happy and he has no work. Service providers are inherently dependent on the rest of society, which is why there can only be a fixed supply of them.

This is very different to what I regard the originators of value. The art students I shunned at high school, can now do something in technology that has them one of the most sought after talent: design interfaces. Apple, a company that has brought interface design into the core of the company’s approach to building technology, will probably become the most valuable company in the world ever to have existed.

Similarly, scientists and engineers: they are builders. They can build value, for any industry and a solution to any problem limited only by their creativity. We will never have an excess supply of computer science students, because if they can’t get employed they can simply leverage their skills to entrepreneurship and employ themselves!

Accounting is the language of the business world and it’s why I decided on that path; but I’ve now come to appreciate computer science as the language of the information society. Those who smartly go in that direction, will be the leaders of our future.

future retro

We need more people in startups. But startups are not for everyone
If our smart people need to get out of the big corporations as a postulate, where should they go? They should be working in startups. And instead of being service providers at big banks, they should be product builders at disruptive companies.

But not everyone. I’ve observed multiple times personalities that are more detail-orientated and prefer structure tend to get more easily frustrated in the organised chaos that is a startup. They focus on execution, whereas a startup is more experimental and adaptive — and so clash with people who are the latter. While differences in personalities is a given thing in any work environment, the issue with these clashes is that you need people who can hold their head and not blow up. Conflict is fine, as long as it’s managed — and I’ve found more structure-orientated people tend to freak out more and then affect the work of their colleagues (which is the real issue, not the fact they need a more structured work environment).

But with that, is the only disclaimer I’m willing to give to Everest Syndrome. If there was one thing I could change in the world, it would be that. Because ahead of poverty, hunger, and war — it is smart people working on challenging problems that can help change the world. The Internet’s development and people understanding computer science creates the opportunity for not just new startups, but every day innovations that can automate processes (like research), connect people (like disaster relief) and maximise the opportunity for economic and political freedom for humanity.

Not everyone has the intelligence, passion and will to be a science researcher uncovering new medicines, one of the nobler career choices in my eyes. However, computer science is fast becoming the new literacy in business. Put more simply, if you don’t know how to put a website up on your own, then stop feeling pity for the third word’s first order impoverishment and reflect on the rich world’s higher-order impoverishment reflected in your inability. A symptom of a bigger impoverishment of the mind, that is a disillusion of what truly is valuable to drive our society forward.

Skies 1

The backstory on Silicon Beach and an Aussie Entourage

When a newspaper a year ago interviewed me, I matter-of-factly talk about an “Aussie Mafia” in Silicon Valley and how we regularly talk to our friends in Australia. More recently The Next Web rather cheekily said I regarded myself as part of an “Aussie mafia” in the commentary to the video interview. The interview caused a bit of a stir with emails and additional blog posts about the project.

Voyeur : July 2011, Page 114

But it wasn’t until this last week when an article surfaced from the  July 2011 Virgin Australia inflight magazine “Voyeur” that some noise really affected me. Back in April 2011,  the journalist asked for my help on people to speak to and to give him insight in tech which he readily admitted was not his normal beat; but as a consequence of that discussion, I think the article made some presumptions which make it look like I created the Australian tech community and this “Aussie Mafia”.

Well, not quite. Given both the drinks mentioned in that article, the brand “Silicon Beach” and the “Aussie Mafia” are mentioned, it was suggested by someone I clear up the real history. So here it goes.

“Silicon Beach”
The Australian newspaper media popularised the term “Silicon Beach” from a front page article in January 2007 to describe Sydney in Australia that had a growing tech scene. Six month’s later, I wrote a post saying we should call all of Australia “Silicon Beach” as “we’re one island continent anyway”. A year later, I registered the domain name siliconbeachaustralia.org (and later, negotiated siliconbeach.org) with a placeholder website and launched a mailing list which set the brand on fire. I then went onto build the brand further by launching a podcast series with Bronwen Clune, writing a letter to the Australian Senate on behalf the community that had formed around the mailing list (and a subsequent proposal on request of some Australian senators that formally had them refer to the industry as “Silicon Beach”).

Now those infamous drinks.

Back in May 2008 along with Mick Liubinskas and Lachlan Hardy we made a decision by the Shelbourne  Hotel‘s Pool table to do a weekly drinks that was ‘same time same place’ to avoid confusion — the goal was this consistency would build community in Sydney’s fragmented technology industry. That afternoon Bart Jellema, Kim Chen, Mike Cannon-Brookes and others in attendance agreed — with Bart and Kim being instrumental in making them what its become (they would often be the only people there!). The drinks initially were called “FITSBAD” based off a public Twitter discussion Mick and I subsequently had, which stood for “Friday Information Technology Silicon Beach Drinks” and separately over alcohol at one of the drinks with Bart we called it “Official Friday” because, well, it gave it more status (Bart pushed passionately, I kept drinking). Months later, I convened Mick and Bart and asked them to call it one or the other as they started competing with each other, and so “Official Friday” it became. But then, it slowly turned into “Silicon Beach drinks” (no doubt influenced by Mick and Bart who are the biggest supporters of the brand, but also because Melbourne hosted a monthly drinks under that brand). These drinks further entrenched the brand I didn’t invent but made and now unfairly get credit for doing everything.

Silicon Beach is a brand that I built but so has everyone else in Australia. Just because I first popularised the term though doesn’t mean I did anything special.

“Aussie Mafia”
I first heard about this term from drunk Facebook posts by my Aussie friends in Silicon Valley when I lived in Sydney (people like Martin Wells, Chris Saad, Mike Cannon-Brookes). It would later turn out my future room mate Marty Wells actually invented the brand and replicated in Silicon Valley what he did in Sydney, which was organise the tech entrepreneurs socially. Which is ironic, because the “Silicon Beach” drinks filled the void when Marty left Australia with the events he ran like the semi-exclusive Dinner2.0 (where I met Marty) and Stirr. Dean McEvoy (an Aussie that formally lived in Silicon Valley and that went on to do something amazing in Australia) even registered aussiemafia.com. Kind of funny, as it was a jovial term to describe Aussie entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. No one took it seriously, until other people did.

In the months I lived with Marty between September 2009 and January 2010 (I moved to America in August 2009), we called our wifi network “Aussie Mafia HQ” and I tapped into a semi-regular catchup Marty would have with his friends Alisdair FaulknerStephen Weir (a Kiwi), Chris Saad and Bardia Housman. It actually started when Stephen and his girlfriend would eat once a week at a venue, and invited other couples like Alisdair, and sometimes Bardia  (who was in the near end of an exhaustive year long process in selling his company to Adobe and starting to come up for air again) and their partners hanging out — but when the talk of the boys constantly turned to business the girls decided to let them do their own thing. I arrived in America around the time these drinks became a boys catchup driven by Steve, Marty and Al.

Over the next few months, it became a routine and then a ritual. And when visiting Australian’s wanted to meet us individually (as individually everyone in the group had a profile), we’d often invite them, which in turn built this brand as the “Aussie Mafia” catchup. People would get upset they weren’t invited as it was perceived as some industry event. I’ve actually had several confrontations with women on why they weren’t invited! It got to the point where it felt like work and not friends catching up anymore. This practically killed it, as some personalities just ruined the discussions and defeated the purpose of why us time-limited friends would catch up.

And then?
There is no real “Aussie Mafia”: we pay our taxes, we have work visa’s, and we don’t kill anyone that doesn’t pay us protection racket. And I am not the reason why Australia has a tech community — I simply innovated because I identified early on we needed a brand to rally around in Australia, which turned out to be so successful that these journalists credited me for creating the industry!

But there is something in this extended group that’s special, that American entrepreneur friends of ours profess jealousy of. Both Bardia and Stephen bought the building that I gave a tour of in The Next Web  — these two drinking buddies are now business partners. And there are more business arrangements to be announced in the coming months that have been developed along with discussions against trips to Mexico, Vegas and Miami.

There are a bunch of other Aussies and Kiwi’s I haven’t mentioned in this post and they know who they are. It’s an interesting time though because these social friendships (I’ve had some of the funnest nights in my life with the people in the above sketched image) are now becoming commercial relationships. A story of success will come out of this and I guess you could say we’re rewriting our history in this city.

UPDATE: 14 July 2011: Delighted to find out today that Kim Chen was a secret influence behind the Melbourne Silicon Beach drinks. There had been two previous attempts at getting Melbourne to have regular drinks, but it was Kim’s discussion with Roy Hui, Kate Kendall and Stuart Richardson that led to this being a huge success.

How to become a global innovation centre

In May 2009, the Australian government asked me what should they be doing to build Australia’s technology sector. I responded by asking the 600 people who have self-identified themselves as technology entrepreneurs in Australia, and over several months wrote a paper in a crowd-sourced way, to send this formal submission to the government. Later this week Senator Kate Lundy will be hosting a public sphere event, which will be an influential event that could change Australia’s direction and government policy in technology.

Here is a video I was asked to do explaining the paper.

You can read the submission here, which I’m sure other countries may find useful – it may not be right, but it’s what a portion of Australia’s entrepreneurial community thinks.

Bye Sydney, Hi San Francisco

My life is about to get a big shakeup. I’ve accepted an offer at San Francisco based Vast.com, after spending nearly four valuable years at the Sydney office of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

New job, new industry, new city, new country.
In the last few years, I’ve come out of nowhere (meaning no idea how!) to become a person driving a global industry movement (the DataPortability Project) and a recognised champion for my nation’s Internet industry (Silicon Beach). Ironically, I don’t have a computer software background (I’m a chartered accountant), and I don’t work directly in tech (I’ve worked in financial services) So this transition is a realignment in my life, that I hope will bring me closer to doing what I’ve recognised is my true passion: building Internet companies that add value to our world.

What will I be doing?
Reporting to the CEO, I’ll be managing the overall finance and accounting functions of the company. However with time and as the company grows, I’ll be taking on additional responsibilities that can extend my current skill-base and experience. I’m thankful that the CEO Kevin Laws (one of the smartest guys in any room – seriously!), the chairman Naval Ravikant (one of the most successful Valley entrepreneurs around – 15 companies and counting!), and Director of Product Steve Greenberg (wisest guy I’ve ever met – both in insight and wit) believe in me and want to help me reach my potential…whatever that may be. Vast.com has an exciting business model with a veteran executive team – I don’t know where my future is headed but I know it’s in good hands.

So are you giving up on Australia?
No way! In fact, I think my presence in Silicon Valley is going to allow me to extend the Silicon Beach effort. I will have a permanent couch reserved for all of Australia’s tech entrepreneurs (well if I can – housing and room-mate pending!) and I’ll be developing my expertise from the world’s best to share back with my compatriots. I do hope one day to return to Australia and I have plenty of reason to do so – my family is in Sydney as are my half-dozen best friends who quite literally are the best mates a guy could have. I’ll still be doing the Silicon Beach podcast’s and whatever else I can to keep me connected to Australia – socially, professionally, spiritually – but having said that though, it may be a while before I do come back. I’ve got a hell of a lot to learn first!

This is a move that I hope will position me for bigger and better things. Its been a very hard decision to give up my near perfect life in Sydney, but I’m also very excited about the opportunities possible in my new position. Living overseas is something everyone needs to do in their lifetime for their own personal growth, and working in Silicon Valley is something I had to do (or as my new boss Kevin has said repeatedly now, “you belong here”), otherwise I’d forever regret not doing it.

I’ve still got a month to wind up things here in Sydney but I plan to be in San Francisco by 1 August 2009 at the latest. For those in Australia, I hope I get to catch you all before I go. For the American’s: be warned – trouble’s coming. 🙂

Wish me luck!

The Australian cancer that will kill the Internet

grainy girl censored There is a cancer growing in our society. This problem may seem small, isolated and insignificant, but left unchecked, could grow to affect everyone in the world. Because when a small nation validates a disastrous idea, it gives the larger countries evidence to pursue it – and like domino’s, we all fall.

Logging into a Bogota internet cafe last year as I was backpacking around South America, I nearly choked. Australia’s new government had slightly tweaked their election commitment: they no longer wanted to help parents filter the Internet to prevent their children from stumbling on child porn (children don’t watch child porn, and lets not forget the fact that child pornographers have a sophisticated offline network that bypasses technology), but now the government was going to mandate a “clean” feed on everybody. Mandatory censorship on the Internet is not a future I want. It made my blood boil.

It was to be a filtration regime, that the government would censor whatever they thought was deemed censorable. An unaccountable, shady regime using the high moral ground of claiming to look after children, but in subsequent examinations, has proven to be just the start. A recent leak has shown that there has been considerable scope creep. Pornography, gambling, abortion websites – all the good stuff in life that make conservative Christian’s pray for a flood and famine to clean society up – would be part of this black list, despite being perfectly legal for adults. The question isn’t why is the government banning porn and the like; it’s where will the line be drawn and who determines that? We are seeing a moral crusade, cloaking a very real civil rights issue.

Censored face

I wrote an email to every senator of the Australia government several months back, speaking on behalf of the Silicon Beach Australia community (which will give you all the background you need). Fortunately it worked – I not only educated, but I was acknowledged from two important senators that the current administration needed to pass the legislation. It was a temporary win, and thankfully since then the Australian mainstream media have taken an absolutely beating on the government. But very rarely does this get international attention.

More recent announcements suggest the legislation is dead in the water. But let’s not get complacent – we are only as safe as the next election, where the numbers in the Senate shift. This has been an issue for several years being pushed by the parties to win the growing Christian conservative vote. This dangerous policy hasn’t died – it’s just undergoing an evolution.

Why the rest of the world should care…and be scared
One thing that I’ve learned from this experience, is that the Australian government will cling onto the flimsiest of evidence and pathetic moral rhetoric, to position their case. Distorted perspectives, exaggerated linkages – it almost makes me laugh and then cry to see how desperate the government is to sell its case, by citing overseas efforts in an inaccurate way, in order to build their case. It is a propaganda war based on lies that we are getting sick of .

self-censored

If an economically insignificant – but credible nation – like Australia introduces this filteration regime, it means it’s a global precedent. We don’t want a precedent. All it takes is one solid example, and governments around the world can jump out of hiding on this sensitive electoral issue.

The Internet needs to be open, free, and available. It’s going to be the infrastructure of our society that will allow new opportunities for the development of the human race. So when a government starts flirting with the idea of internet censorship – don’t get complacent. Every piece of legislation passed, is a step closer to a control regime we don’t need.

twiter_vanuatu_nocleanfeed

We need to make this issue political suicide around the world. Our public pressure needs to get to the point, where no politician in their right mind, will try to implement this policy. I’m not asking you to suddenly become an activist, but just understand – there is no room for leeway in this. This issue has been under-reported by the media across the world – let’s kill this cancer once and for all. Because unless we exterminate this fake moral crusade, this cancer is going to slowly grow in the background – only for us to realise it’s all over when it’s too late.

It’s not often I will breakout in anger over this, but I think about it everyday (like how my Twitter avatar is in constant protest). No need to chain yourself to a tree – but let’s start making this the bigger deal that it really is.

The Rudd Filter

This poor blog of mine has been neglected. So let me do some catchup with some of the things I’ve been doing.

Below is a letter I sent to every senator of the Australian government several weeks ago. Two key groups responded: the Greens (one of the parties to hold the balance of power) who were encouraged by my letter, and the Independent Nick Xenophon (who is one of the two key senators that will have an impact) had his office respond in a very positive way .

It relates to the Government’s attempt to censor the Internet for Australians.

Subject: The Rudd Filter

Attention: Senators of the Australian parliament

With all due respect, I believe my elected representatives as well as my fellow Australians misunderstand the issue of Internet censorship. Below I offer my perspective, which I hope can re-position the debate with a more complete understanding of the issues.

Background

The policy of the Australian Labor Party on its Internet filter was in reaction to the Howard Government’s family-based approach which Labor said was a failure. Then leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, announced in March 2006 (Internet archive ) that under Labor “all Internet Service Providers will be required to offer a filtered ‘clean feed’ Internet service to all households, and to schools and other public internet points accessible by kids.” The same press release states “Through an opt-out system, adults who still want to view currently legal content would advise their Internet Service Provider (ISP) that they want to opt out of the “clean feed”, and would then face the same regulations which currently apply.”

The 2007 Federal election, which was led by Kevin Rudd, announced the election pledge that “a Rudd Labor Government will require ISPs to offer a ‚Äòclean feed‚Äô Internet service to all homes, schools and public Internet points accessible by children, such as public libraries. Labor‚Äôs ISP policy will prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA, including sites such as those containing child pornography and X-rated material.”

Following the election, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy Senator Stephen Conroy in December 2007 clarified that anyone wanting uncensored access to the Internet will have to opt-out of the service .

In October 2008, the policy had another subtle yet dramatic shift. When examined by a Senate Estimates committee, Senator Conroy stated that “we are looking at two tiers – mandatory of illegal material and an option for families to get a clean feed service if they wish.” Further, Conroy mentioned “We would be enforcing the existing laws. If investigated material is found to be prohibited content then ACMA may order it to be taken down if it is hosted in Australia. They are the existing laws at the moment.”

The interpretation of this, which has motivated this paper as well as sparked outrage by Australians nation-wide, is that all Internet connection points in Australia will be subjected to the filter, with only the option to opt-out of the Family tier but not the tier that classifies ‘illegal material’. While the term “mandatory” has been used as part of the policy in the past, it has always been used in the context of making it mandatory for ISP’s to offer such as service. It was never used in the context of it being mandatory for Australians on the Internet, to use it.

Not only is this a departure from the Rudd government’s election pledge, but there is little evidence to suggest that it is truly being representative of the requests from the Australian community. Senator Conroy has shown evidence of the previous NetAlert policy by the previous government falling far below expectations. According to Conroy, 1.4 million families were expected to download the filter, but many less actually did . The estimated end usage according to Conroy is just 30,000 – despite a $22 million advertising campaign. The attempt by this government to pursue this policy therefore, is for its own ideological or political benefit . The Australian people never gave the mandate nor is there evidence to indicate majority support to pursue this agenda. Further, the government trials to date have shown the technology to be ineffective.

On the 27th of October, some 9,000 people had signed a petition to deny support of a government filter. At the time of writing this letter on the 2 November, this has now climbed to 13,655 people. The government’s moves are being closely watched by the community and activities are being planned to respond to the government should this policy continue in its current direction.

I write this to describe the impact such a policy will have if it goes ahead, to educate the government and the public.

Impacts on Australia

Context

The approach of the government to filtering is one dimensional and does not take into account the converged world of the Internet. The Internet has – and will continue to – transform our world. It has become a utility, to form the backbone of our economy and communications. Fast and wide-spread access to the Internet has been recognised globally as a priority policy for political and business leaders of the world.

The Internet typically allows three broad types of activities. The first is that of facilitating the exchange of goods and services. The Internet has become a means of creating a more efficient marketplace, and is well known to have driven demand in offline selling as well , as it creates better informed consumers to reach richer decision making. On the other hand, online market places can exist with considerable less overhead – creating a more efficient marketplace than in the physical world, enabling stronger niche markets through greater connections between buyers and sellers.

The second activity is that of communications. This has enabled a New Media or Hypermedia of many-to-many communications, with people now having a new way to communicate and propagate information. The core value of the World Wide Web can be realised from its founding purpose: created by CERN , it was meant to be a hypertext implementation that would allow better knowledge sharing of its global network of scientists. It was such a transformative thing, that the role of the media has forever changed. For example, newspapers that thrived as businesses in the Industrial Age, now face challenges to their business models, as younger generations are preferring to access their information over Internet services which objectively is a more effective way to do so .
A third activity is that of utility. This is a growing area of the Internet, where it is creating new industries and better ways of doings, now that we have a global community of people connected to share information. The traditional software industry is being changed into a service model where instead of paying a license, companies offer an annual subscription to use the software via the browser as platform (as opposed to a PC’s Window’s installation as the platform). Cloud computing is a trend pioneered by Google, and now an area of innovation by other major Internet companies like Amazon and Microsoft, that will allow people to have their data portable and accessible anywhere in the world. These are disruptive trends, that will further embed the Internet into our world.

The Internet will be unnecessarily restricted

All three of the broad activities described above, will be affected by a filter.
The impact on Markets with analysis-based filters, is that it will likely block access to sites due to a description used in selling items. Suggestions by Senators have been that hardcore and fetish pornography be blocked – content that may be illegal for minors to view, but certainly not illegal for consenting adults. For example, legitimate businesses that used the web as their shopfront (such as adultshop.com.au), will be restricted from the general population in their pursuit of recreational activities. The filter’s restriction on information for Australians is thus a restriction on trade and will impact individuals and their freedoms in their personal lives.
The impact on communications is large. The Internet has created a new form of media called “social media”. Weblogs, wiki’s, micro-blogging services like Twitter, forums like Australian start-up business Tangler and other forms of social media are likely to have their content – and thus service – restricted. The free commentary of individuals on these services, will lead to a censoring and a restriction in the ability to use the services. “User generated content” is considered a central tenet in the proliferation of web2.0, yet the application of industrial area controls on the content businesses now runs into a clash with people’s public speech as the two concepts that were previously distinct in that era, have now merged.
Further more, legitimate information services will be blocked with analysis-based filtering due to language that would trigger filtering. As noted in the ACMA report , “the filters performed significantly better when blocking pornography and other adult content but performed less well when blocking other types of content”. As a case in point, a site containing the word “breast”, would be filtered despite it having legitimate value in providing breast cancer awareness.
Utility services could be adversely affected. The increasing trend of computing ‘in the cloud’ means that our computing infrastructure will require an efficient and open Internet. A filter will do nothing but disrupt this, with little ability to achieve the policy goal of preventing illegal material. As consumers and businesses move to the cloud, critical functions will be relied on, and any threat in the distribution and under-realisation of potential speeds, will be a burden on the economy.
Common to all three classes above, is the degradation of speeds and access. The ACMA report claims that all six filters tested scored an 88% effectiveness rate in terms of blocking the content that the government was hoping would be blocked. It also claims that over-blocking of acceptable content was 8% for all filters tested, with network degradation not nearly as big of a problem during these tests as it was during previous previous trials, when performance degradation ranged from 75-98%. In this latest test, the ACMA said degradation was down, but still varied widely‚Äîfrom a low of just 2% for one product to a high of 87% for another. The fact that there is a degradation of even 0.1% is in my eyes, a major concern.The Government has recognised with the legislation it bases its regulatory authority from, that “whilst it takes seriously its responsibility to provide an effective regime to address the publication of illegal and offensive material online, it wishes to ensure that regulation does not place onerous or unjustifiable burdens on industry and inhibit the development of the online economy.”

The compliance costs alone will hinder the online economy. ISP’s will need to constantly maintain the latest filtering technologies, businesses will need to monitor user generated content to ensure their web services are not automatically filtered and administrative delays to unblock legal sites will hurt profitability and for some start-up businesses may even kill them.

And that’s just for compliance, lets not forget the actual impact on users. As Crikey has reported (Internet filters a success, if success = failure ), even the best filter has a false-positive rate of 3% under ideal lab conditions. Mark Newton (the network engineer who Senator Conroy’s office attacked recently ) reckons that for a medium-sized ISP that‚Äôs 3000 incorrect blocks every second . Another maths-heavy analysis says that every time that filter blocks something there‚Äôs an 80% chance it was wrong.

The Policy goal will not be met & will be costly through this approach

The Labor party’s election policy document states that Labor‚Äôs ISP policy will prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA, including sites such as those containing child pornography and X-rated material. Other than being a useful propaganda device, to my knowledge children and people generally don’t actively seek child pornography, and a filter does nothing to prevent these offline real-world social networks of paedophiles to restrict their activities.

What the government seems to misunderstand, is that a filter regime will prove inadequate in achieving any of this, due to the reality of how information gets distributed on the Internet.
Composition of Internet traffic by you.

Source: http://www.ipoque.com/userfiles/file/internet_study_2007.pdf
Peer-to-peer networks (P2P), a legal technology that also proves itself impossible to control or filter, accounts for the majority of Internet traffic, with figures of between 48% in the Middle East and 80% in Eastern Europe . As noted earlier, the ACMA trials have confirmed that although they can block P2P, they cannot actually analyse the content as being illegal. This is because P2P technologies like torrents are completely decentralised. Individual torrents cannot be identified, and along with encryption technologies, make this type of content impossible to filter or identify what it is.
However, whether blocked or filtered, this is ignoring the fact that access can be bypassed by individuals who wish to do so. Tor is a network of virtual tunnels, used by people under authoritarian governments in the world – you can install the free software on a USB stick to have it working immediately. It is a sophisticated technology that allows people to bypass restrictions. More significantly, I wish to highlight that some Tor servers have been used for illegal purposes, including child pornography and p2p sharing of copyrighted files using the bit torrent protocol. In September 2006, German authorities seized data center equipment running Tor software during a child pornography crackdown, although the TOR network managed to reassemble itself with no impact to its network . This technology is but one of many available options for people to overcome a ISP-level filter.
For a filtering approach to be appropriate, it will require not just automated analysis based technology, but human effort to maintain the censorship of the content. An expatriate Australian in China claims that a staff of 30,000 are employed by the Golden Shield Project (the official name for the Great Firewall) to select what to block along with whatever algorithm they use to automatically block sites. With legitimate online activities being blocked through automated software, it will require a beefed up ACMA to handle support from the public to investigate and unblock websites that are legitimate. Given the amount of false positives proven in the ACMA trials, this is not to be taken likely, and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in direct taxpayers money and billions in opportunity cost for the online economy.

Inappropriate government regulation

The governments approach to regulating the Internet has been one dimensional, by regarding content online with the same type that was produced by the mass media in the Industrial Era. The Information Age recognises content not as a one-to-many broadcast, but individuals communicating. Applying these previous-era provisions is actually a restraint beyond traditional publishing.
Regulation of the Internet is provided under the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act 1999 (Commonwealth) . Schedule Five and seven of the amendment claim the goal is to:

  • Provide a means of addressing complaints about certain Internet content
  • Restrict access to certain Internet content that is likely to cause offense to a reasonable adult
  • Protect children from exposure to Internet content that is unsuitable for them

Mandatory restricting access can disrupt freedom of expression under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and disrupt fair trade of services under the Trade Practices Act.

It is wrong for the government to take the view of mandating restricted access, but instead should allow consumers that option to participate in a system that protects them. To allow a government to interpret what a “reasonable adult” would think is too subjective for it to be appropriate that a faceless authority regulates, over the ability for an individual adult to determine for themselves.

The Internet is not just content in the communications sense, but also in the market and utility sense. Restricting access to services, which may be done inappropriately due to proven weaknesses in filtering technology, would result in

  • reduced consumer information about goods and services. Consumers will have less information due to sites incorrectly blocked
  • violation of the WTO’s cardinal principles – the “national treatment” principle , which requires that imported goods and services be treated the same as those produced locally.
  • preventing or hindering competition under the interpretation of section 4G of the Trade Practices Act . This means online businesses will be disadvantaged from physical world shops, even if they create more accountability by allowing consumer discussion on forums that may trigger the filter due to consumers freedom of expression.

Solution: an opt-in ISP filter that is optional for Australians

Senator Conroy’s crusade in the name of child pornography is not the issue. The issue, in addition to the points raised above, is that mandatory restricting access to information, is by nature a political process. If the Australian Family Association writes an article criticising homosexuals , is this grounds to have the content illegal to access and communicate as it incites discrimination ? Perhaps the Catholic Church should have its website banned because of their stance on homosexuality?

If the Liberals win the next election because the Rudd government was voted out due to pushing ahead with this filtering policy, and the Coalition repeat recent history by controlling both houses of government – what will stop them from banning access to the Labor party’s website?

Of course, these examples sound far fetched but they also sounded far fetched in another vibrant democracy called the Weimar Republic . What I wish to highlight is that pushing ahead with this approach to regulating the Internet is a dangerous precedent that cannot be downplayed. Australians should have the ability to access the Internet with government warnings and guidance on content that may cause offence to the reasonable person. The government should also persecute people creating and distributing information like child pornography that universally is agreed by society as a bad thing. But to mandate restricted access to information on the Internet, based on expensive imperfect technology that can be routed around, is a Brave New World that will not be tolerated by the broader electorate once they realise their individual freedoms are being restricted.

This system of ISP filtering should not be mandatory for all Australians to use. Neither should it be an opt-out system by default. Individuals should have the right to opt-into a system like this, if there are children using the Internet connection or a household wishes to censor their Internet experience. To mandatory force all Australians to experience the Internet only if under Government sanction, is a mistake of the highest levels. It technologically cannot be assured, and it poses a genuine threat to our democracy.

If the Ministry under Senator Conroy does not understand my concerns by responding with a template answer six months later , and clearly showing inadequate industry consultation despite my request, perhaps Chairman Rudd can step in. I recognise with the looming financial recession, we need to look for ways to prop up our export markets. However developing in-house expertise at restricting the population that would set precedent to the rest of the Western world, is something that’s funny in a nervous type of laughter kind of way.

Like many others in the industry, I wish to help the government to develop a solution that protects children. But ultimately, I hope our elected representatives can understand the importance of this potential policy. I also hope they are aware anger exists in the governments’ actions to date, and whilst democracy can be slow to act, when it hits, it hits hard.
Kind regards,
Elias Bizannes
—-
Elias Bizannes works for a professional services firm and is a Chartered Accountant. He is a champion of the Australian Internet industry through the Silicon Beach Australia community and also currently serves as Vice-Chair of the DataPortability Project. The opinions of this letter reflect his own as an individual (and not his employer) with perspective developed in consultation with the Australian industry.
This letter may be redistributed freely. HTML version and PDF version.

The mobile 3D future – as clear as mud

I’ll be happy to admit that in the past, I never understood the hype behind the mobile web. That is of course, before I bought the Nokia E61 – a brilliant phone I loved until it was stolen from me in April 2008. I had the phone since January 2007 with no regrets – only the hype surrounding the iPhone swayed me from (maybe) getting a new phone.

I used that phone for my news reading and e-mail (using the Gmail application, not the native phone installation) and I could understand how mobile was the future for technology innovation. Sure, it didn’t make me want throw my hands in the air and shout in excitement, but it made me understand amongst the naysayers of the mobile web, that there was potential. The defining thing for this realisation of mine, was the fact it had a massive screen, which was not common in phones before that.

So as my phone was stolen, I had the dilemma of buying a crappy new phone until the iPhone came out to Australia (potentially) several months later. But why bother I thought – I ended up buying the first generation iPhone over eBay. And lets just say, ever since, I’ve been throwing my hands in the air in excitement.

Using the iPhone is truly a transformative experience. Quite frankly, it sucks as a phone – no support for MMS; doesn’t syncronise with my corporate Lotus Notes calendar; and the call quality and hearing is consistently bad. But where it lacks as a phone, it makes up for it as a device. The fact I would use it over my laptop at home, just reflects how perfect it was: a portable computer that makes mobile browsing enjoyable. The native e-mail client made the process fun!

My cracked iPhone

Naturally of course, I smashed the screen of my phone (which made the iPhone “just” a phone, because the screen is its core value proposition), and yesterday I finally got around to buying a new phone. I faced an issue: do I upgrade to an iPhone 3G (and boy, did I miss 3G so I was willing to upgrade just for that), or go back to my beloved Nokia’s, who perform one of the most valuable features for me which is the syncing with my calendar. It turns out Nokia had just released in Australia the N96 – which is basically the N95 but better. I can recall Lachlan Hardy swearing by the N95 and convincing me it was the perfect phone. Indeed, his view was supported by anecdotal evidence I found: it was as if Nokia said “heck, lets just chuck every single feature we have into the one phone and see what happens”.

So surely I thought, the one week old N96 which is the evolution of sex-on-a-stick N95 must be just as good, if not better? The experimenter in me went for it, because I knew I could get a better understanding about the mobile future.

From iPhone to Nokia
I absolutely hate it. I’ve barely even had the phone for 24 hours, and yet I am dying to get rid of the phone – I much prefer my cracked screen iPhone on GPRS than the N96. The iPhone compared to the Nokia N96 is like going from Windows Vista to Window’s 3.1 (the version BEFORE Windows 95). This phone, which has a market value of $1200; and had every feature under the sun you could dream for in a phone, is something I am willing to sacrifice. The interface of the iPhone has made me addicted like a heroin addict – I literally, cannot force myself to get used to the degraded user experience.

And I just find it amazing how it’s provoking such a strong reaction in me. Before the iPhone, this phone would have been heaven for me. It has every feature I dream for in a phone, yet the pixelated, text-driven graphical interface makes me all agitated and angry that Nokia hasn’t focused on what really matters.

Playing with the N96, using the browser and even the Gmail app to try to make it a more seamless user experience, reminds me again why I never got the mobile web before. Realistically, it will be a few years before the standard mobile evolves to a richer interface and so consequently, it’s too early to think the mobile web is about to take off now. However, the mobile and the 3D internet are both trends where I am willing to bet my life that it’s not a question of “if” but “when”, and whoever is in the right place at the right time at the emergence of the next upswing post this financial crisis, will be the new barons of the technology world.

The interface and user experience, are the missing link between connecting the vision of the early supporters, into the excitement of the mainstream of society. Mark my words, just like social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook appeared to come out of nowhere to dominate our world, so too will the mobile future and the 3D Internet.

Silicon Beach Australia – the movie!

Last year in June, I said on this blog:

…David Bolliger coined the term “Sillicon Beach” to refer to a bunch of Sydney based start-ups – continuing an international trend of regionalising hotspots of tech innovation that aspire to be like Sillicon Valley (my other favourite is New York as Sillicon Alley). Although it‚Äôs not the first time the term has been used, everyone from Perth, Melbourne, Newscastle, Brisbane, and the rest are claiming they are the real silicon beach.

So seeing as our population is only 20 million, and we are one big island continent anyway – I think I am going to settle with calling Australia’s tech industry as a whole as “Silicon Beach”.

After having separate discussions with Bronwen Clune and Mick Liubinskas, I’ve been thinking over the last few months about how to actively build a strong Internet community here in Australia. With Bronwen, I was investigating the possibility of my firm hosting a conference; with Mick, I’ve been doing weekly Friday drinks as a way for people to get to know each other. And so the other week, I registered the domain name SiliconBeachAustralia.org with no real plan on what to do with it. To me, it’s just seemed like the natural name to brand such attempts.

Although the site’s been up for a few weeks, I’ve been busy. But it was only last night that I created a google group, and announced it by inviting people I knew. It hasn’t even been 24 hours, and already some great discussions have been had with individuals I consider to be pillars of the Australian community…as well as people I didn’t even know existed!

Many thanks to Kim for his coverage as well as Renai for raising awareness. It’s satisfying to see such an open embrace by so many good people.

So join the conversation! As I said on the discussion forum: “Now what? Plan – what plan?”. Last time I used that slogan, it was as the title of this blog when I went backpacking around Europe for nine months – and that was one of the most amazing experiences ever. Here’s hoping for another roller coaster ride.

Internet censorship in Australia

Backpacking around South America six months ago, I logged onto my e-mail only to find the news about the proposed introduction of Internet Filtering at the ISP level to “protect the children”. It made my blood boil, because such a move has far and wide reaching implications beyond protecting children. Below is a copy of the e-mail I sent; and following it is the letter I recently received in response.

My e-mail earlier this year

From: Elias Bizannes
Date: Jan 2, 2008 4:40 PM
Subject: Proposal for censoring
To: Minister, Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy
Cc: Bronwen Clune, Marty Wells, Chris Saad, Mick Liubinskas, Duncan Reily, Cameron Reilly>

Dear Minister,

The proposal for mandatory ISP censoring has a noble intention – but is a dopey idea. You can’t legislate away inadequate parenting by curbing liberties.

I have been to Iran, where the Internet was censored as I was checking my e-mail, for sites that simply should not have been censored. In a country that is three times the size of us, and with a much bigger ideological agenda than our own fair country, you can be sure that if an authoritarian state like that can´t get it right, you have no chance to implement it in Australia.

You can´t fight the Internet Рit is too decentralised that it responds to restrictions in innovative ways. You can only work with it. The reason your proposal concerns me, is because it will affect the performance of the web to users. People like me working or about to enter a growing industry of Australian entrepreneurs, that are trying to build a market from these same users already suffering poor speeds. Often, it is the children that form a crucial part for adoption of the innovative web services Australian entrepreneurs are building. Whilst they may not have the disposable income of adults, they are more tech savvy and help with viral adoption.

For example, an innovative new web start-up in the US which has dominated Silicon Valleys attention of late, Seesmic, would be affected by a clean feed if it allowed its users to have porn video chat rooms as well as normal ones like it currently does. Filtering is a difficult technology to get right. The monitoring costs of an innovative new Australian company, Tangler.com, would increase as they would need to monitor the so called user generated content that youtube is also built on, and is threatening the business models of traditional media.

Just like drugs laws, which are better suited to the interests of pharmaceutical companies wanting to profit rather than the government trying to protect, censorship of any kind will always be a weak policy, because it doesn´t deal with the root cause. The best form of control is at the home.

Whilst Family Firsts influence in the Senate will prohibit you dropping the policy, I really hope you consult with the industry like the news media has reported you to say. People like Duncan Reily (a writer on the most influential tech publication globally, techcrunch.com), Chris Saad (high profile entrepreneur and CEO of Faraday Media, an information filtering company), Marty Wells and Mick Liubinskas (CEO and Marketing Director of Tangler, as well as high profile entrepreneurs), Cameron Reilly (CEO of the podcastnetwork, one of the biggest alternative media networks globally), and Browen Clune (CEO of the citizen journalism start-up NorgMedia) are people you should consider. All the above are considered influential in the industry locally and internationally, and I would feel more comfortable if you had people like that advising you (and who all but two have children as well).

Kind regards,
Elias Bizannes

The official government response

Read this document on Scribd: Conroy response

My presentation at Kickstart forum

I’m currently at Kickstart forum (along with the Mickster), and I just gave a presentation on DataPortability to a bunch of Aussie journalists. I didn’t write a speech, but I did jot down some points on paper before I spoke, so I thought I might share them here given I had a good response.

My presentation had three aspects: background, explanation, and implications of DataPortability. Below is a summary of what I said

Background

  • Started by a bunch of Australians and a few other people overseas in November 2007 out of a chatroom. We formed a workgroup to explore the concept of social network data portability
  • In January 2008, Robert Scoble had an incident, which directed a lot of attention to us. As a consequence, we’ve seen major companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Six Apart, LinkedIn, Digg, and a host of others pledge support for the project.
  • We now have over 1000 people contributing, and have the support of a lot of influential people in the industry who want us to succeed.

Explanation

  • The goal is to not invent anything new. Rather, it’s to synthesise existing standards and technologies, into one blueprint – and then we push it out to the world under the DataPortability brand
  • When consumers see the DataPortability brand, they will know it represents certain things – similar to how users recognise the Centrino brand represents Intel, mobility, wireless internet, and a long battary life. The brand is to communicate some fundamental things about a web service, that will allow a user to recognise a supporting site respects it’s users data rights and certain functionality.
  • Analogy of zero-networking: before the zeroconf initiative it was difficult to connect to the internet (wirelessly). Due to the standardisation of policies, we can now connect on the internet wirelessly at the click of a button. The consequence of this is not just a better consumer experience, but the enablement of future opportunities such as what we are seeing with the mobile phone. Likewise, with DataPortability we will be able to connect to new applications and things will just “work” – and it will see new opportunity for us
  • Analogy of the bank: I stated how the attention economy is something we give our attention to ie, we put up with advertising, and in return we get content. And that the currency of the attention economy is data. With DataPortability, we can store our data in a bank, and via “electronic transfer”, we can interact with various services controlling the use of that data in a centralised manner. We update our data at the bank, and it automatically synchronises with the services we use ie, automatically updating your Facebook and MySpace profiles

Implications

  1. Interoperability: When diverse systems and organisations work together. A DataPortability world will allow you to use your data generated from other sites ie, if you buy books on Amazon about penguins, you can get movie recommendations on your pay TV movie catalog for penguins. Things like the ability to log in across the web with one sign-on, creates a self-supporting ecosystem where everyone benefits.
  2. Semantic web: I gave an explanation of the semantic web (which generated a lot of interest afterwards in chats), and then I proceeded to explain that the problem for the semantic web is there hasn’t been this uptake of standards and technologies. I said that when a company adopts the DataPortability blueprint, they will effectively be supporting the semantic web – and hence enabling the next phase of computing history
  3. Data rights: I claimed the DataPortability project is putting data rights in the spotlight, and it’s an issue that has generated interest from other industries like the health and legal sectors, and not just the Internet sector. Things like what is privacy, and what exactly does my “data” mean. DataPortability is creating a discussion on what this actually means
  4. Wikiocracy: I briefly explained how we are doing a social experiment, with a new type of of governance model, which can be regarded as an evolution of the open source model. “Decentralised” and “non-hierarchical”, which with time it will be more evident with what we are trying to do

Something that amused me was in the sessions I had afterwards when the journalists had a one-on-one session with me, one woman asked: “So why are you doing all of this?”. I said it was an amazing opportunity to meet people and build my profile in the tech industry, to which she concluded: “you’re doing this to make history, aren’t you?”. I smiled 🙂