Tom Burton: fake news and Canberra’s alternative reality


The challenge of what to do about fake news reveals a paucity of policy and regulatory smarts across the wider digital economy.

The widespread debate about fake news and what to do about it exposes a large gap in Australia’s regulatory and policy machinery, and points to a broader issue around the lack of concentrated and deep digital policy and technical capability in the Australian government.

In front of the government there are major national policy questions around data integrity, sovereignty and ownership, privacy and security, algorithmic oversight and a dozen challenging issues ranging from fake news, tax and custom collection, cyber-bullying and digital identity. Each are complex challenges in their own right, but come to a government where there are precious few expert skills and experience in systems, technical execution or the marketplace to guide policy.

And that is just today’s issues. Coming like a fast train is cognitive computing and the whole artificial intelligence phenomenon, intelligent bots, nano and quantum computing, and just as we grapple with fake news, the arrival of augmented reality and everything that goes with it.

“Where Malcolm Turnbull would get advice on fake news from in his bureaucracy is anyone’s guess.”

If digital is the defining phenomenon of our era, the national government is desperately underdone, and frankly outclassed, as it seeks to position Australia as a savvy services-oriented economy, ready to compete on the world stage.

It also means local citizens and business are woefully exposed to the global hegemony of the ruling US tech giants and the jungle-like world that is the modern internet.

What capability there is, is spread thin and inchoate across a myriad of security and law enforcement agencies (the Australian Cyber Security Centre, Australian Signals Directorate, AG’s, Office of Cyber Security), small co-ordinating ICT procurement units in Finance and PM&C, the content division of the Department of Communications and the Arts and CSIRO’s Data 61.

Across several regulatory agencies small parts of the digital world are touched, spam at the Australian Communications and Media Authority, cyber-bullying of children at the Office of Children’s eSafety and narrow aspects of privacy at the the Information Commissioner.

The newly formed Digital Transformation Agency, along with the IT units of the bigger agencies, (the so-called D8), provide varying degrees of internal delivery and system skills. After several false starts, the DTA has its hands full corralling the 900-odd Commonwealth agencies into the digital world.

Research is also scattered thinly across the Productivity Commission and small scale units in DOCA and the ACMA. Almost all of this research is desktop and derivative.

The security and justice agencies have technical and enforcement skills, but remain as back room operations rather than centres of policy depth.

We had a digital focus through the then Department of Broadband and the Digital Economy in the early days of the broadband debate and we have seen how well that landed with the NBN. Not.

Each agency has remit over narrow slices of the digital world. Whereas we have whole agencies and Ministers focused on Tourism, the Arts and Sport, the only ministers with digital focus are Angus Taylor, charged with overseeing the digital transformation of government, and Dan Tehan, with a mandate around cyber security.

‘Fake news’ a canary in the mines of government

Take the issue of so-called fake news and its threat to the accepted premises of commerce, politics and civil society.

Fuelled by programmatic advertising, nefarious digital marketing and tracking, the dark use of advanced data analytics and segmentation, anonymous and opaque news feed algorithms, fake news has rocketed to attention in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum.

And long before Donald Trump called it out, fake news had well and truly taken hold in the now massive e-commerce sector and the little understood world of search engine and social marketing optimisation.

Where Malcolm Turnbull would get advice on fake news from in his bureaucracy is anyone’s guess.

The issue requires a sophisticated understanding of the news and journalistic world simply not present in agencies of the state (other than the ABC and SBS). It also demands a deep understanding of the global regulatory thinking around issues such as digital tracking, cookie management, data sovereignty, intellectual property, cross border and international law and identity management. Last year’s struggle to even frame a sensible internal discussion around identity management underlines just how thin digital policy thinking is across the Commonwealth.

DOCA and the ACMA have some experience around content and factual accuracy — albeit in the narrow domain of broadcasting. But the last time DOCA ventured forth in the vexed world of content regulation was with Stephen Conroy’s ill-thought through proposal for an Uber regulator. It was ceremoniously smashed within days by an unholy alliance of local media companies clinging to their defunct business models and the large tech platforms nervous of the global precedent of a truly converged domestic regulator.

In reality Australia has been happy to take a spectator’s role on many of the myriad of digital issues, complacent that the ruling global liberal order would ensure a sensible regime of voluntary and regulatory codes.

But as the world seemingly heads into a period of neo-nationalism, this assumption can no longer be relied upon. As with many other aspects of policy where Australia has been happy to let multilateralism frame our domestic solutions, we now have to rapidly develop our own views. In the digital arena this requires a deep sophistication that is simply not readily accessible or well organised in government, underlining the urgent need for a major rethink of the machinery of government as well as a big uplift and development of deep digital policy knowledge and skills.

Tomorrow: alt-facts and why we should believe them.

  • Plane English

    Appreciate the article
    Digital and Government needs to be covered an on-going basis. Please keep writing on this. Thanks

  • Grandma

    Che? How is “fake news” any business of government? Are you suggesting government has some role in making media outlets tell the truth – whatever that may be in these post-modern times?