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Bill Bennett


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New Zealand’s bias challenging algorithm charter could save lives

Statistics minister James Shaw launched the Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa New Zealand. He says it is a world first.

The charter might not seem a huge deal. Yet overseas experience suggests it could save lives.

Shaw’s press release says the charter will “give New Zealanders confidence that data is being used safely and effectively across government.”

Make that: “parts of government”. The charter is not compulsory. A total of 21 government departments have signed. The biggest data users are there: Inland Revenue and The Ministry of Social Development are important. The New Zealand Defence Force has signed, the Police has not.

New Zealanders would be more confident they would not be on the wrong end of a rogue algorithm if the charter was compulsory across government.

Ethical data use

The charter draws on work by the head of Statistics NZ, Liz MacPherson. She also has the title of chief data steward. MacPherson has been working on ethical data use in government.

Last year the government looked at how it used algorithms. It decided they needed more transparency. In July it set up a Data Ethics Advisory Group.

The thinking behind the charter is sound enough. Government departments use vast amounts of data. At times the software used to sift the data is complex, although it can be straightforward at times.

This can work fine, but humans write algorithms. They can be biased or based on false premises. Algorithms can be broken. People using them can make bad decisions.

Algorithm chaos

There are plenty of stories of algorithms serving up inaccuracies and discriminatory decisions. The process is opaque, government employees have been known to hide behind bad decisions. The logic used to feed algorithms is often kept secret from the public.

When this happens, the consequences can be dire. At times the most vulnerable members of society can be at risk.

One of the worst examples of how bad this gets is Australia’s so called Robodebt saga. Australians who had received welfare payments were automatically sent debt notices, often without explanation if data matching between different departments showed inconsistencies.

Many Robodebt demands were wrong. Fighting or even questioning the demands saw people descend into a Kafkaesque digital distopia. There were suicides as a result.

Agencies signing the charter commit to explaining their algorithms to the people on the receiving end. The rules used are supposed to be transparent and published in plain English. Good luck with that one.

Fit for purpose

Elsewhere the New Zealand charter wants algorithm users to “make sure data is fit for purpose” by “understanding its limitations” and “identifying and managing bias”. It sounds good, but there is a danger public servants might push the meaning of those words to the limit.

Any agency signing the charter has to give the public a point of contact for enquiries about algorithms. The charter expects agencies to offer a way of appealing against algorithm decisions.

There’s a specific New Zealand twist. The charter asks agencies to take Māori views on data collection into account. This is important. Algorithms tend to be written by people from other cultures and Māori are disproportionately on the wrong end of bad decisions.

One area not covered in the documents published at the launch is how agencies might deal with data that is manipulated by external agencies. Given that government outsources data work, this could be a problem. There may even be cases where external organisations use proprietary algorithms.

New Zealand won’t follow UK’s Huawei 5G ban | RNZ News

“TICSA has been in place since 2014, and works well. We are confident that New Zealand’s telecommunications networks are secure, and that our regulatory model serves New Zealanders well.”He said every decision was made on a case-by-case basis, and in accordance with New Zealand laws.

Source: Andrew Little says New Zealand won’t follow UK’s Huawei 5G ban | RNZ News

Rachel Thomas at RNZ interviewed me on the likelihood of Huawei being allow to take part in New Zealand’s 5G networks.

Huawei doesn’t meet the standard set out in the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013 (TICSA).

Huawei didn’t pass the test the first time around and everyone goes out of your way to tell you that’s not a ban, that in effect bans it from the network until it passes that test, so we’re already in the ‘not going to be buying Huawei’ camp.

This could change if there is a change of government either here or in the US. The National Party is closer to China than Labour, Green or New Zealand First. A Democrat lead government in the US may want to take the heat out of trade tension with China.

Currently, no telco providers are using Huawei technology as part of their 5G networks in New Zealand – with Vodafone and Spark both working with Nokia.

But Spark and 2 Degrees have refused to say whether they would rule out partnering with Huawei for 5G networks in the future.

Privacy regulation: New Zealand wants more

A survey conducted by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner found that two-third of New Zealanders want more privacy regulation.

Less than a third of those surveyed are happy with things as they stand. Six percent of New Zealanders would like to see less regulation.

Women are more likely to want more privacy than men. The survey found Māori are more likely to be very concerned about individual privacy than others.

Business sharing private data

In general, New Zealanders are most concerned about businesses sharing personal information without permission. Three quarters of the sample worry about this. Almost as many, 72 percent, have concerns about theft of banking details. The same number has fears about the security of online personal information.

The use of facial recognition and closed circuit TV technology is of concern to 41 percent.

UMR Research conducted the survey earlier this year. It interviewed 1,398 New Zealanders.

The survey results appeared a week after Parliament passed the 2020 Privacy Act. They show the public is in broad support of the way New Zealand regulates privacy.

Most of the changes to the Privacy Act bring it up to date. Parliament passed the previous Act in 1993 as the internet moved into the mainstream. There have been huge technology changes since then.

Justice Minister Andrew Little says the legislation introduces mechanisms to promote early intervention and risk management by agencies rather than relying on people making complaints after a privacy breach has already happened.

Mandatory notification

An important part of the new Act is mandatory privacy breach notification.

If an organisation or company has a breach that poses a risk, they are now required by law to notify the Privacy Commissioner and tell anyone affected.

The new Act also strengthens the role of the Privacy Commissioner.

The commissioner can issue a compliance notice telling data users to get their act together and comply with the Act. If they don’t, the commissioner can fine them up to $10,000.

Another update is when a business or organisation deals with a New Zealander’s private data overseas. They must ensure whoever gets that information has the same level of  protection as New Zealand.

The rules apply to anyone. They don’t need to have a New Zealand physical presence. Yes, that means companies like Facebook.

There are also new criminal offences. It’s now a crime to destroy personal information if someone makes a request for it.

Google pays tax on larger small fraction of total NZ income

Google published its New Zealand accounts for the year to December 31,2019 earlier today.

According to the company’s financial statement Google’s 2019 revenue was NZ$36.2 million. That’s more than double the $17.5 million it made in 2018.

Sales and marketing expenses for the year were $20.4 million. This compares with a shade over $3 million in the previous year.

Which leaves the company with a 2019 profit of $10.6 million. In 2018 the profit was $0.6 million.

More Google tax

It means Google pays more New Zealand company tax than in the past.

Google says its 2019 tax bill is $3.6 million. In the financial statement the income tax expense is listed as $2.5 million. Apparently the lower number is the tax paid during the 2019 year, while $3.6 million represents the total tax the company will pay.

It’s a lot more tax than in the past. Google paid around $400,000 for the previous year.

Yet it is nothing like the whole story. While Google may have booked $36 million of New Zealand revenue in 2019, the figure is only a small fraction of the total amount of business it did in the country.

Does not include everything

A simple back of an envelope calculation shows Google will have booked a total of well over $NZ500 million in advertising last year. The company also has a cloud computing operation, although that is small compared to its advertising business.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) estimates Google made around A$3.7 billion in Australia in 2018.

In 2018 Google changed the way it does business in New Zealand to what it calls its ‘reseller model’. Before that the local office was financed out of the Singapore operation.

Governments around the world are moving to close the loopholes that let tech giants like Google and Facebook avoid paying full local taxes in the countries where they do business. The US government objects to this.

New Zealand’s government has said it hopes to be part of an international approach to the problem and will work with the OECD. This has been slow to date and many countries, including Australia, are moving to introduce a digital services tax.

InternetNZ’s digital inclusion plan

Twenty organisations have pulled in behind InternetNZ’s call on the government for greater digital inclusion.

While the government has its own digital inclusion plan, the signatories want to push things further and faster.

InternetNZ says this is in part as a response to the Covid–19 pandemic which highlighted the Internet’s importance for work and entertainment. It also wants to prepare the nation for a future where the digital world is only going to become more important.

The action plan covers five areas:

Affordable connectivity

We’ve built networks that can deliver fast broadband to almost every home and business in New Zealand. That’s fine for people with secure jobs and a decent income.

Not everyone can afford a connection. If unemployment takes off a lot more people will be left without the money to connect.

This problem is harder than it looks. It goes beyond the telecommunications sector.

Telecommunications companies are private. They exist to make money for their shareholders.

Intense competition means margins are already slim. New Zealand’s open access network model keeps the sector efficient. There is little fat to trim anywhere.

The InternetNZ plan suggests subsidies to help poorer people connect. I’m not sure that’s the best approach, but it does fit with how we tackle these problems at the moment.

Devices for people who can’t afford them

This is another aspect of the same problem. Too many New Zealanders can’t afford computers, tablets or other internet connection devices.

There are all kinds of traps with schemes to get computers into the hands of poorer New Zealanders.

Expect to lobbying from equipment suppliers and other vested interests to get their technologies accepted as the standard. Their ideas may not be the best options.

Take Chromebooks. They are cheap to buy, but Chromebooks are limited in what they do compared with Windows or Apple computers. That’s fine if you only want people to connect online, but it’s not a good way to help people pick up the digital skills that the plan also calls for.

Moreover Chromebooks lock users into Google’s surveillance capitalism model. Do we want less well off New Zealanders to be bombarded by targeted advertising and YouTube misinformation campaigns?

Windows and Apple computers come with their own lock-in issue. Linux is an alternative, but the open source operating system can be daunting for experienced computer users. Is it fair to land this on less technical folk?

Support for the newly connected

This is relatively easy to implement. Something like it already happens at the digital hubs that are now being established in regional New Zealand. The plan says an option is to increase funding for organisations already active in the community.

Digital skills for displaced workers

While giving displaced workers digital skills sounds good, the idea has a long history and has not always succeeded in the past. Previous schemes to retrain workers for a digital future, here and overseas, have churned out people that employers don’t need or want. This idea needs more work.

Long term internet resilience

The plan says: “Shovel ready investment in our telecommunications infrastructure, to provide future resilience and create employment.”

This can includeextending the fibre network deeper into rural New Zealand and coming up with better projects for more remote users.

We also need more redundancy in networks. Last month Vodafone’s network was disrupted by a couple of fibre cuts, it could be wise to build alternative routes so the network can self-heal when this happens.

Involve everyone

InternetNZ says in the introduction to the digital inclusion plan: “As a country, we especially need to focus on groups in society that need different kinds of support, including Māori, Pasifika, older people, people with disabilities, those on lower incomes, rural users and the homeless.”

This is vital. The pandemic is going to hit all these groups especially hard. It’s easy for comfortable, middle class New Zealanders in leafy suburbs with great broadband to lose sight of this. Spread out the telecommunications wealth and everyone benefits.