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The case against online voting

Laurence Millar:

I do all my banking, travel booking, shopping and communicating online.  Surely in the 21st century, I should be able to vote online? If you are voting to elect the president of your sports club, then online voting is convenient and easy. But it should never be used to elect our government[…]

Source: Online voting? No thanks! – NZRise

It’s comforting to see someone as knowledgable and experienced in government computing as Laurence Millar choses to speak out about the dangers of online voting.

He makes all the points you might expect: the risks are too high and the rewards for ratbags are too tempting. We know for certain that criminals and unfriendly governments have intervened in election campaigns. Some even boast about it. So it’s realistic to assume they will turn their attention to an actual vote.

The reality is almost no computer system is foolproof. And few are immune from attackers who are prepared to throw enough resources at breaching security.

But there’s more. Millar writes:

…the chimera of manipulated votes is in itself sufficient to undermine confidence in the result of the election.

And this is just as likely to be the goal of those who would attack elections. Yes, they’d love to manipulate the vote. But they also want to undermine the very idea of a democratic vote.

This suits their purposes almost as much.

Millar’s other points are all valid. It’s worth reading the original post.

Yet something else bothers me about the idea of an online election in New Zealand. Typically projects of this nature are put out to tender and awarded to the lowest bidder.

Tender writers may talk about how the project won’t just go to the cheapest bid, but also about the values, privacy, security and yada, yada, yada that need to be embodied in the system.

We all know the reality. Lower prices win.

We’ve seen this time and time again. Tender responses may be full of piety and goody two-shoes language about protecting this and respecting that.

Words are cheap.

When push comes to shove, saving a few bucks here and there will impress the organisation issuing the tender more than anything else.

It always does.

And even if money is no object and the first tender goes to a first class bidder who does everything right, when it comes up for renewal someone else will be purchasing.

Or the next time. Or the time after that.

Sooner or later cheapskates or, just as bad, companies that are better at lobbying governments than delivering on promises will get the job.

Before you know it there will be an argument for, say, using an overseas cloud provider or a well known brand that hasn’t done a sterling job managing its own digital security in the past.

It is in the nature of these things. Sooner or later we are disappointed.

NZ chief science advisor 5G site not up to the job

Good on the Professor Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, for setting up a web site to address 5G fears.

It counters much of the disinformation in circulation.

Sadly the presentation is awful. It is so poor that the message doesn’t stand much chance of reaching ordinary folk.

Some of the campaigns and disinformation sites attempting to undermine the science are so much slicker.

Not engaging

Take a look at the home page. Web sites don’t get much less engaging.

chief science advisor 5G site
The Prime Minister’s chief science advisor 5G site

It has large blocks of text across a very wide measure. That makes it hard to read. While the text is broken up into blocks lower down the front page, there is a daunting slab of text to get through at the top.

The second paragraph is over 100 words long. You need a Year 12 reading age to comprehend the text. That’s way too high, beyond the majority of readers. Even people are able to read such dense material, tend not to bother.

In other words it reads more like academic or government writing than, say, newspaper or magazine copy.

When official equals boring, unreadable

Now there is a case for this. It is, after all, an official government science response. Yet, it is up against disinformation campaigns that know exactly how to reach the target audience.

It’s good that the designer1 uses links in another colour. This breaks up the blocks giving the reader’s eye signposts as they wade through the dreary text.

Even the text chosen here is wrong. It should be larger, although I’m impressed that it uses a bold typeface, that helps with accessibility for readers with poor eyesight.

What we have here is important. The site contains the information people need. In places the language is clear enough. I like this part:

“The currently available scientific evidence makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any adverse effects on human or environmental health.”

For a scientist it is reasonably tight. Although the journalist in me says this could also be clearer:

“Scientists think it is unlikely 5G will harm you or the environment”.

Commercial alternative

Compare the chief science advisor’s page with this page from Vodafone group out of the UK.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone 5G safety page from UK

It’s unambiguous, straight to the point and easy to read. Even though it gets technical and deep in places, it still does a better job of explaining the issues.

Of course, you might be thinking that it is one thing for a chief science advisor to tell the 5G safety story and another thing entirely for folk that are flogging the technology to tell the story. You’d be right.

Yet the New Zealand government could have made an important piece of public information more engaging. Look at Vodafone’s 5G infographic below. It packs a lot of complex information into a simple, easy to understand image.

The funny thing is, New Zealand’s often doesn’t have this problem with other public information campaigns when it hires an advertising agency to get the message across. Maybe that’s what’s needed here.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone’s 5G infographic makes an otherwise hard to explain concept easy to understand.

  1. I’m assuming it was designed and not just templated together, but I could be wrong about that. ↩︎

Extending New Zealand’s fibre network

Last week engineers completed the first UFB stage. The so-called UFB1 fibre network reaches three quarters of the country.

UFB2 will stretch that to around 87 percent. We can take fibre further, but that needs taxpayer money. A lot of it.

When New Zealand built its copper telephone network, government saw it as a nation-building exercise. Copper phone wires reached almost everywhere.

The number you often see quoted is that it reached 99 percent of the country. It could have been one or two percent less. That’s not the point.

Copper went everywhere

What’s important is that it felt as if copper reached every part of New Zealand. Perception is important.

There’s no technical reason the fibre network couldn’t do the same. The arguments against running fibre everywhere are economic. A nationwide fibre network is expensive.

Yes, it was expensive laying copper to outlying settlements and buildings. We did that at a time when there was less money around.

State-owned monopoly

We also did it at a time the telecommunications network was a government owned monopoly.

The copper network was built as a public service, not a profit making business. Laying copper to the nation’s furthest reaches and maintaining the network created good-paying jobs for workers in regional New Zealand. That would have been a consideration. We rarely hear that argument today.

In a sense it was still about getting the maximum return on the investment, but not in the way modern companies measure investments and returns. There was a social component.

How far can we go with fibre?

We’re not about to go back to a state-owned telecommunications monopoly1. But there is still a social component to network building. So how far can we go given today’s conditions?

The easy answer is somewhere between the 87 percent already earmarked and the 99 percent the copper network achieved. It won’t be 99 percent, it will be more than 87 percent.

If pushed I’d say a little over 90 percent in the next five years with further add-ons later. But that depends on many moving parts. It also depends on technology not changing, which experience says is a mug’s bet.

Brutal economics

Many forces drive network extension decision making. The most brutal economic fact is that the further you go, the more it costs to add each extra address to the network.

By the time you get to the last few percent the cost is way higher than can be justified by an investor looking for a rational economic return. At least as things stand today.

A nation building government could find the money.

The good news is that fibre uptake is much higher than anticipated at the start of the UFB project. It’s already close to 60 percent and will climb well beyond that number.

This means investing money connecting what were once marginal addresses is now more likely to pay off.

There will be places not included in the 87 percent covered by UFB1 and UFB2 where connection makes sound economic sense.

Politics of fibre

Another force pushing the number higher is political. People in rural areas see people in towns getting Netflix and high quality streaming Rugby pictures. Their kids want to play Xbox games.

People want fibre and may pressure politicians to deliver. Never underestimate rural New Zealand’s ability to lobby government.

By now the people connected to fixed wireless broadband on the RBI network know they have second rate broadband. It will take a long time for their service to improve, if ever. There are stories of capacity problems.

Not everyone who wants a wireless connection can get one. It is unlikely rural fixed wireless will ever match fibre. That’s more pressure.

One way or another government needs to subsidise further network extension. So the answer to the how far will the network goes question is a matter of the willingness of governments and taxpayers to put people in rural New Zealand on an equal digital footing.

Before you ask how far will fibre go, ask yourself how much you are willing to pay?


  1. Discuss this by all means. Even if you think it is desirable, it’s unlikely. ↩︎

If tech giants paid NZ’s Telecommunications Development Levy

In the UK, the Labour Party plans to nationalise part of the telecommunications network if it wins this year’s election.

To cover costs, a Labour government will tax multinational tech giants including Google and Facebook.

Let’s put aside the idea of nationalisation1. Instead, let us focus on the idea of making tech giants contribute towards the cost of telecommunications networks.

Not ridiculous

The idea isn’t ridiculous. Google and Facebook made their fortunes on the back of telecom networks. In effect they had a free ride.

People who invested in building Spark, Vodafone, Chorus and the rest of New Zealand’s telecommunications networks have, up to a point, subsidised the tech giants.

A decade ago there was talk in telecom circles about recapturing some of the value taken by over-the-top companies.

That battle was lost before it started.

It could be impractical and difficult for a small nation like New Zealand to force tech giants to pay all the costs of our telecommunication network.

That would remove price signals. These are important. They help the industry squeeze value from the assets. They tell planners where to invest.

Jangling the gold

There is one area where we can hold Facebook, Google and maybe other tech giants upside down and jangle the coins out of their pockets.

We could get them to contribute to our Telecommunications Development Levy.

This is the money collected by the government to help subsidise rural telecommunications. It also pays for things like the services that help blind and deaf people use phones.

At the moment the TDL is $50 million a year. It’s called a levy, but it’s really a tax on telecommunications companies. They each pay a share roughly based on how much they earn from sales.

As things stand today, Spark, Vodafone and Chorus pay the lion’s share.

How it might work

Suppose, for one minute, we decide to treat income the digital giants earn from New Zealand on the same basis as local telco revenue.

We’ll forget the smaller firms for now and focus on only two tech giants: Google and Facebook.

It’s hard to know exactly how much these companies make in New Zealand. The Commerce Commission would be have a job extracting this data, but it is doable.

This NZ Herald story estimates Google made around $600 million here in 2017. The number for Facebook is hard to estimate. For the sake of argument, let’s say it is much the same.

The total qualified revenue for New Zealand’s telcos is $4.1 billion. If we add in the tech giant revenue that gives us $5.3 billion.

In round numbers that puts Google and Facebook’s share at 20 percent of the total.

This means we could reasonably ask the two giants to stump up $10 million towards the TDL.

If we add in the other large companies who earn revenue on the back of New Zealand having a decent digital network that could take the total contribution from over the top money earners up to around a third of the TDL total.

Fair dealings?

It would be hard for anyone to argue such an approach is unfair. The amounts are, in comparison, tiny. A $10 million charge on $1.2 billion is less than one-tenth of one percent. It wouldn’t even feature as a budget line item.

Tech giants make huge margins on their revenues. The charge need not have any effect on prices.

In comparison the profit margins for New Zealand’s telecommunications companies are slender. Putting $15 million or so2 back into their hands wouldn’t make a huge difference. It would ease their burden.

So there you have it. The company’s that benefit most from investment in telecommunications can return a tiny trickle from their rivers of gold so that more New Zealanders can access their products and services. Is that so unreasonable?


  1. Maybe until another time. Maybe not. ↩︎
  2. This presumes an expanded programme where more than just two tech giants contribute ↩︎

Digital divide targeted in government inclusion blueprint

Getting more New Zealanders online is the government’s goal with its Digital Inclusion Blueprint. The plan is to bridge the digital divide and make sure people don’t miss out as more and more vital services move on to the internet.

Government Digital Services Minister Megan Woods launched the blueprint on Friday.

She says: “Some people can’t easily apply for jobs as many recruitment processes start online. Kids may be prevented from doing their homework.

“Others could feel isolated from more digitally savvy friends and family who communicate using social media. We want to ensure no one is left out or left behind as more and more of our lives move online.”

Life hard without a connection

She is right. It is already hard to do simple everyday things without an internet connection. It will get harder.

Even something as simple as arranging for a council rubbish pick-up or buying insurance is difficult without an internet connection.

We tend to underestimate the number of New Zealanders without internet access. In part that’s because of the way government collects official information. Much of it is now done through the web.

When it isn’t, officials often collect data by phone. The problem here is that people without home internet connections are often the same people who don’t have mobile phones.

More offline than you might think

At the 20/20 Trust, Bill Dashfield says at least 11 percent of the population do not use the internet. This group is likely to include older, poorer, rural and non-Pākehā New Zealanders. That makes for a digital divide.

Woods says: “Access to online service is a key priority is one of my priorities and an area Government has already invested in. For example, the Prime Minister recently announced $21 million funding for Regional Digital Hubs (RDHs) in towns to connect local people and businesses to digital services.

This is a good start. It helps that the government supported ultra-fast broadband programme now extends further into rural New Zealand. Eventually about 85 percent of the country will get fibre. Almost everyone else will have better broadband, either in the shape of fixed wireless or improved copper connections.

InternetNZ Jordan Carter zoomed in on one aspect of the divide in a press release.

Call for action on digital divide

He says; “We welcome, in particular, the development of Te Whata Kōrero. It’s a call to action for tāngata whenua to work alongside the government to provide leadership on digital inclusion”.

Moreover, he nails the biggest problem: funding.

Previous governments managed to find close to $2 billion to build UFB and the other broadband improvement projects. Now it has to earmark money to make sure everyone can reap the benefits of fibre and other fast broadband technologies.

The good news is it won’t cost anything like $2 billion. Even five percent of that will pay for a lot of small local initiatives. Small projects are the best way to get people across the digital divide. It will be a lot cheaper than maintaining offline government services for jobs that are better done online.

Let’s hope there are funds in the budget to pay for inclusion.