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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. ↩︎

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 ↩︎

Hacking the Treasury, or not

New Zealand’s media enjoyed a day where computer, or maybe cyber, hacking made the headlines.

Here’s the RNZ take:

RNZ Treasury hack headline
National Party ‘Budget leak’: Treasury ‘deliberately hacked’ — RNZ website

There is a lot to unpack in the story. You can find that elsewhere. One thing that needs clarification is what is meant by the word ‘hacking’.

Hacking is a term that’s meaning changes depending on who uses it.

Hacking once meant one thing…

It means one thing to old school computer programmers — kids note that’s what people who wrote computer software were called before the job description was upgraded to developer.

For those people a hacker can be someone who cuts a piece of code.

It can mean someone who writes good code or it can mean someone who writes bodged code. I never quite caught the nuance there but definitely heard it used both ways in different contexts.

You may argue, but for most people this meaning of hacker is now archaic.

… it then meant another thing

It means another thing to people who work in and around computer security. Most of the time they take care not to use the word hacker. I assume that’s a least in part because there can be slightly glamorous connotations.

Or it could be they are lanugage pedants who don’t want to get in a fitght.

Many modern computer security folk prefer terms like bad actor, which makes me think of Tom Cruise.

Or maybe they talk about attackers. At one industry event, some high flying US security experts kept referring to hostiles.

Whatever. The key here is that in some security and enterprise system circles the word hacker can, but doesn’t always, refer to a person who manages to breach a system’s perimeter security and get inside.

Once again there are nuances.

Media see hacker another way

For the more excitable parts of the media, a hacker is someone who wears a balaclava while using a computer. They might also wear military fatigues.

You don’t often get to see the computer, but if you do, it’s often an old fashioned-looking computer, never a tablet or a phone, which seems odd to me, but there you go.

Another feature of this kind of hacker is they ofter work with green, text-based screens. What they do may be advanced and scary, but their computer hardware seems to come from the cold war era. More Trabant than Tesla.

Much of the media and the general public think of hackers as people who do bad things with computers. It’s not just newspapers, radio and TV journalists. When you see computer crime in movies or TV shows, the bad guys are hackers.

Far be it for me to cast aspersions on my colleagues, but there is something a tad click-baity about hacker.

As an aside, I’ve written before about how the word cyber now seems to be related to hacker. In a nutshell when something computery is good, the prefix is computer. When it’s bad the prefix is cyber.

Most leaks are internal
See, “Cyber” is a bad thing…

Which explains why the great unwashed now understands the term hacker in this context.

Guilty your honour

I’ve found myself using the term, most likely incorrectly in your eyes, on TV and radio precisely because it is a shortcut to explaining things to the audience.

You might only have 120 seconds to explain something complicated. If you spend that qualifying terms defining the attack like a crusty old classics academic deconstructing Ancient Greek texts you’ve lost the audience.

It’s all Greek to them anyway.

Treasury hack

So, was this week’s Treasury Hack actually a hacking attack or was it something else? It appears that someone found some data that was stored on a web page or series of pages that had not yet been made public.

You can, I sometimes do, stumble over things like this by accident.

Now that’s not necessary hacking as we know it in 2019. It might well have been described as hacking in 1999.

You can sometimes get to these pages using spiders. This is something Google does every day. No-one thinks of that as hacking.

Dozens, even hundreds of pages on this site are spidered every day. This can include deleted pages, draft posts and posts that will never formally see the light of day,

Hostiles everywhere

If I look at the weblogs there are also thousands of probs every day where people — let’s call them hostiles, after all, it starts with an H — are looking for ways to compromise my security.

Some are easy to spot as they are calling URLs that don’t exist on my site, but might exist on some sites and can contain known vulnerabilities.

I just checked. This site, that’s little old me, had 1486 let’s say, dubious, calls in the last 24 hours.

If I’m getting that. And trust me, there is no information on here worth stealing, then a government system like Treasury will be getting an order of magnitude more probes. At least.

Another aside: There might not be anything worth stealing, but it could be worth gaining access to launch a bot attack or other mischief.

Is that hacking? Not in the sense computer professionals and geeks use the term. But it is in the sense that the media use the term and the sense the general public has come to understand the word.

You don’t have to like seeing the word used this way, but you don’t have any control over it. Those people speak a different language to you. They know what it means to them.

 

Digital divide targeted in government 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 digital divide inclusion

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.

NZ, France to halt social media terror promotion

New Zealand and France will work together to make it harder for terrorists to broadcast violence through social media. The move is a response to the March 15 attack in Christchurch which the terrorist streamed live.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will meet in Paris next month to discuss plans. They timed their meeting to coincide with a G7 digital ministers Tech for Humanity event and a separate Tech for Good summit.

A media statement from Jacinda Ardern says:

“We all need to act. That includes social media providers taking more responsibility for the content that is on their platforms and taking action so that violent extremist content cannot be published and shared.

“It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism. This meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and the tech companies.”

Social media terrorist toolkit

This nails the problem. Facebook and other social media outlets have become part of the terrorist’s toolkit. In part they have spent recent years encouraging ever more extreme and violent content on their sites.

Social media companies know that extreme material resonates with audiences. In effect, they have turned people’s anger into rivers of gold. Rather than calm things down, they have learnt that ramping up fear and hate is a lucrative business.

Profit explains their reluctance to act in the past.

Inevitable

Given this, it was inevitable that a terrorist would one day choose to live-stream the murder of dozens of people. It happened in Christchurch, but the live atrocity could have been anywhere.

It’s good to see Jacinda Ardern work with Macron on this. Neither New Zealand nor France are able to fight these battles alone. It’s also good to involve the G7. The more allies the better. It will take co-ordination from many governments to rein-in the social media giants.

Until now the likes of Facebook, Google with YouTube and Twitter have acted amorally.

Above the law?

If they appear to believe they are above the law, that’s because in a sense they are.

The social media giants are all US-based. They can point to that country’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech as a justification for not policing content loaded on to their sites.

What’s more, the US gives them Section 230 protection. In effect, they have legal immunity for what they publish, although there are exceptions. This sets up a climate where the big social media companies act as if they can do whatever they want.

Reputation not considered

In an ideal world, these companies would fear their reputations and long-term business prospects are risk if they don’t take more responsibility. We’re not at that point yet.

Australia has laws which could see them prosecuted for actions like showing the Christchurch terrorist attach video. Incidentally, there’s a report this morning saying these images are still online and easy to find.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can afford to laugh in the face of small governments. To a degree that’s been their strategy until now. Even medium-sized countries like the United Kingdom are openly disrespected by social media executives. Facebook even dismisses ad hoc groups of countries working together.

New Zealand, France and the G7 are a more powerful combination. They can act together. Yet that last sentence has an important word act. The countries must do more than just bat ideas around in a talk fest. They must take collective action if anything is going to change.

I talked to Lynn Freeman on RNZ Nine-to-Noon about the NZ, France effort to tackle violence on social media