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Need for the Committee in the Thirty-Ninth Parliament

Need for the Committee in the Thirty-Ninth Parliament

9 November 1998

Commonwealth of Australia 1998

ISBN 0 642 25193 2 (Printed Version)

Contents

Members of the Committee

Report to the Senate

Additional Comments by Senator Stott Despoja, Australian Democrats

Members of the Committee

Senator Jeannie Ferris, LP (SA), Chair
Senator John Quirke, ALP (SA), Deputy Chair
Senator Paul Calvert, LP (TAS)
Senator Brian Harradine, Ind. (TAS)
Senator Julian McGauran, NPA (VIC)
Senator the Hon Margaret Reynolds, ALP (QLD)
Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, AD (SA)
Senator John Tierney, LP (NSW)

The Senate
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Ph: (02) 6277 3646
Fax: (02) 6277 5829
E-mail: it.sen@aph.gov.au

Report to the Senate

1. On 27 August 1997, the Senate established the Select Committee on Information Technologies to:

(a) receive and consider the outstanding government responses to the reports of the Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies;
 
(b) evaluate the development of self-regulatory codes in the information industries; and
 
(c) monitor the personal, social and economic impact of continuing technological change created by industries and services utilising information technologies.

2. The Committee was required to report to the Senate before the end of the thirty-eigth Parliament.

3. The Committee wishes briefly to advise the Senate of the situation in regard to each of these terms of reference.

4. In relation to term of reference (a), the Committee notes that the response from the Government to the following reports of the Community Standards Committee has yet to be received:

(a) Overseas sourced audiotex services, video and computer games, R-rated material on pay TV, (June 1994);

(b) Regulation of computer on-line services - parts 1 and 2, (November 1995);

(c) Portrayal of Violence in the Electronic Media, (February 1997); and

(d) Regulation of Computer On-Line Services - part 3, (June 1997).

5. On 4 August 1998, the Minister for Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts, Senator the Hon Richard Alston, advised the Committee that responses to reports (a) and (c) were expected to be delivered before the end of the year. Responses to (b) and (d) would be provided when the Government had finalised its proposals for the regulation of the content of on-line services. The Committee understands that this is also expected to happen before the end of the year.

6. The Committee would appreciate being given the opportunity to consider the responses to these reports when they become available.

7. In relation to paragraph (b) of the terms of reference, the Committee notes that two major self-regulation codes are currently being revised, and work on them is not expected to be complete until the New Year. These are:

8. The Committee considers that it should continue its scrutiny of the revision of these codes.

9. In relation to paragraph (c) of the terms of reference, the Committee notes that the Government is expected shortly to provide draft legislation for the regulation of Internet content. The Committee is aware of the extensive community concern on how Internet content should be regulated. It considers that, by continuing its work, it could play a valuable role in assisting the Senate to address this important issue.

10. The Committee has done a large amount of work on self-regulation and the regulation of on-line content, including the holding of public hearings on nine days. It has already prepared and deliberated on a substantial report, but considers that this would be incomplete without addressing the outstanding matters referred to above.

Recommendation

The Committee recommends that the Senate re-establish the Senate Select Committee on Information Technologies in the thirty-ninth Parliament.

Senator Jeannie Ferris
Chair

Additional Comments by
Senator Natasha Stott Despoja

Australian Democrats

Appointment of the Committee

By a Motion on 27 August 1997 a Senate Select Committee known as the “Senate Select Committee on Information Technology” was established:

“Motion (by Senator Tierney) agreed to:

(1) That a select committee to be known as the Senate Select Committee on Information Technologies be appointed to:

(a) receive and consider the outstanding government responses to the reports of the Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Telecommunications Technologies;

(b) evaluate the development of self-regulatory codes in the information industries; and

(c) monitor the personal, social and economic impact of continuing technological change created by industries and services utilising information technologies.

(2) That the committee report to the Senate before the end of the 38th Parliament.

(3) That the membership, powers and procedures of the committee be those set out in paragraphs (2) to (8) of the resolution of appointment of 21 June 1991 establishing the Select Committee on Community Standards.”

I welcomed the establishment of this Select Committee as a fantastic opportunity to consider a range of issues which must be addressed by the Parliament and which add to the good work being done, and already done, by a range of other Committees in the Parliament. These Committees include:

(i) The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs which is presently investigating the rights and obligations of the media and in particular “the right to privacy and the right to know”. This Committee is still accepting submissions and has already presented it first report: “Off the record: shield laws for journalists' confidential sources” (October 1994);

(ii) The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs which examined the protection of confidential and commercial information held by the Commonwealth (June 1995);

(iii) The Senate Economics References Committee which considered the impact of telecommunications on industry, employment and the community and involved an examination of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (November 1995);

(iv) The Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee which considered service delivery by the Commonwealth Public Service and the role of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (December 1995);

(v) The Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into contracting out of government service including all aspects of outsourcing the information technology requirements of Commonwealth departments and agencies (May 1998);

(vi) The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into copyright, music and small business including the likely future technological and other developments for playing music in public and how royalties might be collected (June 1998);

(vii) The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Financial Institutions and Public Administration which is presently investigating alternative means of providing banking and like services in regional Australia; and

(viii) The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology inquiry into the effects on research and development of public policy reform in the past decade including the effect of public policy changes, over the last ten years, in the areas of corporatisation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition policy reform on the matters such as the amount of R&D being carried out in Australia, the nature of the R&D being undertaken (that is, basic or applied), the relevance of the R&D to the commercial needs of industry, the level of investment in research infrastructure and equipment, the scientific and technological skills base and the demand for scientists, technologists and engineers and the education and training opportunities for future research staff.

The range of topics being considered by these Committees means there needs to be a careful consideration of what Committees are considering to ensure there is not an unnecessary overlap or duplication. This is vital to ensure the most efficient allocation of Parliamentary resources and preserve the valuable time of those making submissions to the various enquires.

Role for the Senate Select Committee on Information Technology

The Senate Select Committee on Information Technology has undertaken to examine part (b) of the Terms of Reference which is to “evaluate the development of self-regulatory codes in the information industries”. The Committees then sought:

“to evaluate the appropriateness, effectiveness and privacy implications of the existing self-regulatory framework in relation to the information and communications industries and, in particular, the adequacy of the complaints regime”.

This Committee has now undertaken a review of self-regulation in the print media, television, radio, telecommunications (including on-line services) and advertising. The focus of the Committee has not been on on-line issues.

I was disappointed an opportunity to examine vital issues of information technology may have been passed over. I understand this term “information technology” to include the use of computers, telecommunications and broadcasting for the processing and distribution of information in digital, audio, video, and other electronic forms. I would have thought the Terms of Reference for the Senate Select Committee on Information Technology would be construed within the bounds of this or a similar meaning of “information technology”, which does not include every aspect of the media.

I have no doubt that the issues considered by this Committee are important. However, I would note the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is presently investigating the rights and obligations of the media and in particular “the right to privacy and the right to know” as part of an inquiry into the rights and obligations of the media. With this existing Committee, I would have though the Senate Select Committee on Information Technology would consider a range of other far-sighted and broader issues which are vital to Australia being able to take full advantage of the potential of “information technology”. To this end, I proposed possible topics for inquiry which were not taken up by the Committee. I appreciate my concerns are a value judgement of priorities, and that others might consider the Senate Select Committee on Information Technology should be different. However, I am of the view that we should not have lost the opportunity for this Committee to address issues directly related to “information technology”.

The proposed topics suggested to the Committee were:

“IT Committee Terms of Reference suggestions
Senator Natasha Stott Despoja

29 October 1997

(a) Government responses to previous reports:

(b) evaluation of self regulation:

(i) benefits of self regulation;
(ii) detriments of self regulation; and
(iii) how should Government undertake developing (self) regulation?;

(c) encryption:

(i) need for uniform minimum standards;
(ii) impacts of encryption on consumer confidence;
(iii) international encryption standards; and
(iv) benefits of encryption for the development of future technologies (for example, on-line transmission of sound recordings):

(d) the international electronic economy:

(i) what is the electronic economy:
(ii) Australia's various roles in this economy:
(iii) opportunities for Australia to increase its role in the beneficial aspects of this economy; and
(iv) the educational, employment and entertainment aspects of this economy

(e) domination of the information society:

(i) is the information society being dominated?;
(ii) how can this domination be addressed to ensure Australian culture is sustained, developed and promoted?;
(iii) what measures should Australia adopt to ensure Australia's participation in the international information society?;

(f) equity and justice:

(i) Australians access to the information society;
(ii) relative justice for different sectors of the Australian community;
(iii) the role of Government is fostering technology equity and justice;
(iv) barriers in the information society to access equity and justice; and
(v) the role of education in the information society;

(g) intellectual property laws:

(i) review recent decisions showing problems in our IP laws;
(ii) the role of international agreements in Australia's IP laws; and
(iii) the adequacy of the existing IP laws in Australia and determining Australia's international interests;

(h) adverse effects of the information society:

(i) detriments of introducing new technology into the community (for example, re-structuring work, casualisation of the work force, re-inventing competitiveness, re-defining work, etc.); and
(ii) information poverty”.

I believe these are significant issues which have not yet been addressed by the Parliament and have a central place in making sure all Australians can participate in the great potential of an information society. I am excited by the potential of information technology to improve our lives through economic benefits (such as increased employment, wealth, etc.), improved lifestyles (including education, entertainment, self-development, etc.), and a range of other benefits including improved service delivery, remote area communications, improved participation in our democratic processes, etc. These benefits are achievable, but they require co-operation from all Australians, and a participation in the broader debate which should accompany the introduction of every new technology. I believe these are issues which should be considered by the Parliament and it is appropriate for this to be undertaken in part through the Senate Committee processes.

Self-regulation

The present Committee has examined self-regulation in some detail. The Australian Democrats are sceptical of any regulation by self-regulation and question this approach to the regulation of the information society. For example, privacy regulation by self-regulation does not provide the certainty and guarantee of protection necessary to safeguard personal information. The reasons for this have been clearly stated by the Australian Law Reform Commission with respect to privacy self-regulation:

“The Commission considers that voluntary privacy codes can never be an entirely effective form of regulation as they suffer from a `free-rider' problem. This is as the effectiveness of a voluntary scheme depends on whether or not a firm has agreed to participate in the code. Disreputable organisations, which do not participate in the voluntary code, can ride on the back of the industry's reputation as responsible and safe, due to the existence of and participation in an industry based voluntary code by reputable organisations. The voluntary nature of the code can therefore suggest to individual members of the public that the industry has in place adequate levels of privacy protection and safeguards for breaches thereof, and disguise the fact that there is no remedy against disreputable firms which do not voluntarily subject their operations and activities to the privacy code”(Australian Law Reform Commission, Submission 49 to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee, Inquiry into privacy and the private sector, 1998, at page 8).

Evidence before this Committee suggested that in almost every instance voluntary self-regulation fails for lack of an effective complaints, investigations and enforcement process (for example, the self-regulation in the advertising industry). The evidence would appear to support the contention that self-regulation can only be effective if specific industries are bound by their codes (so-called co-regulation), thereby maintaining the confidence of the community in the system. The Committee should examine the concept of self-regulation as an appropriate approach to regulation of the information industries, and in particular information technology.

Natasha Stott Despoja
Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats
Senator for South Australia

4 November 1998

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