Public policy is failing to adequately account for the impact and scale of technological change, with MPs forced to consider key IT issues such as encryption on the fly, often without grasping the crucial details.

That’s the take of Shadow Minister for Technology Clare O’Neil, who used a speech to the Consumer Policy Research Centre on Tuesday to reset Labor’s rapport with the IT industry. 

It follows sustained criticism over the party’s handling of Australia’s anti-encryption laws, which it waved through Parliament in the dying days of 2018 largely unchanged.

Just five months into the job, O’Neil said poor understanding of complex IT issues had created a situation where “public policy has fallen too far behind the pace of technology change”.

“That is something we need to change,” she said, adding that there was a need for greater engagement between the tech sector and MPs.

O’Neil said that although the deliberative nature of Parliament meant there was always likely to be a “lag” over emerging problems, MPs had “allowed things to get too far out of whack”.

“For many Australians, technology is one of the biggest issues in their lives. On average, we spend six hours a day online,” she said.

“Yet technology is pretty peripheral to what we talk about in Parliament.

“When the Parliament does talk about technology, the conversation tends not to be a quality one.

“We usually talk about tech in the context of a flare-up – a bill is introduced which relates to a pretty specific area of technology which forces a truncated and urgent discussion.”

O’Neil said proper consideration of these “big and unfamiliar policy problems” were often the casualties of other more “specific and urgent decisions” that emerge day-to-day.

That much was on show for all to see late last year when both parties rushed through Australia’s controversial anti-encryption laws despite clear issues, which O’Neil appears to acknowledge.

“We saw this with encryption, and metadata, where even some of the people advocating for the legislation didn’t seem to understand it properly,” she said.

O’Neil also used the speech to address topical issues of data and privacy, which current Australian laws are “unclear or insufficient” to address.

“I have zeroed in a little bit on data and privacy today because we don’t have forever to get this right,” she said.

“Data is the oil of the 21st century. It is so powerful, and so important, some countries are starting to talk about data collection as the means of a new form of colonialism.

“When something is this valuable, and this important, huge interests vested in continuing the current approach—where the regulatory framework is clearly insufficient—will dig in. 

“With problems like this one, the longer we delay, the more painful the reform process will be.”

Lucky for O’Neil and Labor, it won’t be long before these issues are up for debate under the government’s proposed data sharing and release laws.

The proposed Data Sharing and Release Bill intends is expected to overcome the existing legislation barriers to unlock specific public sector data for sharing with trusted users.

While that bill is still a while of being introduced, another bill concerning the proposed Medicare data matching scheme is currently before parliament.



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