Tech Talk: Internet Society of Australia CEO Laurie Patton

2015 is shaping up to be a crucial year for the internet and Internet Society of Australia's brand new CEO wants the government to do its homework.

Internet Society of Australia CEO Laurie Patton. Source: Supplied

The Internet Society of Australia, a non-profit dedicated to the development of the internet, was founded in 1996 but now has its first ever CEO in former journalist, TV executive and government advisor Laurie Patton. 

Business Spectator sat down for an interview with Mr Patton ahead of what's expected to be a big year for the future of the internet both in Australia and the world, with questions remaining over key issues like data retention, privacy, national broadband and piracy.

David Swan: How would you describe the organisation?

Laurie Patton: The Internet Society is an umbrella organisation that represents everybody that uses the internet including business, government, education and private users. And our role is to foster informed debate so that decisions on policy and technology are made on the basis of rigorous analysis.

Do you double up with the Australian Computer Society, is there a bit of overlap there?

We have members who in their own right run or are associated with a wide range of organisations that overlap, and we work very collaboratively with them. So we see our role as fostering debate within those organisations and helping them to work together and to work with government.

What led you to become CEO?

I think it's an amazing opportunity. The organisation is going through a bit of a renewal process, and I think the timing now is excellent for an organisation that can bring together a whole range of experts and users to ensure that as we develop the internet for the future that it's done in a way that involves a whole range of people. And our mission is helping shape our internet future. I think now is a really good time for an organisation to do that, and I'm very excited to be part of it.

What issues do you think you're going to be dealing with next year and in coming months?

I'll be led by the board, which is made up of a wide range of very, very accomplished people. And between us we are developing our strategy and I guess a portfolio of issues that require more analysis and investigation. At the moment obviously data retention is very much timely. We're also looking at copyright. And I think access for people in all places, so they would probably be the three issues that come to mind. But there'll be within that a whole range of sub issues that obviously will come up from time to time.

Do you have personal positions on these issues, like data retention for example?

I don't think it's my role as the CEO to have personal opinions. What I'm keen to do is make sure that all the points of view are presented in a way that gives all the decision makers in government and in industry and in civil society the opportunity to come to their own conclusions. So it's not really my role to develop or to express specific opinions. And in fact there'll be times where the Internet Society will probably simply highlight the issues and the arguments of a technology that needs to be looked at, rather than necessarily prosecuting a particular cause. It really is about informing the debate. 

Is your organisation dissatisfied with the current level of debate around issues like data retention?

I think the Internet Society is keen to maximise the debate. There's certainly debate going on but I think we'd always take the view that there are people who have information and knowledge that should be contributed, and we're just very keen to make sure we help that debate along by getting involved ourselves and by encouraging members and associated organisations to get involved.

Is one of the reasons the organisation needs to exist a lack of awareness or understanding from government around technology issues?

Globally there's a lack of understanding among decision makers in some areas. Certainly the Internet Society of Australia is the local chapter of the international Internet Society, and so in a way we're part of a global debate as well as a local debate. But yes, certainly there is an opportunity to make sure that legislators are aware of all the issues before legislation hits the parliament. And that's always an important part of the democratic process.

Do you see there being a lot on the line here? Is this a time of fundamental change for the internet?

I think that there's tremendous opportunity and we would look back in years to come and be disappointed if we didn't take full advantage of the opportunities that the internet provides now, and the sort of things that are coming online that we need to factor in in deciding how we build and how we administer the internet, and the way in which it's made available to everybody.

What excites you about the internet, and are there any issues with it currently?

I think there's tremendous opportunity to improve linkages between people in regional and remote communities. I think that's an area that hasn't been developed as much as possible. Health particularly, and education. We led the world with the 'School of the Air' which was done over crackling radios and kids talking virtually over a CB radio network. There are still kids out there on properties around Australia who could seriously benefit from having high speed internet, and it would be such a relief to so many people to know that their education could be taken to another level using the internet. So I think that's really important, and I think health as well. 

There's a lot of things that could be done that can save people large amounts of travel. If they've got a serious disease and they need to be treated by specialists, they can find themselves having to drive hours each way once or twice a week. But if their local doctor could exchange scans and information in real-time via a high-speed internet connection, it could save them not just the travelling time but the stress of having to do that. So I think those are the areas I'd like to see more work done on. 

I think particularly indigenous communities where we spend a lot of time talking about closing the gap, and there's a lot that can be done there. In 2010, I was a member of an expert panel that did a review of the indigenous broadcasting and media sector, and we put forward a range of recommendations to use the National Broadband Network and mobile technologies to help indigenous communities, and a lot of those recommendations are still awaiting consideration by the government. So there's a lot that can be done right now, but it's also about making sure that we set ourselves up so that we can capitalise on things we don't yet know about.

We talk about a cost-benefit analysis of the internet. If they did a cost-benefit analysis of the Sydney harbour bridge, they probably would only have built a two-lane bridge. But fortunately the government of the day saw that two lanes would be significant for the time, but not for the future. And I think we've got to take a similar approach. We don't know what sort of things are going to come up. The speed at which new technologies are developed in relation to the internet is just breathtaking. And so anybody that's not thinking ahead and taking into account the things we don't know that will become available then we could find ourselves left behind.

Are you saying the organisation would prefer a full-fibre NBN to a mixed-technology rollout?

I think our approach really is to encourage legislators to think ahead, to look with an adventurous eye as to what the opportunities are and whatever approach they take, to do it knowing that there will be a greater demand than we predict at any one time.

There are a couple of things I guess, there's the speed of upstreaming. Everybody's talking about the download speeds, but increasingly upstream speeds are important and the question is - will the next technology model be able to provide the upstream speeds that people will want in five to ten years. And the other issue of course which is critical is do we really know the state of Telstra's copper wire? They're the two things that are going to determine whether we in fact can expect to get a decent life cycle out of a fibre to the node technology mix, or whether we'll have to re-engineer it in such a short period of time that it'll end up costing us more than it would've just to have proceeded with fibre to the premise.

We're not saying we have the answers to those questions but we're certainly saying those questions need to be asked and fully investigated before we finally move to a point of no return.

We will be making submissions to the government in the new year on a range of matters and I'm sure we'll include them in any meetings we have in the future with the minister or any of his advisers.

What do you personally want to get from the role?

For me this is a logical extension of probably a lot of things I've done over the last 20 years. I was an executive in television at the time that pay television was introduced. I've created a television station in Sydney that was the first to live stream continuously on the web. I think there are going to be significant developments using the internet, and for me I think it's an ideal opportunity to put a lot of my skills together with people who know a great deal more about technology than I do in a way that we can contribute to the debate, and we can get people together informed and making good decisions.

Finally, is ceo@internet.org.au the best email address ever?

Yes, I've had a lot of people who think that my email address is awesome. That includes my 16 and 14 year old boys.

It is awesome.

It's an awesome email address, there's no doubt, but it's an awesome organisation and there are awesome opportunities, so it all comes together very nicely.