At the very first panel of a brand new event hoping to bring the Australian internet community together, the mood was flat.
Speakers representing digital rights groups and businesses in the technology sector sounded bruised, not energised, as they reflected on how they felt ignored by the government in their efforts to shape recent internet policy in Australia.
“We’ve felt excluded from the conversation,” Digital Rights Watch board member Lizzie O’Shea told the room. “We often lobby to what feels like no effect.”
Another speaker lamented Australia's lack of "tech billionaires" and blamed a lack of resources.
The panels were part of the inaugural NetThing, an event that organisers hoped would fill the vacuum left by the Australian Internet Governance Forum which last ran in 2016.
More than 150 people from across community, private and government sectors attended the forum, which was created to facilitate "robust Australia-based Internet policy exploration and discussion" on themes of governance, inclusion, security and the rise of digital platforms.
Organisers noted this year marks three decades since Australia joined the global internet via a trans-Pacific link from Hawaii.
“The internet is pervasive and it’s in all of our lives whether we like it or not,” said NetThing chair Sandra Davey. “There are complex challenges and opportunities and they’re too complex for single entities, organisations or even governments to solve.”
Speakers from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) and the Department of Communication participated in the day’s events, including running a feedback session which would inform Australia’s position on cyber norms for international negotiations.
Despite this, many panellists and audience members were openly sceptical of government’s willingness to listen to civil society groups and industry.
“Policy making is conducted by government and there are key stakeholders that they listen to,” O’Shea told BuzzFeed News after the panel. “And civic society feels ignored”.
Australia's controversial legislation – passed late last year – giving government and police the ability to compel companies to break their encryption loomed large over discussions about cybersecurity.
The law was fiercely opposed by industry and digital rights groups who said that the laws undermined the Australia's tech industry's reputation overseas.
“There’s an ethical question around being tapped on the shoulder and putting these back doors in,” ThoughtWorks senior developer Will van Ketwich said on a panel. “It may not be something that the developer wants to do but they’re forced to do it under the law. It’s not a great situation.”
Attendees also raised concerns about the "rushed" introduction of legislation introducing penalties for social platforms failing to remove violent material quickly and removal of two speakers promoting whistleblowing from a Government-backed cybersecurity conference.
Electronic Frontiers Australia vice chair Peter Tonoli said Australia’s digital rights movement hasn’t had the same impact on government policy as its international counterparts because of a lack of resources. Multiple speakers stressed that their advocacy work was limited because they were volunteering their time.
“We don’t have well funded tech advocacy because we don’t have zillions of tech billionaires,” Tonoli said. “We don’t have the same philanthropy culture. Just look at the US.”
Some argued that the best approach to internet governance was to work around the government rather than with it.
“Maybe instead of writing another letter to the people in Home Affairs that read our submissions ... we should spend more time building better systems," said University of Melbourne associate professor Vanessa Teague during a panel on cybersecurity.
Professor Teague later told BuzzFeed News that she didn’t believe lobbying the current government was useful because their approach to cybersecurity is having “the unintended impact” of undermining the public’s security.
“Persuading is not the most efficient way of doing,” she said.
Australia’s ambassador for cyber affairs Dr Tobias Feakin, who convened a 2017 meeting with industry groups that led to creation of NetThing, emphasised the role the audience could play in creating internet policy
“We felt as a team that it was vital that this way of engaging with civil society, with the private sector, with all of those who have an interest, a stake, a claim to being involved,” Dr Feakin said in the event’s opening session. “[The internet is] something we all own, maintain, contribute to, and ensure it [stays] a wondrous place."
The event’s organisers were optimistic that bringing together government, civil society and industry could lead to a better, safer Australian internet.
“Australians have a tendency to whinge and focus on the problems rather than focusing on the solutions,” said Davey. “But there’s a collective vibe about having this gathering, and it’s really critical. I don’t know what is yet to emerge, but the potential is in the room”.
Speakers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Communications participated in NetThing. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the departments had sponsored NetThing.