New Zealand: The World’s Lab for Progressive Tech Legislation?

Cross posted with TechPresident.

One of the nice advantage of having a large world with lots of diverse states is the range of experiments it offers us. Countries (or regions within them) can try out ideas, and if they work, others can copy them!

For example, in the world of drug policy, Portugal effectively decriminalized virtually all drugs. The result has been dramatic. And much of it positive. Some of the changes include a decline in both HIV diagnoses amongst drug users by 17% and drug use among adolescents (13-15 yrs). For those interested you can read more about this in a fantastic report by the Cato Institute written by Glenn Greenwald back in 2009 before he started exposing the unconstitutional and dangerous activities of the NSA. Now some 15 years later there have been increasing demands to decriminalize and even legalize drugs, especially in Latin America. But even the United States is changing, with both the states of Washington and Colorado opting to legalize marijuana. The lessons of Portugal have helped make the case, not by penetrating the public’s imagination per se, but by showing policy elites that decriminalization not only works but it saves lives and saves money. Little Portugal may one day be remembered for changing the world.

I wonder if we might see a similar paper written about New Zealand ten years from now about technology policy. It may be that a number of Kiwis will counter the arguments in this post by exposing all the reasons why I’m wrong (which I’d welcome!) but at a glance, New Zealand would probably be the place I’d send a public servant or politician wanting to know more about how to do technology policy right.

So why is that?

First, for those who missed it, this summer New Zealand banned software patents. This is a stunning and entirely sensible accomplishment. Software patents, and the legal morass and drag on innovation they create, are an enormous problem. The idea that Amazon can patent “1-click” (e.g. the idea that you pre-store someone’s credit card information so they can buy an item with a single click) is, well, a joke. This is a grand innovation that should be protected for years?

And yet, I can’t think of single other OECD member country that is likely to pass similar legislation. This means that it will be up to New Zealand to show that the software world will survive just fine without patents and the economy will not suddenly explode into flames. I also struggle to think of an OECD country where one of the most significant industry groups – the Institute of IT Professionals appeared – would not only both support such a measure but help push its passage:

The nearly unanimous passage of the Bill was also greeted by Institute of IT Professionals (IITP) chief executive Paul Matthews, who congratulated [Commerce Minister] Foss for listening to the IT industry and ensuring that software patents were excluded.

Did I mention that the bill passed almost unanimously?

Second, New Zealanders are further up the learning curve around the dangerous willingness their government – and foreign governments – have for illegally surveilling them online.

The arrest of Kim Dotcom over MegaUpload has sparked some investigations into how closely the country’s police and intelligence services follow the law. (For an excellent timeline of the Kim Dotcom saga, check out this link). This is because Kim Dotcom was illegally spied on by New Zealand’s intelligence services and police force, at the behest of the United States, which is now seeking to extradite him. The arrest and subsequent fall out has piqued public interest and lead to investigations including the Kitteridge report (PDF) which revealed that “as many as 88 individuals have been unlawfully spied on” by the country’s Government Communications Security Bureau.

I wonder if the Snowden documents and subsequent furor probably surprised New Zealanders less than many of their counterparts in other countries since it was less a bombshell than another data point on a trend line.

I don’t want to overplay the impact of the Kim Dotcom scandal. It has not, as far as I can tell, lead to a complete overhaul of the rules that govern intelligence gathering and online security. That said, I suspect, it has created a political climate that amy be more (healthily) distrustful of government intelligence services and the intelligence services of the United States. As a result, it is likely that politicians have been more sensitive to this matter for a year or two longer than elsewhere and that public servants are more accustomed at policies through the lens of its impact on rights and privacy of citizens than in many other countries.

Finally, (and this is somewhat related to the first point) New Zealand has, from what I can tell, a remarkably strong open source community. I’m not sure why this is the case, but suspect that people like Nat Torkington – and open source and open data advocate in New Zealand – and others like him play a role in it. More interestingly, this community has had influence across the political spectrum. The centre left labour party deserves much of the credit for the patent reform while the centre-right New Zealand National Party has embraced both open data. The country was among the first to embrace open source as a viable option when procuring software and in 2003 the government developed an official open source policy to help clear the path for greater use of open source software. This contrasts sharply with my experience in Canada where, as late as 2008, open source was still seen by many government officials as a dangerous (some might say cancerous?) option that needed to be banned and/or killed.

All this is to say that in both the public (e.g. civil society and the private sector) and within government there is greater expertise around thinking about open source solutions and so an ability to ask different questions about intellectual property and definitions of the public good. While I recognize that this exists in many countries now, it has existed longer in New Zealand than in most, which suggests that it enjoys greater acceptance in senior ranks and there is greater experience in thinking about and engaging these perspectives.

I share all this for two reasons:

First, I would keep my eye on New Zealand. This is clearly a place where something is happening in a way that may not be possible in other OECD countries. The small size of its economy (and so relative lack of importance to the major proprietary software vendors) combined with a sufficient policy agreement both among the public and elites enables the country to overcome both internal and external lobbying and pressure that would likely sink similar initiatives elsewhere. And while New Zealand’s influence may be limited, don’t underestimate the power of example. Portugal also has limited influence, but its example has helped show the world that the US -ed narrative on the “war on drugs” can be countered. In many ways this is often how it has to happen. Innovation, particularly in policy, often comes from the margins.

Second, if a policy maker, public servant or politician comes to me and asks me who to talk to around digital policy, I increasingly find myself looking at New Zealand as the place that is the most compelling. I have similar advice for PhD students. Indeed, if what I’m arguing is true, we need research to describe, better than I have, the conditions that lead to this outcome as well as the impact these policies are having on the economy, government and society. Sadly, I have no names to give to those I suggest this idea to, but I figure they’ll find someone in the government to talk to, since, as a bonus to all this, I’ve always found New Zealanders to be exceedingly friendly.

So keep an eye on New Zealand, it could be the place where some of the most progressive technology policies first get experimented with. It would be a shame if no one noticed.

(Again If some New Zealanders want to tell me I’m wrong, please do. Obviously, you know your country better than I do).

6 thoughts on “New Zealand: The World’s Lab for Progressive Tech Legislation?

  1. Grant

    Hi David,

    I’m a kiwi living in Auckland and you’re spot on.

    We are also one of the few countries who are pushing to have fibre optic to most houses by 2021 – we see the internet as the future that’s for sure.

    Thanks for good read!

    Reply
  2. Jonathan Hunt

    Unfortunately the Government’s response to the Kim Dot Com scandal was to pass legislation making spying on New Zealanders legal. The GCSB (NZ’s NSA) legislation passed with a razor-thin majority, so it’s possible that the law will be revisited by a future government. The associated TICS bill requiring network access and decryption is still being debated.

    There’s definitely unease based on the GCSB scandal and the Snowden revelations. There’s a lot of sensitivity about exposure to US jurisdiction following the Dot Com affair and the NSA scandal and this could be a win for NZ IT providers who can offer a non-US service. However the TICs bill could spike a lot of that opportunity: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/cost-gcsb-bill-could-be-hundreds-millions-lost-opportunity-nz-ict-industry-ck-144560

    NZ has ranked consistently high in lack of corruption indices, and most kiwis can meet with their elected representatives, so one could make a case that the progressive tech policies stem from limits on the effective power of entrenched lobbies.

    On the other hand, the current Government is hell-bent on trading improved dairy access for IP policy in the infamous Trans-Pacifici Partnership (TPP). The Trade Minister Tim Groser is on record as supporting Hollywood-style lobbynomics: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA1106/S00223/tim-groser-speech-trans-pacific-partnership-state-of-play.htm

    and the planned copyright review has been deferred, specifically due to the TPP.

    Software patents haven’t been banned outright and the intention of parliament as expressed in the legislation is yet to be tested in court. There’s every likelihood that some software will still be patentable due to the “technical effect” clauses, but hopefully it will be less than before.

    Meanwhile, NZ has announced it will join the Open Government Partnership:
    http://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/pm-meets-uk-pm-david-cameron
    so a good open data story gets even better.

    Reply
  3. Thomas Beagle (@thomasbeagle)

    “I don’t want to overplay the impact of the Kim Dotcom scandal. It has not, as far as I can tell, lead to a complete overhaul of the rules that govern intelligence gathering and online security. ”

    That would be incorrect. It has motivated a significant overhaul of the law controlling the GCSB (equivalent to the USA’s NSA) to give it all the powers that it thought it should have, but didn’t. You sure know your place when law-breaking by a government agency leads not to punishment but to changes to the law to make it legal.

    It has also given the GCSB overall responsibility for network security in NZ, such that all significant purchases or network changes made by ISPs or telcos will have to be approved by the GCSB.

    Reply
  4. Robert O'Callahan

    NZer and Mozillian here :-). Thanks for this post.

    I think you got it right: the NZ government has made some unusually good decisions, and NZ is a good lab for this sort of thing. I think the government’s open data initiatives are even more impressive than the other things you mentioned (e.g., all government map data is available free). The government also makes bad decisions of course; we’re spending a ton of money on last-mile fibre when our biggest network issue is the Southern Cross fibre link to the USA.

    One aid to good government we have, compared to other countries, is just small size. Wellington is a small place, and if you want to make something happen in government, the number of people you have to persuade is fairly small and they are reasonably accessible.

    Another aid to good government is that NZers tend to feel that nothing here is “too big to fail”, up to and including the entire country. (If anything, NZers are too pessimistic and expect failure too much.) That encourages people to keep making and valuing smart decisions, and being willing to make sacrifices. We know that brute force or spending will not be enough to solve our problems or outcompete our competitors. I think that’s reflected in all sorts of arenas — to pick a current example, I think you can see it in the way we approach the America’s Cup.

    I also like our mixed-member proportional voting system, although that requires a lot more explanation and analysis.

    Reply
  5. François Marier

    I think you’re mostly right so I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong :)

    On the software patent side, we have two MPs that have done a stellar job in parliament (one from the Greens, one from Labour). They get why software patents are a threat to the local economy and the fact that only IBM and Microsoft (plus the local patent lawyers) were lobbying the government the other way reinforces that. However, that understanding came from years of education and hard work by local Open Source supporters, then by the larger NZ IT industry.

    One thing that made this possible is that NZ is a small country (which means it’s easier to talk to politicians) and that it’s apparently one of the least corrupt in the World (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corruption_in_New_Zealand). The other thing, which you touched on, is how organized the Open Source community is in NZ. It’s a very well-connected network and it also extends into other networks, in part thanks to the annual event that Nat Torkington organises (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kiwi_Foo_Camp&oldid=537508354).

    On the surveillance side though, things are not as good. Parliament has just pushed a law that gives the GCSB (NZ equivalent of the NSA) the right to spy on NZ citizens (http://techliberty.org.nz/gcsb-spying-on-new-zealanders/). That’s the wrong way to fix the Kim Dotcom-like abuses.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: A Danger Lurks In The Righteous War Against Patent Trolls - Forbes

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