Speech to launch the Digital Rights in Australia report, 27 November | Rob Hanson

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Thank you for honouring me with the opportunity to say a few words and launch your excellent report. And without delay may I congratulate you for your admirable hard work.

I would like to acknowledge the chief investigators of the Digital Rights and Governance in Australia and Asia project that gave rise to the Digital Rights in Australia Report. I would also like to recognise Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Duncan Ivison for his strategic foresight in supporting this innovative program. You, and your larger – extended team, have all collectively applied yourselves for an extremely worthwhile cause, and we thank you for your effort.

It sounds trite to utter the phrase that now is a unique moment in history, or that now is a pivotal time, but now is all we ever have, and trends in the intersection of our digital and physical worlds are escalating at a rate and pace that is hard to imagine, or respond to in real-time.

What we need now are people and organisations who are willing to invest the time to look ahead, and apply some forethought and foresight to the world that is emerging.

Your survey has taken an excellent step in this direction. Quantified data, if used well, can cut through confused or complex public discourse and speak directly to decision makers and thought leaders with authority and provide a temperature check of where we are now.

Your results are both enlightening and concerning.

A majority of your respondents do not believe they have anything to hide, and yet a similar proportion take active steps to protect their privacy, and either express a concern for or question what corporates are doing with their information. The majority also expressed a concern for the way governments retain their data and expressed concerns for related violations of their privacy.

These findings ring true with my own experience and many anecdotes I have encountered.  When questioned, the public express a vague sense of unease, however the sources of threat and risk are often ill-defined.

As an experienced risk management practitioner, I can say that it is often only when there is a clear and present danger that action is taken.

Take, for example, the gender imbalance in the survey, with women expressing concerns for adequate privacy controls at a much higher rate than men. What we are witnessing here is the intersection of the physical and cyber worlds with the full range of human frailty and human experience now being lived online, not just expressed or represented, but experienced in very intimate and often unavoidable ways. Men see less danger online because they face less danger themselves.

I am descended from survivors of the Dachau concentration camp. Last year I made the pilgrimage. The situation we are presented with reminds me of Martin Niemoller’s poem on his experiences, written just after the war:

‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’

My family is not Jewish, but our history is forever joined with the survivors, and the lost.

It is not until we are faced by a direct threat that we feel the need to protect ourselves. If we are able to see ourselves as part of a larger family, perhaps we could collectively respond better to threats that appear to only target others.

Unless robust controls are in place for our cyber physical world, we are all at the mercy of bad actors or overreaches in the public and private sectors as they arise – which we will all have to endure until we, as a collective, learn how to respond. We are stronger together.

We have been thinking about these problems for a long time now.  In 1969 Professor Zelman Cowen, who would go on to be a Governor General, addressed this matter in his Boyer lectures. Cowen cited Justice of the Supreme Court of the USA, Louis Brandeis that,

‘discovery and invention has made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is only whispered in the closet.’[1]

Cowen then amplifies this by quoting Professor Arthur Miller that in the face of the accelerating development of technology, ‘the individual has little ability to protect [themself] against governmental and private snoopers.’

‘Few of us have more than a dim awareness of what is happening and how fast it is happening, and we are warned that serious as is the problem of physical surveillance devices in the present and the coming decade, it may be dwarfed completely by the surveillance of individual and group life threatened by the unlimited use of electronic data systems in the years that lie not far ahead.’[2]

Cowen’s words of warning echo to us from across the decades.

From the same decade is the United Nation’s International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which took until 1976 to come into force.

The rights outlined in this covenant derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.  Article 17 states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with [their] privacy, correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on [their] honour and reputation.  And that, everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.[3]

It is hard to imagine decision makers in the 1960s or 70s picturing the world we live in now.  The portents were there.  But more importantly, the values expressed in this covenant and similar documents, remain valid and universal.

As we further embrace technology, the need to protect the rights of all the members of our societies becomes more complex, especially if we seek to design a world – our world – with the safe guards we need to enable the rights we believe in.

Perhaps the concept of universal design mentioned in the report, which is about inclusive designs and usually focussed on empowering the disabled, should be revised and stretched in order to consider these universal human rights with the intent of imbuing technology with positive values and paradigms.

If we truly wish to embed these universal rights into our societies – for our privacy, for freedom of speech, and for good government – we need to code them into out platforms and products in our cyber physical world.

Otherwise the default values and paradigms of the people and organisations who build them will – intentionally or unintentionally – propagate across borders and boundaries, potentially undermining the purity of the jurisdictions receiving their algorithms, data and decisions.

I love the term “Splinternet” mentioned at the very end of the report, as a term that describes the huge variety of regulations and laws that govern the internet, from every jurisdiction. This term also could just as well be extended to mean the way these algorithms, data and decisions can, and do, splinter the intent of the laws and values of jurisdictions around the world, including jurisdictions like ours.

As Cowen said, ‘…we cannot assume that privacy will survive simply because [we have] a psychological or social need for it’. Vigilance and foresight are our defences.[4]

We have much work to do. May I commend you again on the launch of your report.


[1] Cowen, Zelman. & Australian Broadcasting Commission.  1969,  The private man / Zelman Cowen  Australian Broadcasting Commission Sydney

[2] Ibid

[3] UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3aa0.html [accessed 3 December 2017]

[4] Cowen, Zelman. & Australian Broadcasting Commission.  1969,  The private man / Zelman Cowen  Australian Broadcasting Commission Sydney


[Adapted from the launch speech delivered by Mr Rob Hanson of ANU’s 3A Institute and CSIRO’s Data 61, at the Sydney Ideas event “Digital Rights: What are they, and why do we need them?” on November 27, 2017 6pm.]