Address to Consumer Policy Research Centre Conference

19 November 2019




I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people, traditional custodians of this land alongside the Yarra. I acknowledge their elders, past and present, and any people of indigenous descent who are here with us today. 

Lauren decided that you would begin and end your day hearing from politicians—a brave move for any conference organiser who presumably wants people to return next year. 

I suspect though, she is trying to make a little bit of a point here. 

I don’t think I’m speaking out of school to say that we need to have a little bit more quality engagement between your people and my people. 

I’ve been in my role as Shadow Minister for Technology for about five months now. 

One of my early realisations—and I am about to state the bleedingly obvious here—is that Australian public policy has fallen too far behind the pace of technological change.

That is something we need to change. 

The Parliament will always lag a bit in how it handles new inventions and problems. That’s inevitable and no bad thing—we need to see how a new issue develops and how it affects people, good and bad, before the regulatory solutions become clear. 

But I think we have 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. Many of us would spend more time on the Internet than we do with the people we love most in the world. 

As a parent, I know that the issues related to kids and tech are pretty much in constant discussion at households around the country. 

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

One of my goals in Parliament is to try to narrow the gap between the kitchen table and the cabinet table. There is clearly a big opportunity for us here in tech.  

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.

It’s probably hard to understand, but our life in Canberra is extremely chaotic. We work very long hours and we are grappling with dozens of issues every day. 

Raising big and unfamiliar policy problems in the context of specific and urgent decisions just isn’t conducive to exploring the issues properly. We saw this with encryption, and metadata, where even some of the people advocating for the legislation didn’t seem to understand it properly.   

My point isn’t to criticise others—I am there, I am absolutely part of the problem—but simply to note that there are some big picture policy questions that you have talked about today that are frankly not getting looked at properly. 

What we need is a big, sustained public conversation about how we are going to manage this massive change in our lives. 

And I would like to work with you to create it. 

There are some very smart people gathered in this room, and I think we should be curious and ask why this issue exists and what we can do about it.  

Part of my job as Shadow Minister for Technology is to prosecute issues in my portfolio for my party. But my role is also as an advocate for you, the leaders and thinkers who make up this amazing tech community that I am now lucky to be a part of. 

Today, I want to share some questions on my mind about one of the issues we need to have a quality conversation about. That is on the subject of data, which has been central to the discussion you’ve had today. 

Many children born today have a fully formed digital footprint before they become teenagers. How can they consent to providing information that is being collected and may be used to continue to try to sell them products, decades into their future?

Should we allow loans sharks to market crippling payday loans to people whose financial data makes it clear they are gambling addicts? Should they be allowed to design psychological nudges to sell their product, using detailed knowledge of the habits and triggers for an individual’s problem gambling episodes? 

Each of these instances are issues facing the Australian community today. In each case, the law is unclear or insufficient. 

And perhaps as importantly, I think each instance gives rise to concepts and problems we haven’t really had a good discussion about as a community. 

Today, on the subject of data, I want to identify some questions that I think we should be talking about. 

  1. Is privacy a human right? Is that a helpful framework to use to think about legislating with regard to data?
  2. Data protection is a global issue, and most of the companies we might be concerned about are multinationals. How should we think about legislating in the Australia Parliament? What are the costs and benefits of getting out of step with the rest of the world?
  3. How should we think about consent in the context of data collection? What does informed consent mean, especially when privacy notices are complex and almost never read, and many providers exercise monopoly power which arguably make it unrealistic for us to stop using their service? 
  4. How do we think about consent in the collection of data that we cannot opt out of? I am thinking here of e-cities, where I am constantly being filmed, my location is tracked on my phone, my public transport movements on my card. In the 21st Century, should I have the right to hide? 
  5. How should we think about default settings for data collection? 
  6. Who owns data about us? Should I be allowed to exercise control over who it is sold to and how it is used? Should I at least have the right to information about its existence - who has collected data about me, who has aggregated it, and how it is being used?  
  7. If determinations are made about me using data - a credit score, for example - what right do we have to know about those conclusions, and to challenge them?
  8. What kind of behavioural economics techniques should we allow companies to engage in using our data? Should children and other vulnerable people be offered additional protections?  
  9. How do we balance the need for protection for citizens and consumers more generally with the need for us to nurture our critically important digital industries in Australia?  
  10. What needs to happen for us to retain community trust in data collection, so we can ensure that government can put the data it owns to provide better support for Australians?

10 questions I am happy to admit I do not know the answer to—and indeed, I’m not sure anyone does, right now. But the people in this room are going to have that discussion with the community, and find answers to these complex questions over the coming years.  

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

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. 

I want to finish by explaining why I believe my party is uniquely placed to work with the people in this room to answer these questions. 

My party is called the Labor Party because we have a 127 year history of helping to create decent jobs, and protect the economic and social rights of Australians in their workplaces. 

But our history is just as long and rich in protecting Australians outside their workplaces—as citizens and consumers. 

For much of our history, Labor has sought to make space and give power to citizens and consumers in their interactions with the market.

The consumer issues of the past looked very different. The policy disputes we had were about how we ensure products are safe, that things could be returned when they were broken, that there was proper recourse when services didn’t match their description. 

Today, consumers and citizens face very different issues. As is often pointed out, in the digital economy, often the product is consumers themselves, and their private information. While consumer issues of the past were very focused on pricing, choice and control are critical in this debate in the 21st Century. 

Technology is a powerful mechanism for us to address issues facing consumers, especially where choices have been limited, unfair or frustrating. I think of open banking, where using consumer data may help us open up the oligopoly enjoyed by the big banks. But, there are dangers too. If we want technology to be the friend of consumers, we need to get the policy frameworks right. 

There is absolutely no doubt that legislators cannot solve these problems alone. We really need your help and engagement, and I hope that some of what you have taken from the day has been some ideas about how you can engage with politics and public policy to help shape the issues that are important to you. 

One of the things I love about my portfolios is that I spent most of my time with scientists, inventors, tech geeks and entrepreneurs. In this crowd behind an issue, I genuinely believe anything is possible.  

I’m absolutely chuffed to be getting the chance to work with you all over the coming three years of this Parliament, and thanks for having me today.