Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Something strange about Peter

You might already have seen the video of Peter Costello addressing the Light the Fire mob on Australia Day.

But it is not the message I find strange (well, I do find it a bit strange, modern Christianity can't be literal) - it is the fact that the shelves behind him ONLY contain photos. Strange for two reasons. The first is that you'd think you'd put books or something there. The second is that it would be cheaper and prettier to have the pictures on the wall and no shelves.

Maybe it used to house all that stuff that he was supposed to know about as Treasurer, and houses nothing now because he stands for nothing and knows nothing.

Any other ideas? Why are there no books on Costello's bookcase?

About language

Two fascinating pieces on "language" today from two of Australia's self-confessed Right commentators, one on free speech and the other on rhetoric.

The first is by Janet Albrechtsen writing in the Oz. She discusses the case of a Dutch politician who has been found guilty of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims in a film. Albrechtsen claims that if we prosecute people for their offensive words three tings are sure to happen;
1. The opinions may be suppressed but they won't go away, they go underground and hence avoid the robust public debate that could puncture them.
2. When we prosecute people for their words people unwittingly create martyrs.
3. It creates perverse incentives as people increasingly seek legal protection from the mildest affront.

There is much to agree with in this list, but the fmajor observation I'd make is that there are laws that each of them could apply to. For example the third is an argument that could be used against any product safety laws, or professional registration requirement (e.g. of lawyers Janet). The state protecting consumers results in consumers overly relying on the state for protection.

The first is a semi-standard libertarian argument - suppression only leads to further illegality, actually commonly used by harm minimisation theorists in relation to drugs. On the flip side tough, allowing the debate also gives the views credibility.

The issue around prosecuting people for inciting hatred is interesting when compared, say, to the crime of assault. An assault is any act which intentionally or recklessly causes another person to fear immediate and unlawful violence. The action of striking someone s technically battery. I can therefore commit asault only with words or words and actions. But assault is an action against a individual.

"Hate crime" is a logical extension of that to an action that is exclusively in words and is focussed on a group of people rather than an individual. Perhaps it might be better constructed as a charge of multiple assaults. The question is not so much whether the crime of "inciting hatred" should exist as to whether the standard of proof is being set high enough.

The second language discussion was provided by Andrew Bolt in the Herald-Sun. In it he is having a go at those members of the commentariat going gooey over Obama's oratory. Bolt tries to demonstrate that Obama's oratory is the same as Bush's by providing a number of side by side quotes.

What he actually achieves is the demonstration that the difference between a "dangerous liberal" and a "crank conservative" isn't all that much in terms of their core acceptance of concepts of liberty and democracy, but that actually their way of saying it is vastly diffrent.

1. Obama is crisp and clear, Bush was wordy. Try this comparison offered by Bolt in which Obama uses two short phrases where Bush went for the longer form.
Obama: We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence . . .
Bush: We will work with our friends and allies across the world to defend our way of life.

2. Obama focussed on actions, Bush labelled opponents.
Obama: Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.
Bush: Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists . . .

3. Obama focussed on equality, whereas Bush focussed on "freedom". This comparison shows the difference - both see resort to divine authorisation, but only Obama mentions equality.
Obama: . . . the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free . . .
Bush: Freedom is a universal gift of almighty God . . .

The worying thing is that a wordsmith like Bolt apparently doesn't see the differences.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dem funny Dems

Back when the US election was being held the President of the Australian Democrats jumped on You Tube and under the title "what's cooking" promoted that we should stay tuned for something new, "New Democrats."

I was waiting for something big to happen, but nothing seems to have emerged.

Following that though, there was also posted to YouTube one of the ads made as part of the Gruen Transfer weekly competition to market the unmarketable. This is the "bastard ad".

Seems like the ever eager Democrats have brought these two ideas together - what's cooking and bastard - in their grill a bastard game that was advertised on Crikey and is found on their Bastard Watch website.

They promote this through their website as well. I copped some criticism from my earlier comment that the Ryde by-election for the Democrats was probably their last hurrah. The "bastards" campagn is a really good bit of marketing, but my question is, what are they marketing? The only thing of substance on the website was a media release by the departed but unlamented Sandra Kanck about the Rudd Government needed to "go further" than merely calling for a ceasefire. Instead the Prime Minister needed to "strongly condemn Israel". All a bit irrelevat from a retiring South Australian upper house member.

More troubling is that the release ended with a link to the party's "action plans", which is an incredibly large collection of documents prepared by the former Senators. This isn't the policy process for which the Democrats and its long ago predecessor The Australia Party were renowned.

Conclusion: Some reassuring signs of life, but a lot of work to be done yet.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hagiography gone wrong

Gough Whitlam has apparently made some kind of achievement by now being the person who had at some time been Prime Minister to have lived the longest. Why this is particularly memorable I have no idea - it is not as if the job itself is noted for its impact on longevity, unlike (say) working with asbestos.

But it has created an excuse for another round of hagiography. The piece in the Oz contains this para;

Mr Whitlam's creation of the foundations of the modern welfare state, his promotion of multiculturalism, his establishment of the Family Court and Medicare are all still intensely debated in Australia today. His abolition of conscription, withdrawal from the Vietnam War and promotion of a university education for all who sought it made him a hero to many baby boomers.

It is wrong in so many ways. The first is that Gough did NOT create the foundations of the modern welfare state. In Australia the two big thrusts were the Deakenite settlement at the start of the century that built a foundation of protectionism and the minimum wage (the two being linked in ways the HR Nicholls Society conveniently ignores). But the second great wave was under the joint tutelage of the Chifley and then Menzies Governments following World War II.

Both Deakin and Menzies faced with the populrity of socialism and/or communism needed to accomodate the principles of social democracy and social justice or face a real competitive threat. Hence both Liberal governments took the big steps to create the foundations of the modern welfare state.

As to the specifics of the Whitlamite achievement, the Family Court was a great achievement but far greater was the supporting mothers pension. It is easy to forget that prior to that time women either had to stay with their husbands in fear because they economically had no way out. At the same time it was common for women to be abandoned by their partners with no support.

Whitlam did not introduce Medicare but Medibank. It has been such a popular scheme that after the Fraser government effectively killed it off and the scheme was re-introduced as Medicare by the Hawke government, the Howard government at most fiddled with the incentives for private insurance.

The greatest addition to the opportunity to participate in tertiary education was the massive expansion of the sector under Menzies. The much vaunted "free" education was ephemeral being ultimately withdrawn by another Labor government and replaced by HECS.

But two big achievements were economic and are too often forgotten. They were the 25% across the board tariff reduction and the Trade Practices Act. These were the two acts that set Australia down the course of an open competitive economy, a path that was followed through in a measured way by Hawke and Keating and that thankfully Howard did little to destroy.

Gough was a great man, but his single biggest flaw was the myopic belief that he had to continue to implement "the program" irrespective of the economic circumstances. This sounds familiar with the Rudd government still determined on delivering its election commitments.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Telstra as my PR machine

A journalist asked my boss today, "since when has Telstra been your PR machine?"

He was referring to an item from Telstra today which seeks support for Telstra's regulatory stance on the basis of criticisms we made in a submission to the ACCC.*

Interestingly in the podcast with the Telstra item they claim I said that the ULL pricing decisions were "preventing" us making an investment, rather than the regime was "working against" the investment.

The Unwired submission covered other matters, including that the ACCC had erred in granting exemptions to Telstra ffrom the WLR and LCS services. This error was compounded by their using the continuing high prices of fixed to mobile calls to justify not further dropping MTAS charges. Seemlessly in his "interview" Mr Quilty goes on to describe the position of Stephen King on the same decisions, this time in praise of Mr King's somewhat unsurprising statement that he disagrees with the Australian Competition Tribunal overturning that decision. I've shared with Stephen my views in brief on his blog.

Finally, Mr Quilty goes on to outline the "agenda" that Telstra will be persuing this year, referring to the "Global Access Partners" approach. Mr Quilty has spoken of this before but not revealed that GAP isn't some global network of thinkers but is instead a private company associated with Peter Fritz. Another company in that association is Kiah Research that made a submission on the regulatory requirements of the NBN.

It has remained fascinating to me that the Kiah Research submission bears such a striking resemblence to the GAP "taskforce" report. I have asked GAP who constituted the taskforce but have been advised that as it met under the Chatham House rule that the names of participants would not be disclosed.

At least the Kiah Research submission (and a final version of the GAP paper they sent to me) included the acknowledgement of the assistance of Concept Economics and the book (that was then only forthcoming) by Henry Ergas titled Wrong Number. My assessment of that book has been published in a review for the Telecommunications Journal of Australia.

I would like to think we can make reasoned contributions to the regulatory debate without having those stances co-opted by Telstra in its desperate search for credibility. As I said back in April 2007, "Telstra is like a giant broken washing machine - the only cycle that works is spin."

* Note at the time of writing our submission had only been posted to the ACCC in the context of the MTAS pricing principles and not in relation to the ULLS decision, which is whre it garnered the most comment.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


First a declaration of interest - I am currently employed by Unwired who is in the process of developing a WiMAX network for Australia.

Today's iTWire contains a story trumpetting that LTE will be here sooner than we think. It had a really helpful link to an interview with Telstra's Hugh Bradlow.

He nicely summarised the real difference between LTE and WiMAX, which is about "a whole ecosystem of infrastructure" in which he includes "base stations, your switching systems, your HLRS etc., your authentication systems, your roaming systems, your OSS support, all those things, they are all carried forward from generation to generation and frankly those are the things that make network deployment difficult."

Those who watched the process of resolving 3G standards between the CDMA and GSM world would note that the 3G networks with HSPA represent the same outcome, the adoption of the superior CDMA air interface with the GSM "back end".

The deep question is whether it makes sense to continue on that backend into the wireless data world. That back end is inherently a voice centric model, with even the burgeoning SMS product just a part of the signalling network. As Bradlow notes 4G will handle voice entirely as Voice over IP, so how much of that back end is really necessary? It will be a great pity if the desire for backward capability results in the perpetuation of outmoded concepts. Bradlow is not proposing to retain ANY of that switching core for the all IP fixed network.

But more importantly, in the Australian context, the item goes on to say that 100MHz is really needed to make LTE or WiMAX fly, and there just isn't anything available till 2012 in Australia other than the spectrum owned by Austar and Unwired.

Should Reporters be Barred from War Zones

Barring reporters from war zones is apparently the novel idea of "Joe the Plumber" - while masquerading as a reporter.

The thesis is that if you don't report the war then the Generals can simply get on with it. This is a simple version of elite theory - that we he masses should just leave the elite to get on with looking after us.

But the history of war reporting andnew communications technology is a long one. We are familiar with the idea of the Vietnam War being the first televised war, and the first Iraq war being the first satellite war. The consequences of that reporting were different mind. But the earliest instance was the impact of the telegraph on the Crimean War. For the first time news of the war was being received as it was waged - resulting in a much lesser appetite for the conflict in Britain.

An article in Ithiel de Sola Pool's Social Impact of the Telephone claims that Alexander raeme Bell wrote that if the telephone had existed at the time of the Civil War that hostilities would never have broken out between North and South. The irony that he was writing in 1915 seems to have escaped him (though in fairness an issue in the start of that war was the reversed order of two telegrams from Billy to Nicky (German Kaiser Willhelm II to his cousin Tzar Nicholas II) which arrived in reverse order of sending credited by some with delaying the Russian advance and lengthening the war).

One State?

A New York Times item has asked whether there could be a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine.

The two-state solution is what has been officially pursued since 1948 after the British allowed massive Jewish immigration to its Palestine teritory after World War I. The 1948 solution of the creation of an independent state of Israel was meant to solve the problem, and to salve the consciences of all those European leaders who had been complicit in the Holocaust by not believing what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf and hence did not act earlier (or worse, actually shared his anti-semitism).

The concept of the "nation state" was a creation of mid 19th century Europe. Most of the world has at some time or other been incorporated in some way into someone else's empire. It got impetus post World War I as a part of the unwinding of the empires of the losing side (German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman), though some territories merely transferred to other (especially the British) empire.

In practical reality most of the planet is made up of people of mixed nationality including mixed religions living together. The genius of the European renaissance was the creation of the secular state.

Policy makers and commentators need to move on from outdated notions of "nations" and promote instead the concept of peaceful co-existence, the secular state, and religious tolerance. Bring on the independent state of Israel-Palestine!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Whatever happened to NOIE?

In asking the question What happened to NOIE I know that the technical answer is that it was "split in two in March 2004 when Daryl Williams was the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. And I also know from this interview that it had been Labor policy at the time to abolish it.

But in the context of responding to the Labor Government's consultation paper it is more than a little surprising that NONE of the work of either NOIE or the Office of the Information Economy in the old DCITA gets referred to.

Now NOIE was dysfunctional by including procurement with policy. But I've never quite understood why the IE part was folded into the Department. Was it because the Minister found the number of reports (ABDC, SBS, ACA, ABA, NOIE, DCITA in just the ICT part) too much? Was it a professional rivalry thing between the NOIE agency people and Departmental officers.

I'm keen to know because it looks to me to be the logical next step on Digital Economy policy to have another agency like the old NOIE. It needs to be that kind of semi-autonomous research and statistics house that is missing these days.

So if any of my readers know anything please fill me in.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A likely pair

Great item by Matt O'Sullivan in the SMH on the weekend. Really interesting take on the story of management at Telstra.

Some very good work - nearly investigative journalism level stuff - to figure out where Sol has been and when. But the character who comes through as more troubling is the Telstra chair. There are two particular quotes I want to address.

He is also dismissive of suggestions of a leadership change at Telstra.
"I don't think that's a serious issue at all, frankly. We have got the plan B. I think what you are looking at there is a lack of understanding on the part of a few of the analysts."

That is a really, really big call. The level of angst out there about Telstra, what the CEO and Chair are up to, is just "a lack of understanding" from some analysts. That's the kind of statement that could be interpretted as arrogance, the kind of arrogance that leads to the consequence that he was denying.

Australia is a tiny market where none of this technology is produced. All of the technology . . . all of the major players in the industry are outside Australia; and bare in mind we have got 20 per cent of our shareholders outside Australia.
"You don't win the big prizes without playing in the big game and being able to have access to the very best technologies. And you don't have that sitting in Sydney or Melbourne. Keeping those relationships, keeping in touch with the industry, I just can't tell you how important it is.

This, as some readers might know, really annoys me. Australia is the 15th largest econmy in the world, Telstra is one of the top 20 telcos in the world. We are not tiny.

Yes, we don't produce the technology here - no thanks to Telstra's predecessors who actually at their labs developed one of the first digital switches but decided we were to small to commercialise it. Nokia grew out of Finland, ricsson from Sewden.

Sccess is about mindset, not about size. The Chair of Australia's biggest telco has a "client state" mentality. Maybe he should talk to his business partner Rupert Murdoch about how you grow from a newspaper in Adelaide to being the man who owns the media!!!

Please Telstra shareholders, replace the Chair.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Einstein validates Windshuttle?

According to an item referred to by Joshua Gans Albert Einstein only had one paper ever peer reviewed. A partcularly apt consideration in the context of the whole Quadrant hoax affair.

But then again, at least Einstein's papers on their own made sense.

The Cicada that Ate Five Dock

Richard Chirgwin has written in today's Communications Day (no online version)claiming that Chris Anderson's Long Tail thesis has been found not to apply in the real world. He wrote in part;

Anderson’s view of the supply side is essentially accurate: the incremental cost of stocking one more song in the catalogue is very small. But user behaviour didn’t conform to long-tail theory: on the Internet, the “head” is bigger and the tail is thinner than in the physical world.**

Without going into too much of the detail, Anderson's thesis is that under the broadcast media model with limited channels available that there was a natural tendency to "hits". Songs that became popular, for example, wre then played more often on radio thus crowding out othr songs. His theseis is that in the Internet model with effectively unlimited channels the hit effect will not operate.

Economically speaking the first effect is what is known as a network effect, or in the phrase used by Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian in Information Rules demand side economies of scale. This refers to any circumstance where the more users there are of a product, the more valuable it becomes. PC operating systems have this feature as the more machines there are running the OS the more other software will be designed for it.

Since the Long Tail thesis first appeared in Wired in October 2004 it has been incredibly influential. Policy makers and others have become sanguine about further concentration in "traditional" media as the thesis suggests that these traditional cotrols will increasingly be a smaller share of the over-all consumption. The rise of blogs and citizen journalists supposedly also fits this pattern.

This, however, conflicts with the observation that platforms in new media seem to have more extreme network effects that old platforms. Amazon dominates on-line book retailing, YouTube dominates on-line short video distribution and iTunes dominates on-line music retailing. Social networking sites most dramatically represent the network effect; the more people who use the social networking site the more valuable it becomes.*

At this point the difference between these Internet platforms and the historic media platforms is that the platform owner is not also controlling the content, in fact, to become a successful platform you want to provide the greatest connectivity to on-line content. However, other factors, especially the potential role of the infrastructure owners, could change that.

Certainly there is lots to be sceptical about in relation to the long tail thesis. It is important that the discussion focus on the distinction between he media content and the distribution platforms.

* There are limitations to network effects though, the first being congestion and the second being that not all users value other new users equally. This latter point was well explained by Eli Noam in his Telecommunications in Europe in Chapter 3 "Network Tipping: The Rise and Fall of the Public Network Monopoly".

** Richard chose to use as an example of the less popular musice a song from 1979 called The Cicada that Ate Five Dock. I thought I'd share it with you - it would take a lot more than the Long Tail to ever get this to challenge Kings of Leon.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Oh wow...her!

Today's Crikey reveals that the Quadrant hoaxer was Katherine Wilson. Margaret Simons details how the identity was revealed - the very simple fact of a link on the haox diary to a legitimate post from the hoaxer.

I have to find myself somewhat unsurprised, given the commentary I gave yesterday on the hoax and its attack on relying on "science". I chose to use the example of the science of the health effects of Electromagnetic Energy. It just so happens that Katherine Wilson and I exchanged words on that very topic in Crikey in November 2007, which I blogged about.

Probably I too could have joined the hunt to out the hoaxer - but who really cares?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Tax review - and imposts on communications companies

Today's AFR featured a front page story under the banner Labor's $2bn budget boost. It reported on a number of submissions to the Henry tax review complaining about the increasing level of fees and charges not related to cost recovery.

The first thing to note that the headline is inappropriate, because the fees and charges referred to were mostly imposed by the previous Government. In particular of the $2 billion, the article lists the $700 million that ACMA says it raises, but as far as I am aware not one of those fees or charges is attributable to changes in the last budget.

The article claims that Telstra was an organisation who criticised these fees, but the Telstra submission is, in fact, only focussed on the approach to dpreciation of investments and other investment incetives. It is, in fact, strange that Telstra would be complaining about the USO taxation arrangements as it is a nett receiver under the scheme - though clearly they would like to receive the whole USO cost as a subsidy from Government rather than just about 20 percent of it as a subsidy from their competitors.

The interesting part of the article really is the ACMA submission. ACMA has highlighted how the revenue they earn outstrips their expenditure - they are effectively (and correctly) objecting to being asked to operate as an arm of the taxation system. However, the position contrasts with the ACMA submission to the joint public accounts and audit committee enquiry into the effects of the efficiency dividend on small agencies. There the ACMA reasoning seemed to be that because they gathered so much in revenue they should be funded more.

The ACMA tax review submission provides a breakdown of the revenue they raise as follows;

Annual Numbering Charges$60M
Apparatus Licensing Tax$143M
Annual Carrier Licence Charge$37M
Spectrum Licence Tax$0.3M
NRS Levy$12M
USO Levy$158M
Broadcasting Licence Fee$282M
Fee for Service$0.17M
Do Not Call Register Fees$2.2M
Numbering Sales$4.5M
Spectrum Sales$0.03M

The whole process would be simplified if the taxes that are levied off the same base (eligible revenue) were combined into one - that is collapse the USO Levy, NRS Levy and Carrier Licence Charge into one, and no longer treating them as "hypothecated" but setting a rate for this value aded tax commensurate with the sums currently raised. These fees and the broadcasting licence fees are levied on the revenue of the relevant firms, and each necessitates ACMA becoming involved in receiving auditted accounts in support of claims. It would be far more efficient for this process to be conducted by the Australian Taxation Office in conjunction with other tax requirements reducing the number of returns.

The ongoing validity of these taxes is open to question, but as they do represent a fee for a licence to engage in certain conduct, and that licence does confer benefits (e.g. exemption from planning laws in the case of telecommunications carriers, or the use of spectrum and protection from competition in the case of broadcasting). Nothing in the taxation process is otherwise related to the ongoing process of regulation engaged in by ACMA and the need to maintain a taxing capability adds to the problems of scope experienced by ACMA. (I recall the option of moving the taxation function to the ATO as having been part of an earlier iteration of the legislative framework, but can't find it now).

The entire process of managing the number ranges should be moved to industry for self-regulation (including the provision of the IPND to be moved from Telstra), just like internet addressing or bar-codes on groceries. The only over-sight necessary is from the competition regulator to be able to direct the industry regyulator if its actions are limitting competition (e.g. entry). This is actually a little bit like the existing arrangement whereby the ACCC is the body that directs the regulator to make numbers portable (but, in a stupid twist, the regulator can't make them portable until so directed).

The maintenance of the Do Not Call Register does not need to be conducted by the enforcing body, just as the IPND is not maintained by ACMA.

That ACMA has been allowed to grow into this massive taxation agency ultimately reflects policy laziness on the part of the relevant Deparment.

The media on the hoax - and the meaning of science

There were articles on the Qudrant Hoax in The Age, the Oz and the SMH today.

Nothing particularly new in them, though I was pleased to see the Oz did what I did and checked to see if the conference referred to was genuine (which it was) and hence easily verify that the paper had not been presented.

The biggest "story" point seems to be whether this constituted a hoax or a fraud. I'm with those who think it a oax becaus it has not been done for commercial gain.

On further reflection, the hoax primarily demonstrates one of the key failings of the central tenet of modern scientific methodolgy, which is the premium place afforded to "peer reviewed" research. This methodology is embraced by the likes of Windshuttle in what he calls The Sydney Line - a set of philosophical stances that include scientific realism, a correspondence theory of truth (and assault on relativism) and a referential theory of meaning. (There are some interesting links from the Windshuttle site to some writings of David Stove on science).

However, the opposing side to this view has often pointed out that the whole mechanism of peer reviewing makes science a cultural, if not a political, exercise. And while it is nice to philosophically reject these "relativist" claims (notably the approaches of Kuhn and Feyerarbend) the practical reality is that this is how science operates. Two recent books have criticised the way "string theory" is being pursued as a paradigm in physics that doesn't generate any useful theories, and yet they are all peer reviewed. This is the problem of cliques, cliques can publish each other's work, or, more importantly, only accept articles that are within a specific research program - or - were we to be more post-modern - discourse.

The Quadrant hoax exposes the other weakness, the possibility of sloppy editting. Quadrant doesn't claim to be a peer reviewed journal, but it and its editor have been highly critical of historians with references that don't follow through. To have not even confirmed the paper had been presented at the conference claimed is really the single biggest failing. Windshuttle appears to have relied upon the idea that the article had already been subject to scrutiny.

And ultimately this was the point of the hoax. Relying on what "peer reviewed" research reveals is a key part of public policy discourse. For example, it is what AMTA relies on in discussion of possible health effects of mobile phones. There is scepticism in the community that such reseach can be distorted by the funding decisions of research bodies, or susceptible to the kinds of manipulation that the hoax reveals.

"Science" is just another theory. To rely upon it for public policy requires more than just an acceptance of scientists but the consideration of science in its policy, cultural and political setting.

As an example, I dislike intensely the way the climate change discussion has become focussed on whether the science is conclusive or wther temperatires are in fact increasing. For me the issue is simple. There is a plausible theory that anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gasses will have cataclysmic consequences, there is significant evidence that we have already put the climate system under significant stress (the extraordinarily high CO2 levels, and if the theory is correct by the time there is conclusive evidence it would be far too late to do anything about it. The error cost of acting and there is no need to is so much less than the error cost of not acting and there is a need to means that sustained urgent global action needs to be taken. I don't need to rely on "science" any more than that.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Oh what joy - Windbags hoaxed.

What a fascinating day. Crikey has revealed that Quadrant editor Keith Windshuttle has been hoaxed into publishing a piece of spurious science.

The journalist who revealed the hoax has blogged about the ethics of the hoax. I tend to agree that Windshuttle has made himself fair game for this given his pompous approach to Aboriginal history. Windshuttle has attempted to defend himself by arguing that the article couldn't really claim to be a hoax because some of its content was accurate...please!

But I must admit that I'm not yet fully sure of what the hoax is meant to be. The first half of the article is pretty robust except for its clue-filled opening. But at least the first reference to inserting human genes into crops is genuine. The two CSIRO annual reports cited aren't on line so can't be checked.

I'm not even sure that the article properly concludes with what Simons and the author think it concludes - that science should be beyond public scrutiny.

So weak hoax it may be, but Windshuttle should still be a bit ashamed. For example, if a paper claims to have been presented at a conference it is not hard to check. The conference itself was genuine, but the paper wasn't on the program.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Dial X for Optus

Dial X for Optus was the delightful heading on a story in today's SMH. This story is based on a whole series of judgements, the most recent of which was between Optus and Telecom Vanuatu on 27 November 2008.

These judgements lift the lid on the whole gruesome world of two services - international audiotex and international internet dial-up services (or IID). But more on that in a moment.

The litigation brought by Telecom Vanuatu was triggered by the earlier litigation* by Gilsan that had revealed that C&W Optus** had used some Vanuatu numbers without Vanuatu's permission. Telecom Vanuatu claimed C&W Optus was liable to pay Telecom Vanuatu for the use of the numbers. A very interesting part of the judgement is that the court found "Under the present law, the tort of conversion is not available in relation to intangible property". They go on to note that it is available in certain US cases and that "powerful dissenting opinions [in a House of Lords case] may one day find favour if the law is to keep pace with the advances in technology in modern society".

This opens up a whole wealth of areas for consideration in domestic telecommunications. For example, the current operation of One3, 1300 and 1800 numbers sees these routed through the service provider who directly connects the customer to the network. However, the judgement would seem to suggest that telcos could volunteer to provide the traffic to the rights holder of the number and by-pass the carrier notionally providing the service. This is particularly interesting because it was once conducted by a mobile operator with a bank customer.

It also re-emphasises for those (usually right-wing) critics of "activist" judges that most of commercial law is based on common law which is entirely judge made law.

However the far more interesting part of this tale is the description of how these international services operate. International audiotext was actually an Australian invention, having first been deployed by OTC in about 1991 to balance traffic with other countries (Australia having relatively cheap local rates was a net sender of calls to Europe, by balancing out the traffic OTC saved money which was shared with the people who ran the service). OTC always ran this as a relatively conservative service though debate raged about the balance between ethics and revenue. The business went into decline following the merger with Telecom Australia and the bigger revenue streams available from dmestic audiotext.

The Gilsan litigation reveals the way these services subsequently developed. This was through the use of "flag of convenience" terminating destinations, "short stopping" and the addition of internet dial-up.

The first of these was the business countries like Vanuatu got into of actively seeking terminating traffic. This wasn't about balancing out anymore but actively seeking the high terminating rate traffic.

The next development of short stopping was the decision to not route the traffic all the way to Vanuatu, but instead stop the traffic at Optus in Sydney. For this to work the orginating carriers had to be carriers that routed through Optus, hence the carrier selection codes were included in the ads.

The final development was the move away from simply audiotext to include internet dial-up. The Gilsan litigation (para 11) refers to this as;

In brief, a consumer who was browsing the internet (usually, what are known as “adult sites”) might see an advertisement for a particular service. Those advertisements were placed by service agents with whom service providers contracted to Gilsan had contractual or other arrangements. Consumers who wished to avail themselves of the services on offer would download the “dialler” that the service agent provided. Activation of that dialler would cause the computer to disconnect from the internet and, through its modem, to call the relevant international telephone number. The dialler also incorporated a Carrier Identification Code (“CIC”), so that the call was switched from the consumer’s local carrier to the originating carrier identified by the CIC code.

The practical reality of these services was that the user usually wound up down-loading the dialler without knowing they were doing so.

This litigation has focussed on the services C&W Optus offered to international carriers transitting Australia. At the same time there were big issues in Australia with sex services. The Government had legislated to restrict the provision of adult content on 1900 services without a PIN. Once this occurred the services being promted in Australia migrated to international numbers, usually Caribean destinations. The adds usually included the Optus over-ride code. At the same time there was a great deal of concern about what was caled "internet dumping"***, the downloading and reconnecting through diallers to international numbers without the customers knowledge, let alone permission.

Given that Optus was engaged in short-stopping for the Gilsan traffic, it would be instructive to know whether they were ever investigated to see if they were short stopping in the case of the international audiotext services that were adverised with their carrier over-ride code in Australia. It would also be instructive to know whether any of the internet dumping that occurred in Australia was fully investigated to identify the relationships between the relevant parties and whether any Australian carriers were engaged in the activity.

What remains disturbing is that these activities which Australia was fulminating about at the time were being engaged in in Australia without the regulator or policy makers apparently paying any attention.

*For reference, the Vanuatu litigation arose because of information that was revealed in earlier litigation between Optus and its service provider, Gilsan (four judgements Nov 2004, Feb 2005, Jun 2005 and Oct 2005. There also seems to have been one application by Optus. There are two judgements brought by the other service provider referred to in the article (Jun 2005 and Apr 2007) that seem to be constrained to the question ability of lawyers to act. There was an earlier decision in the Vanuatu case which was a failed application to have part of the claim struck out.

**It is important to note that at the time of these activities Optus was under the designation "C&W Optus" because following the re-incorporation of Optus Vision and other shareholder movements Cable and Wireless had moved from being an investor in Optus to having control of Optus. C&W was a very big player in international telecommunications at the time, and also operated many Carribean telcos.

*** See the DCITA consumer advice and the TIO media release.