national filtering scheme – can anyone say 'china'?

many of our international breathern would be moritifed at a plan where a national goverment tried to enforce a nation-wide internet filter to block specific content.

they do it in china – at what cost? – and the world cries foul. then they consider it seriously in a modern western democracy – with a lot of political pressure within the ruling party – and the mainstream media barely raise a whimper of concern about it.

ok, so snuff films, child pornography and many other ills to be found online are unquestionably bad news. with the ‘mandate’ of universal public distain for this content (the weirdos who are into it don’t speak up and acknowledge it for obvious reasons) the debate gets legitimacy it does not deserve.

the key question being asked at the moment is “who will pay for ISP level filtering”. the natural answer to this is government – they’ve got a fat war chest of a budget surplus and there’s nothing commercially compelling ISPs themselves to offer server level filtering. so the government pays for the filtering, and then presumably controls it as well (you’d have to be a mug to buy something designed to censor and control and then leave the control of it to someone else).

and all of a sudden you’re china.

bring on sia from sin

a month or so ago, the federal government quietly announced that it would not be approving singapore airlines application for a licence to operate flights from sydney to the united states. given that australian government is in control of our airspace and responsible for our airports (even though they’re mostly now privately owned by companies like macquarie bank), singapore airlines has to get their permission to start flying another route. sensitive to qantas potentially moving a large part of their aircraft maintenance off-shore (as air new zealand and many other top-tier carriers have done) and sacking a lot of australian workers, and knowing that most australian’s aren’t big fans of singapore after the execution of van nugen, the federal government had a politically easy decision to make, and knocked singapore back.

this is a big betrayal for anyone in austalia who travels to the united states.

singapore airlines (or sia for short) could well be the best airline in the world. a long haul flight in economy is never an outrageously pleasant experience; it is squashy, you get all dried out from the air conditioning, and sitting anywhere for 8 hours or more isn’t much fun. but singapore airlines deliver a level of service for economy passengers that you generally only get in from other airlines in business class.

well, now qantas has announced that they’re going to send their heavy maintenance work to asia for at least one 747-400 check, negating one of the major reasons the federal government decided to continue protecting them from competition with sia even though we’ve got a free trade agreement with singapore. this sort of work is very big – as are 747’s – and using the cover of a shuffling of the deck chairs as the reason for the outsourcing (“just this once, we promise”) qantas has effectively used the (non-organised) travelling public as a pawn whose interests should be weighed against those of the aircraft maintenance union (highly organised).
it’s hard to decide who to loathe more here. should it be the government for ripping off the largest number of people without a voice (travelling public, and by association the tourism sector who badly need american tourists who shudder at the thought of a 12 hour flight even though that’s what it takes to get to europe from california)? should it be qantas for milking the sydney-usa route so mercilessly with high prices and poor service? should it be the unions, who’ve traditionally had a strong bargaining position with airlines (baggage handlers are about as valuable economically as hotel bell-hops, yet they recieve exceptionally good pay and conditions because they can bring an airline to its knees in a snap strike)?

either way, the travelling public is going to continue to get screwed any time the government creates an artificial barrier to competition, and hopefully qantas’ actions in going back on their word means the government comes under pressure from the unions and makes the government less likely to shelter qantas next time sia from sin comes knocking…

society and taboo of quality parenting

ross gittins in the sydney morning herald has an excellent report on the benefits of early childhood intervention. code for better child raising, this report takes an economic, rather than a social or judgemental view of the benefits to society of better parenting, and discusses the role the government can play in reducing inequality and disadvantage in future generation by supporting programs that get involved before kids turn 8.

ross’ interest in the subject has been piqued by work from james heckman from the university of chigago (oh, and nobel prize winner in the field of economic sciences). basically, he has found that getting involved early with programs to support better parenting has massive oonsequences. using a case study of the perry preschool project from around 30 years ago in michigan (capital city detriot, home to eminem and subject of many negative social sterotypes played out in movies like 8 mile), heckman makes the case that early intevention into the development of children is much more effective in influencing lifetime outcomes than better schooling, etc.
if the study is true – and the first 5 years of a child’s life have profound influence on their intelligence, their likelihood to succeed in life and reduce their likelihood to commit crime and be subject of welfare – would society begin to accept that intervention in parenting – one of the few areas of society to still be treated as a social taboo – or would people continue to take the approach that you can’t tell them how to raise their family (but keep the welfare cheques now and in the future rolling in so we can raise the kids to be bogans the way we want to)?

additionally, what, from a macro or policy perspective, do these considerations have on the legitimacy of the indigenous partnerships programs of the australian government?

revenge is sweetest when it is inevidable

there’s been a lot of talk in the press over recent weeks about the changes in australian cross-media ownership rules. considering that most places in the world don’t have laws like this to start with, much less reform, a bit of background is probably helpful.
as i’ve travelled, people from europe and the usa are routinely surprised to find that australia only has a population of around 20 million people. considering the economy of new south wales is roughly the same size as the whole of indonesia, the 4th most populous nation in the world, it is easy to see how we tend to punch about our weight as a country.
given the power of the 4th estate in any democratic nation the government decided a while ago to limit the amount of inflence any one media mogul could have in a given market, defined at the time to be a capital city. this level of government interaction was fairly justified, as the small australian market still managed to breed a number of media powerhouses, most notably rupert murdoch’s news corporation.
while ownership in the print media is quite concentrated, the behaviour of the television networks over the last 10 years or so has robbed australians of the services many other western nations take for granted.

around the year 2000, australia was deciding between competing standards for digital television. the government had announced the release of spectrum suitable for digital television, and it was up to the government, industry and consumer groups to decide which standard would be adopted. with only three commercial tv networks – and thus very oligopolistic control over the television advertising market – the incumbents had a significant incentive to stop others from joining the tv broadcasting club. through a mixture of successful lobbying, weak politics and the timing of a pending election (as well as the incumbents convincing the govt that they’d need to spend an absolute fortune on their broadcasting equipment to move to digital, so they needed to be protected to make it worth their while), the government announced australia would get the hdtv standard, or high definition television.

the promise of hdtv was that you’d be able to get crystal clear picture with 5.1 surround sound. unfortunately, however, very very few programmes were recorded in a quality that could suppoort hdtv, so the best a viewer would get from this new standard was a widescreen format of picture. honestly, i don’t think a lot of people would have cared too much anyway – who really wants to see who wants to be a millionare in 5.1 surround sound?

the reality – and certainly the intention – of hdtv is that it is very, very hungry for bandwidth. one channel of hdtv uses around 10 times more spectrum than a regular digital widescreen channel. this meant that the networks ensured that there wouldn’t be room for new digital services – including interactive tv and the delivery of a news channel or other content more closely resembling the internet, also known as datacasting – to compete with the incumbents. just in case there was a bit of room – and there still is – the government passed laws forbidding datacasting from looking at all like a tv service; ie, no full motion video for more than a certain length of time.

so, basically, australian consumers got screwed, particularly when you compare it to what the british got from their digital tv service (40+ channels free to air, interactive for things like polling and voting; essentially the innovation you’re never going to get from 3 fairly comfortable players in a market).
fast forward to 2006. a federal government enquiry in late 2005 found that digital tv takeup had been woeful – blind freddy could have told you this, since there isn’t much improvement at all between analogue and digital, with no new services from commercial networks. even the promise of perfect picture quality is false in most experiences, since the picture isn’t crystal clear without improving the infrastructure (read aerial) in their homes. the planned 2007 shut off of the analogue network will now be pushed back to 2012 – no surprise there; it would be a brave politician that took away tv from the masses in a country with compulsory voting – and the incumbents have had their monopoly extended too. thankfully, though, this is all becoming a little academic – the incumbents are in for a big change that the government can’t legislate out of the equation, because this time the media competition is international, it isn’t using broadcast spectrum the government regulates, and its fully interactive with almost millions of channels to choose from.

the answer is the internet.

at the turn of the centry, almost everyone was still connecting to the internet via a 56k modem, at least at home. now most houses in australia can get online 25 times faster. in some parts of the country where adsl 2+ has been rolled out, the speeds are more than 150 times faster than an old fashioned modem. these speeds are enabling full screen video to be sent straight to the home via the internet. and products like google video, and their deal with cbs to allow cheap paid downloads of programmes further drives this trend. in australia, where we get the top shows from the usa 3-6 months after their first air in the states, this model of paid subscription further errodes the australian media outlets, in this case channel nine, with their strong relationship with cbs for content. determined fans of csi will simply set aside $2/week to watch the show 3-6 months ahead of when channel nine gives it – and commercials – to them.
so after being loosing the battle for the best by the incumbents in collusion with the government, the australian consumer is standing to win the war, thanks to the internet. the convergence of tv, internet and telecommunications is going to change a lot of things, but it is hard to see the traditional commercial media business doing well in any scenario that doesn’t involve a time machine. as a consumer who’s missed out for so long, the desire for revenge is palpable – the sweetest thing about this revenge is that it is coming from the world at large, and it completely inevidable.
of course, this isn’t the only battle facing the commercial television sector – personal video recorders, or pvr units, are creating a similarly herculean challenge to the models the sector has been using for the last 50 years. but more on that another time…