NetHui 2014 reflections

This year’s NetHui, InternetNZ‘s annual multistakeholder meeting, was the best yet.

Multistakeholder meeting? Wasn’t it a conference? Yes and no. It was a conference in the sense that it was held at the SkyCity Convention Centre, some sessions had speakers with questions and answers, and people walked around with name tags.  But it was much more than a conference.

We drew participants from a very broad spectrum of society.  Nearly all Internet conferences around the world are attended by beardy geeks, and sometimes you also get lawyers and public servants – an odd mix at the best of times.  NetHui had all that, plus representation from all sectors of society.  Teachers, startup entrepreneurs, tangata whenua, librarians, politicians, feminists, investors, a High Court judge, business scions, journalists, anarchists, futurists, secondary school students, social scientists … you name it, they were there, helping shape the future of the Internet in New Zealand.  We even had a couple of dickheads.  At InternetNZ, we walk the talk that everyone is a stakeholder in the Internet.

We left plenty of space for everyone to contribute.  Normal conferences have sessions led by a speaker, and you’re lucky if there’s time left for Q&A at the end.  At NetHui, session facilitators were briefed that in the breakout sessions that made up about about half of the allocated time, there was to be no more that 5-10 minutes of scene setting, and then the participants were to drive the discourse.  In the barcamp sessions (more on this below), which represented a significant chunk of the rest of the schedule, participants set the entire agenda and engaged in collaborative learning.  Everyone had a chance to speak and be listened to; everyone had a chance to learn from their peers.  While we did have some excellent star presenters in the more formal sessions, for me the most interesting and useful learnings arose from collaboration among people with no real public profile.

We provided a substrate for community building.  Most conferences are mostly about acquiring skills and contacts, and plenty of that happened at NetHui.  But even more, NetHui was about joining together organic groups of interest that could continue on and make progress after the event.  Community is a wonderful thing, in that communities can form along any common interest, whether that’s based on location, demographic, identity, academic interest, professional skill, political concern, and any one of a host of other variables.  We provided a safe place where people could explore or expound their own interests, and build relationships and communities with people with common goals.

The power hierarchy was greatly diminished.  In normal conferences, there are both explicit and implicit hierarchies – the busy experts fly in, speak, and fly out or engage in meetings with the other busy experts, and high profile names have little entourages around them.  At NetHui, most people were there for the duration and nominally high profile people were very accessible, present, and ready to engage.  Completely eradicating hierarchy is a very big task, but the spirit of NetHui is such that the playing field was about as level as it could get.

NetHui is national Internet Governance Forum (IGF).  Having attended the global IGF in Bali last year, I can tell you that in New Zealand we live multistakeholderism in a much more real way than in many parts of the rest of the world.  It just seems to fit well with the New Zealand psyche, where everyone should have a fair go, and people naturally treat each other as equals.

This year’s theme was “the next 25 years”, recognising the anniversary of New Zealand plugging into the Internet in 1989.  The programme was very wide-ranging, covering subjects like accessible design, data journalism, e-voting, open data, empowering women, education, privacy, surveillance, bitcoin, health, research, and lots more.

This year I volunteered to organise the 11 barcamp (unconference) sessions, along with Kevin Prince and Kelly Buehler.  We asked attendees on Wednesday and Thursday evening to write down their ideas for sessions they’d like to see on post-it notes, an whack them on the main exit door.  My job was to collate these and try to coalesce them into common themes, and then schedule them in such a way that they didn’t conflict with themes running in the other streams – not an easy job, and one that continued into the wee hours of each morning.

Barcamp sessions were run on: Using the Internet to solve global problems, Online media funding models, Bridging the digital divide, Gender Issues, Online communities, Privacy, Education, Citizen science, Online safety, Democracy and legal issues, and Networking over the edge. Notes from the sessions can be found in the resulting collaborative notes from the sessions.  I facilitated most of the sessions, and was very grateful for help from people who volunteered to run the sessions which were either running in parallel, or were way out of my subject area depth.

One of those sessions that was way out of my subject area depth was the session on gender issues, which was facilitated by the brilliant Joy Liddicoat, one of my fellow directors at the Domain Name Commission. One of the few hetero men in the group, I learned a lot, more than I expected from this session.  The timing was great, in that it helped inform my facilitation of other barcamp sessions during the day.  My key takeout from this session is that we aging white men who tend to dominate the agenda and conversation especially in technical forums, are well served to take a bit of extra effort to ensure that people whose voices are less confident, or frequently spoken over, to be heard and acted upon.

The session on bridging the digital divide was also fascinating.  We broke into smaller groups during this session; the group I was in discussed funding access initiatives.  I was surprised to learn the WINZ makes a practice of sending their clients whom they are about to cut off from their benefits to public libraries to compose CVs using the libraries’ computers and Internet.  This results in a significant drain on public library resources for which they receive no funding from WINZ, essentially shifting the funding burden from central government to local government.

In  the subsequent Parliamentary Panel on Digital Rights, I asked the government MP Simon O’Connor why this was happening, and to please fix it.  He seemed to be in a state of denial that this was happening, while the opposition MPs assured the audience that this would never happen on their watch.  NZ First’s Tracey Martin while admitting to not knowing much about ICT, worryingly suggested that universal Internet access could be provided by ISPs at no cost to the end user without government subsidies using an advertising-supported business model.  Given that she is the party spokesperson on research, science, and technology, I hope she can upskill herself should she ever get near real power.

Other standout performances from politicians included a great speech by ICT Minister Amy Adams, who over her term in this portfolio has done a great job of understanding many of the key pain points of our sector.  Her support of open data in government was excellent, as was her commitment to the New Zealand Government’s support of the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance, saying that cross-jurisdictional issues are a big reason why the Internet is best run by non-government agencies.

Of the politicians present, Gareth Hughes from the Greens exhibited the most comprehensive empathy with the audience and knowledge of the subject area, and seemed to have his party’s unqualified backing for improving Internet access, supporting the weightless economy, providing better checks on government surveillance including dismantling the Waihopai spy base, and opposing joining the Trans Pacific Partnership which would severely impact New Zealand’s independence, particularly with respect to intellectual property. Labour’s Clare Curran also has an excellent understanding of the issues.  Labour chose NetHui to launch its ICT Policy which was a savvy move.

Other highlights for me included the plenary address by Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, who beautifully unpicked the right to be forgotten in the aspects of market, mores, law, and architecture.  The text of his address is online, and well worth a read.  In the panel following the address, Thomas Beagle of Tech Liberty explained why he thought that privacy is not dead, highlighting that despite its complexity, we do have considerable control over our privacy, and expressing optimism that with a bit of tweaking, New Zealand’s Privacy Act could ratchet up baseline protections and close existing loopholes for local services.

The barcamp session on privacy was also great, the bottom line of which it all boils down to informed consent. Click-through gobbledygook legalese “I Accept” terms and conditions don’t really amount to people having an understanding of how, why, or for how long the receiving company will be accessing, using, aggregating, and distributing the information.  It was suggested that sites be required to have a maximum-number-of-words plain English summary of the terms available next to the “I Accept” button, and that a third party authority supply badges for sites that reach minimum privacy standards.

Similarly, in the online safety session there was general agreement the we need to provide the skills for everyone from the very young to the very old to think critically about the information they consume, and the actions they take online, both with respect to the impact on themselves as well as other people.  As much as we’d like to be able to protect people, it will never be possible to do this in a foolproof manner, and it would be very useful for everyone to be able to have evaluation skills that will warn them when they are about to do something that is unsafe.

The job of giving the final address fell on Rod Drury, whose time had been cut short by the previous panel on convergence and the future of digital media going overtime.  Rod very artfully embraced the NetHui kaupapa, dispensed with his speech, and drove straight into questions in which he let rip.  I don’t always agree with Rod, but I admire his agility, responsiveness, and ability to cut straight to the heart of the issue, as if time were a scarce resource (which it is).  And Rod is always himself, for which I have great respect.

One of the side events of NetHui was Hadyn Glass’s Moxie Session on The Next 25 Years.  I was one of three speakers, including Google’s NZ Country Manager Ross Young, and Flossie CEO Jenene Crossan. I had six minutes to describe how the Internet would change the world in the next 25 years.  My central thesis is that things keep getting better, and the Internet plays an important role in this by enabling much faster, efficient communications.  25 years ago, Sun Microsystems’ tag line was “The Network is the Computer” – now the network is everything, the computer, storage, exotic peripherals, users, and even programmer – the Internet of Everything.  This trend is set to continue, and is already significantly impacting the way we think, which will really accelerate as we become fully integrated with the net and each other in the future through direct bodily implants.  Move over Google Glass, you’re a transitional technology.  In order to maximise the benefits of this, we each will adopt within ourselves the core values that arise from the Internet: being collaborative at the core, making decisions using multistakeholder processes, embracing diversity, resilience and antifragility, borderlessness, supporting many communities of interest, and self-empowerment.  Improved integration and communication will help ensure that good triumphs over evil (albeit unevenly), as we all want a future that’s better than the present.

The other key side event for me was the National Startup Meetup, where we launched Startup New Zealand.  Our purpose: to bring together and activate regional and national communities of entrepreneurs, technical talent and related organisations. We run programmes including Startup Weekends supporting early stage entrepreneurs and their ventures. Entrepreneurship can be difficult and risky, but by working together we can realise our goal of a connected, innovative and prosperous New Zealand.  At our meetup, we brainstormed ideas for startups arising from the key themes of NetHui – beginning the process of turning the talk at NetHui into tangible action.  Each person present also had the opportunity to give a one-minute pitch on their startup, and any asks or offers they had to make of the group.  Over 50 people came from around the country, including many who were not NetHui attendees.  Watch this space as Startup New Zealand grows as an organic entity supporting entrepreneurial communities.

In summary, this year’s NetHui was very busy and productive on many fronts. I made many new friends and learned so much, and many of the things I learned were serendipitous, wonderful, and useful.

I’m proud to be an InternetNZ Councillor, that my organisation put on such a great event for the benefit of all of New Zealand’s Internet stakeholders.  But the real credit goes to the organising team, particularly Ellen Strickland, Kevin Prince, David Cormack, Krystal “Ball” Waine, and of course Jordan Carter our Chief Exec, as well as all of the other InternetNZ staff, stream leaders, and volunteers who pulled out all the stops to make it happen.  I’d also like to hat-tip outgoing InternetNZ President Frank March with whom I sat in a group at our strategic planning day back in 2010 sketching out what a New Zealand Internet Governance Forum might look like, and also Vikram Kumar the former InternetNZ Chief Exec who shaped the first two NetHui and pulled it together as a flagship event for our organisation and the Internet in NZ.