Lulz! The guy in charge of Australia’s internet regulator can’t work his internets! Chris Chapman, chair of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), spent four months in “the telco experience from hell” trying to figure out why his download quota always burned off so fast — only to discover it was his wife’s fault.

“On the first hour of the first day of each month, Chapman told the CommsDay Summit in Sydney [on Tuesday], his broadband connection started frantically downloading data at 10Mbps. This went on until his download quota expired that month, he said. And the problem continued from one month to the next,” reports Australian tech newswire Delimiter.

Chapman first had “harsh words” with his 17-year-old son — nothing like reinforcing a stereotype, eh? — putting him through “the Star Chamber”. But no, it wasn’t him. Was it a neighbour piggybacking on his wi-fi? No. Chapman’s internet service provider (ISP) insisted it wasn’t their fault either. Eventually the problem was traced to software that Chapman’s wife had installed to synchronise data between PCs — with all that data travelling out via the internet and back again.

“I’m just an average punter, but it took four months and a great deal of frustration,” Chapman said.

Four months? WTF?

There’s a problem here — but not the obvious geek-whinge that a middle-aged bureaucrat didn’t personally know how to troubleshoot a data network. That’s specialist work. Geeks, I reckon, are too eager to pay out someone who doesn’t know about geekery, but far less willing to call themselves ignorant for not understanding or respecting the complexities of, say, telecommunications policy development or chairing a government agency. I believe that’s called arrogance.

No, the problem is that an ACMA chair should sufficiently understand the structures and processes to have been able to sort this out in a flash.

For a start, this wasn’t a “telco hell” or even a telco anything. A telco, in this case an ISP, just provides a data pipe. Chapman should know full well that the household network he attaches to that pipe and the data he transfers are all his responsibility.

Chapman was out of his depth technically. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most people are. But he should know that poorly managed networks are a hacker’s playground.

Why didn’t Chapman find someone who did have a clue? Can’t he delegate? Can’t he afford, on his remuneration package as ACMA chair of $397,430 plus “personal loading” of $23,400 plus Tier 1 travel allowance, to just call in tech support?

Why is it OK, as high-profile network engineer Mark Newton put it last night, for Chapman to go “flailing randomly through his house blaming all kinds of crap”? We don’t let unqualified electricians flail around in our ceilings, so why is this OK?

The IT industry is perhaps partly to blame by peddling the myth that all this stuff is easy. Buy the latest product, press a few buttons and welcome to the 21st digital wonderland. But it’s not easy. It’s complicated. Geeks just make it look easy because they’ve spent hours — years —  developing their deep understanding.

It’s all too easy to blame “the internet” when things go wrong. But we should all be taking responsibility for the networks we set up and attach to the public internet. Not everyone wants to become a network administrator, and that’s fine. But that means we need to delegate to someone who does. The chair of ACMA should be setting a better example.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey