You’d be aware by now of Stephen Conroy’s extended attacks on Google and Facebook during Estimates hearings on Monday night (read the full transcript here.)

It’s easy to be cynical about Conroy’s assault on Google. Clearly, he wouldn’t have made it if they had played nice on the net filter rather than make him look silly.  The fact that it was, as Senator Scott Ludlam put it, an exercise in “corporate assassination” was shown by the fact that when, having let Conroy rant for a solid 8-10 minutes about Google’s violation of privacy, Senator Mary Jo Fisher asked him whether, given how exercised he was about its collection of wi-fi data, he’d actually done anything about it. Conroy admitted he hadn’t.

Better yet, he then accused Fisher of making accusations against Google.

I beat up on Stephen Conroy a lot, but he is the most reformist minister in the government.  The NBN, and structural separation of Telstra, are two major reforms that will continue to benefit Australia long after Conroy and this government pass into history.  No other minister can boast even a single reform of that magnitude.  And whatever you may think of Conroy, he does Estimates very, very well.  He treats the entire exercise as a game, and knows the longer he can talk, rant, joke, banter, yell and goad the opposition into responding, the less time they’ll have to ask questions.  He was halfway through his Google rant on Monday night when Senator Ludlam walked in, so Conroy went back and re-ranted some of his favourite bits.  Why?  Well, the Greens oppose the filter, Google oppose the filter, therefore, well … whatever.

He’s now complemented by his new(ish) secretary Peter Harris, a brainiac who can talk a mile a minute and convincingly explain that black is, in fact, under certain circumstances, senator, white.  Together, they guarantee very little of substance will ever be conveyed to the Environment, Communications and the Arts committee from the Broadband portfolio.

It’s not quite clear, though, why Conroy was so hellbent on attacking Google and Facebook.  It’s true that Conroy, by his own ready admission, partly sees his role as propping up the mainstream media in the face of competition from online media .  That’s his rationale for the TV licence fee rebate.  But the people who are aware of privacy breaches by those companies are not likely to be swayed by Conroy, whom most would regard as yet another Alston-style Global Village Idiot (although Conroy has never maintained that broadband was good only for gambling and p-rnography as Richard Alston once did).

But compare  — and, I’d suggest, contrast — it with Wayne Swan’s current stoush with the miners.  Swan is — correctly — getting stuck into the mining industry for its systematic lies in response to the RSPT.  On the face of it, Conroy is beating up on Google for not co-operating with one of his reforms, the net filter.

Swan and the miners are playing under the traditional rules of engagement between government and industry.  Government sets the regulatory framework, including tax, and industry tries to influence it.  The regulator and the regulated.  A dialogue — or, at least, an hysterical shouting match — ensues.

Those rules don’t apply to internet companies.  They don’t see themselves as the regulated.  What governments do is of far less interest to them.  Thus Google’s response to Conroy’s efforts to convince them to let him outsource his filtering to them is that, well, thanks, but we already have our own rules for what we allow on YouTube.

This is partly because the largest online media companies have a less geographically specific existence than most industries, which either through their inputs or their outputs are linked physically to certain markets.  Google or Facebook don’t have such an interest in geography, and therefore which jurisdiction they might be in.  Unlike even large transnational corporations, they may not even have a physical, legal or personal presence in jurisdictions trying to regulate them.  That’s why much of regulatory burden for online media falls on the poor ISPs, who have nothing to do with the content users can access but who are made to enforce regulatory requirements for it, a regulatory absurdity that most of us have accepted.

But it’s also partly because of the social, connective nature of what they do.  Whether it’s Google, or Twitter, or Facebook, or XBox Live, or a gambling site or a forum that allows people considering euthanasia to discuss issues, online media make money (or often don’t make money) by connecting people — with each other, or with services, or with advertisers.  So when you regulate these companies, what you’re ultimately regulating is how people want to connect.

Politicians don’t appear to get this.  They want online media to operate under the usual rules of engagement, the regulator and the regulated.  The mainstream media, too, wants online media to play by those rules, because that’s how they’re regulated, and they hate that online media aren’t regulated the same as they are.  That’s the basis for most internet-is-evil beat-ups in the mainstream media.

And it’s why we have these splendid coalitions of outraged politicians and outraged tabloid media about Facebook whenever something bad happens with any sort of connection to that site.  The cries goes up to “regulate” Facebook or have a Facebook ombudsman, just like you have with traditional industries.

Heard of technology-specific regulation?  That would be worse — that’d be app-specific regulation.  The obvious problem is that next week you’d have to regulate Twitter, or another platform that emerges from the maelstrom of innovation that is the internet, where Facebook could become SOOOO 2009 very quickly.

In fact, what you really need to regulate is people’s willingness to use social media to connect with others, without any awareness of the risks, because that’s the real problem with Facebook, not its cavalier and in fact hostile attitude toward privacy.

It’s a bit like judges and defence lawyers who rail against jurors who go online to search for information, or against sites that reveal information courts have protected.  What they’re really expressing is outrage that people are now empowered to find information that the mainstream media would never give them, because the mainstream media is regulated by traditional means.  There’s a real air of Canute about the legal system continuing to insist that the internet can somehow be treated as just another medium, when the problem is people wanting to obtain information that the legal system, for reasons good or bad, doesn’t want them to have.

All this is, I admit, skirting with that annoying internet libertarian approach.  You know the cliché —  information wants to be free, the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it, blah blah blah, which as Stephen Conroy correctly notes (and I paraphrase and make more eloquent, I hope) is really code for avoiding responsibility for the negative consequences of connectedness.

Even so, the more people in traditional positions of authority try to treat online media as just another industry, the less effective they will be, because they miss the point that they’re in effect trying to regulate connectedness.

You can try to force this into a traditional straitjacket as much as you like, and from whatever angle you like — I still remember media regulators arguing over whether the internet was simply a telephone service and therefore “simple to regulate” LULZ — but to do so misses the point that the object of regulation is what Google and Facebook and any other company or site enables people to do, not what the companies or sites themselves do.  Yelling at these companies about their relationship with users doesn’t make any difference, because they have little interest in the views of governments or anyone else on the subject.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey