For the briefest of moments I thought Russell Norman and the Green Party had come up with a brilliant piece of policy. They announced yesterday a range of ICT policies that they claimed would support New Zealand’s growing status as an ICT exporter. At first I thought this was great, fantastic, the Greens were finally suggesting something that could actually work, unlike Russell Norman’s “Let’s print lots of money” nonsense from earlier this year.
Then I started to look at the announcement. In principle I agree that encouraging the Government to invest $100m to support the building of a second fibre cable to the United States is a good move. What I was a bit iffy about was Norman’s claim that $100m amounted to the same as building 3.3km of motorway. I suspect what the Greens have done here is cherry pick a very expensive piece of motorway and used this as there example.
So I did what any self respecting amateur pundit would do – a quick back of the envelope calculation based on NZTA’s proposed spending on road’s of national significance and the number of kilometers of road involved. I ended up with a cost of just $13m per kilometer for these roads which are, admittedly, a mixture of state highways, expressways and motorways.
That’s not to say that there aren’t expensive motorways. A quick Google search reveals that comparable Western economies can have wildly different costs per kilometer of motorway. But $100m a kilometer would seem to be the exception and only in areas with either expensive land values or difficult terrain (or a combination of both). So unless the Greens have some robust data behind their claim, I’d suggest that Russell Norman is being somewhat liberal with the truth.
But let’s make one thing clear, I do support this part of the Green’s policy. I am, however, highly skeptical of the math they’re using to justify the redirection of funds.
The next part of their policy (in the discussion document) was a combination of trying to get Government departments to use local ICT companies ahead of foreign ones. Now this sounds like another fantastic idea, however is possibly also highly illegal on the basis of the numerous free trade and economic relations treaties we have and reneging on those treaties isn’t an option if we want New Zealand ICT companies to be allowed to compete on equal footing with our trade partners. However I agree, again, in principle that having Government departments report on what they’re spending on domestic suppliers could be a useful way of giving us some insight into how local companies can compete.
They then go on advocate that Government departments should use open source software. Again, this sounds like a really innovative idea. However their claim that open source is more secure is a matter up for debate, and they do nothing to address the developmental risks of having to constantly adapt open source software to create individual solutions. Large, closed platforms have the benefit of passing the developmental risk onto the developers (rather than Government departments) and they force some sort of uniformity onto the Public Sector, creating economies of scale.
What is good is to encourage Governments to use open standard forms of data that everyone, including Joe Public, can access. And while the Greens reference a U.K. Cabinet decision in their footnotes, that is more about open standards rather than just open source software.
Finally the Greens go on suggest they will ban the patenting of software which they allege is “chilling software development overseas.” This is simply more scaremongering on what is a very complex issue. A great series of articles on Forbes (I’ve linked to the last, as the other two don’t always point to to each other for some reason) demonstrates just how diverse the thinking on the issue is.
There is a consensus that, in general, software patents as they stand aren’t ideal. That being said, it also seems these same people agree that innovators should be able to benefit from their intellectual property (the software) and not have others rip it off willy-nilly and thus destroy the value of the innovators intellectual property and prevent them from gaining any benefit from it. The issues tend to arise around the fact that software is very difficult to define in a patent and due to its relatively short life cycle, can shift away from the original patent relatively quickly.
So the issue becomes how do you reward companies for demonstrating innovation and protect the value of that innovation without leading to the current patent wars between smartphone companies, or allowing the blatant plagiarism of intellectual property that we currently see coming out of China.
To boil the issue down to a more personal level: You’ve invented a piece of software. One of your employees jumps ship. They set up their own company and launch a piece of software that does the same thing in a very similar way to your piece of software. You’d be pretty pissed that they’d stolen your idea and were profiting from it. Without software patents, you’d have no way to protect the value of your invention and stop this scenario. With software patents, you could protect your invention.
The challenge is to make software patent legislation workable so that it encourages innovation while ensuring a reasonable protection of that innovation. Simply banning it is not the solution.
So Greens, you’ll need to try again on that one. This time with your thinking caps on please.
Finally, there was the claim by the Greens around ICT exports being “weightless” and that they can be “exported with low carbon and oil costs.” I hate to burst their Green bubble, but while the actual sending of data may, in itself, seem “weightless” computers and their related infrastructure rely heavily on the very resource sectors that the Greens shun. Without the extraction of mineral resources, there would be no computers. The National Mining Association in the United States produces a good chart that demonstrates just how important natural resources are for producing technological components.
Which brings us to some difficult question for the Greens. Would they prefer that those minerals are ruthlessly dug out of the ground in far-away countries with little regulation, safety or concern for environmental degradation? Or would they rather we do it closer to home, do it responsibly and use the proceeds to help benefit all New Zealanders by investing in a future proof economy?
Yes, you definitely need to think a bit more on this one Russell Norman before you’ll get my vote. You’re always so close to enticing me to vote for you, yet until you address some of the gaping holes in your party’s thinking, you’ll keep missing out.