New 'compact' between tech and government

·4-min read

The "new compact" between technology and government has already cost one player $1 billion.

The Sydney Dialogue is having a conversation about emerging and critical technologies as governments grapple with what companies and communities are already doing.

It comes after Google splashed $1 billion this week on a five-year digital research partnership to nurture local start-ups.

Maria Ressa, boss of online news firm Rappler and Nobel Prize laureate, called out "the virus of lies" in the information ecosystem that is undermining relationships between digital companies and governments.

Authorities and users are confronted with harassment and grooming, misinformation about the pandemic, radicalisation, and material fuelling conspiracy theories that undermine trust in governments.

"I don't think any of us, not any of the tech platforms, nor anyone living in a democracy, would want to see the status quo continue," Ms Ressa told the regional summit on Thursday.

Twitter's top lawyer Viijaya Gadde said there needed to be a balance between free expression, privacy and safety, but there was no objective standard.

Twitter has banned political advertising, saying political message reach should be earned not bought.

"That also opened our eyes to transparency," Ms Gadde said.

She said context also mattered, including clearly labelling government accounts so people understand when they're seeing information that it is coming from a government-affiliated account or state-controlled media.

"But this is all in this context of providing more information, not less," she said.

"We have to try radically new things here to help stem some of these problems we're seeing."

US academic Zeynep Tufecki said all technologies have created disruption throughout history.

"We didn't get from printing press to beautiful books," she said.

But she wasn't sure who should try to police the 21st century public square.

"Trying to micromanage the - who's going to get platformed or de-platformed - and where's that line, is super messy, because I'm not even sure it's the tech companies' place to draw those lines."

Google spokesman Kent Walker advocated a balance between responsible innovation and sensible regulation from governments.

"It's important to remember that technology has been a huge force for good over the last decades and centuries, raising global living standards and bringing over a billion people out of extreme poverty," he said.

Google's $1 billion investment to nurture local start-ups comes just months after it threatened to pull its popular search engine from Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Google's announcement was "a $1 billion vote of confidence in Australia's digital economy strategy" that required no federal funding.

He said the initiative recognised the digital leadership necessary for Australia to emerge as a top digital economy by 2030.

Rappler said there needed to be "guardrails" in place because people were being manipulated by technology in a business model that's been dubbed surveillance capitalism.

"It is manipulating our minds, insidiously, creating alternate realities," Ms Ressa said.

"How much of our private thoughts can now be inferred through the data we put in," she asked.

"How much of that is ours? How much of that is tax? And how much of it should be manipulated for profit?"

Convenor of the annual regional summit Fergus Hanson said tech bosses are making decisions on future technologies that will have unprecedented global social impact.

"This tension between national sovereignty and borderless technology has created ructions between governments, civil society, and industry," he said.

Artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, and space technologies are being talked about separately, if at all, as governments catch up and try to draft new laws.

"Let's think big, not tweaks," Dr Tufecki said.

Google's Mr Kent said international norms were extraordinarily important but it was a slippery slope.

"There's a role for the private sector, there's a role for the public sector in trying to help define those norms," he said.

"You can get into authoritarian countries trying to exploit those sorts of approaches for their own purposes, and if you go too far down the slope, you're into censorship and violations of human rights in ways that are problematic for all of us."

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