Scott Ludlam no luddite

Scott Ludlam is the voice of the Australian Greens on ICT issues and has earned a reputation for not holding back when it comes to protecting civil liberties in the digital age.

The boy who grew up in the back of a van traversing India and Africa with a box of Lego has come a long way and managed to earn the respect of many in the ICT industry.

Ludlam has a portfolio spanning seven areas and is unsurprisingly strapped for time. While he sips green tea during a short break after Question Time, his mind appears to constantly tick over, regularly checking his phone and glancing at a live broadcast of the Senate on a TV.

With the current Senate home to only nine Greens members, Ludlam is responsible for nuclear, sustainable cities, infrastructure, heritage, housing and assisting on defence — as well as broadband, communications and digital economy.

Report: Coalition's NBN will look like a quot;dog's breakfastquot;: Ludlam

Ludlam specifically requested the ICT portfolio, with his interest in the digital world coming from his days running a Web design business with friends in the mid-1990s.

“People using the media and new forms of journalism emerging like Wikileaks, for example — all those things have happened in the last five years since I started in here, [and that’s] been quite interesting to be in the middle of,” he says in his office in Parliament House.

“[But technology can] be used to hide things and it can also be used to deceive, but I think on the whole this is a positive … but it does cut both ways.”

But long before Ludlam had to deal with the tangled politics surrounding some of Australia’s key technology issues, he was a kid in a van on the road with his younger brother Glen and his parents.

This experience of journeying through India and Africa taught Ludlam that not every child comes from a “white-bread suburb” as he came across other kids who had much less.

“I think it’s left a profound and probably quite preconscious impression on me that kids are the same everywhere, even if some of them didn’t have toys,” he says. “A lot of the kids that we met made their toys out of sticks and they had as much fun as we did.”

Ludlam began his path to politics as an activist, protesting against the Jabiluka uranium mine. Astounded that the government would bulldoze a world heritage area and ignore the wishes of the traditional owners of the land, Ludlam says the issue “blew a fuse” in him.

He later went on to join a campaign against a proposal to dump nuclear waste in Laverton in Western Australia.

“The only people who were helping at that point were the Greens,” he says, “so I got to meet a lot of good people during the course of those campaigns and that was how I started crossing into politics from activism.”

It was through the Jabiluka campaign that Ludlam met his long-time mentor, Jo Vallentine, a former Greens senator, at an anti-uranium mining rally.

“This young man appeared and he sort of hung around a bit after everybody had gone and there was a cup of tea debrief going to happen, so I said ‘do you want to join us for a debrief?’,” she says. “He was obviously wanting to engage.”

“So he talked to us – the only young man, the only male person actually, with this mob of women who had organised the rally,” Vallentine says. “We liked him immediately. He was quiet and unassuming – definitely a bit shy – but he said ‘what are you guys doing next? I’d like to help’.”

Ludlam was eventually elected to the Senate in 2007.

While Ludlam’s political beginning has been anchored around environmental causes, his focus on digital issues comes at a time of both significant technological change and turbulent politics around issues such as the limits of online freedom of speech.

In Ludlam’s view, online platforms such as Twitter should not be regulated by government. He believes people largely “self-regulate” social media conversations in the same way they do during face-to-face conversations.

“For individuals expressing their freedom of speech, whether we agree with it or not, no – the less regulation the better,” he says. “We have defamation law [and] we have privacy laws, as flawed as it is.”

“I don’t think we need any further institutional framework of regulating how people express themselves in this medium,” the senator adds.

The debate has focused on the online medium itself and how it should be regulated, according to Ludlam, but he thinks the conversation needs to shift from this.

“The only people who use the expression ‘cyber bullying’ are politicians and people over the age of 40 – kids don’t. It’s just bullying, irrespective of the medium,” he says.

“What we’ve seen [is] the boundaries of conversation and discourse dissolve between what is an offline and what is an online conversation. The online forms of communication have basically bled completely across into the offline world to the point where there’s barely a distinction.”

Headlines in the mainstream media have frequently focused on the negative potential of technology to facilitate online bullying or other forms of negative behaviour. But Ludlam believes technology is beginning to erode the gap between the governed and those doing the governing, with citizens able to participate much more easily in the political process.

In the US, the We The People website set up by the White House lets people directly petition the administration on issues of concern.

Ludlam says that Australia is beginning to see its own forms of ‘Gov 2.0’ emerge and the “feedback loop” between what is happening inside parliament to those outside is closing.

“It’s becoming very tight and I think it’s becoming very interesting. I think that’s very positive and I think we’re only just seeing the beginning of that,” he says.

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As an example of technology promoting openness in government, the senator cites the ACT government’s Open Government website, which uploads digital copies of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests within 15 days of the material being provided to applicants.

“That’s a fantastic use of technology,” he says, but adds “What if we moved upstream and created a cultural of disclosure at the heart of government that meant people didn’t need to go through this tortured FOI process to find out basic things?”

Ludlam says governments should encourage more public participation with online platforms such as this, but admits there is a long way to go. He says some government reforms are heading in the opposite direction of opening up government data, such as changes to the FOI process which exclude security and police agencies from FOI requests.

“The CIA in the United States is still subject to Freedom of Information laws. They’ve carved it out and said ‘anything that’s national security we won’t give you, but apart from that go for your life’,” Ludlam says.

“So for some reason ASIO feels that it needs a much higher degree of complete opacity and secrecy from the Australian public.”

Ludlam's commitment to government transparency is coupled with strong views on the importance of individual privacy. Technology is helping to create ‘citizen reporters’ that can shine a light on the workings of government. But at the same time many governments are increasingly trying to use the same or similar means to monitor and restrict people’s ability to do this.

“What I’ve had to learn on my way through, and it’s been an abrupt awakening, is that governments are moving to checkmate this technology, including our own government, and transform it from the tool of global civil society into a tool of global surveillance,” Ludlam says.

Ludlam has even suspected the Australian Federal Government of casting its surveillance net over him and hacking his phone when he was escorting former WikiLeaks spokesman Jacob Appelbaum in January last year.

But one of Ludlam’s biggest concerns around surveillance is proposed data retention laws, which would compel telcos and ISPs to retain information about their customers’ use of their services, such as every phone call and text message made and received.

Ludlam has said that the idea of data retention is a “dodgy premise” which makes dangerous assumptions about the public all being criminals.

“These tools, when they’re deployed against pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, can get people killed. In Australia it is much more subtle than that, but it concerns me hugely that the Australian government would even contemplate a scheme like that,” he says.

While the senator says the proposals may have dropped down the government’s priority list, he suspects if the Coalition wins the September election it will forge ahead with data retention legislation. “I have no confidence whatsoever if [shadow Attorney-General] Senator [George] Brandis is our next Attorney-General. I’m really concerned about what would happen if that were the case,” he says.

Ludlam has also been a strong supporter of the National Broadband Network, which was key to Labor being able to form government after the 2010 election.

However, Ludlam has not been shy when it comes to criticism of the problems that have cropped up with the network, which is now running three months behind schedule.

“I think there’s some really serious issues at the heart of [the] NBN’s sub-contracting arrangements that have allowed it to get that far behind,” he says.

“It’s concerning from a technical point of view because it means they’re behind schedule. It’s [also] concerning from a political point of view because it gives the opposition a free kick at them in an election campaign, and that’s very dangerous. The most important thing in the very short-term is transparency.”

Ludlam’s outspoken commitment to issues like data retention and the NBN has earned him respect from figures such as Brendan Molloy, secretary of Pirate Party Australia, and Kim Heitman, former secretary at Electronic Frontiers Australia.

“Ludlam is smart, well-informed and one of the few indispensable members of the Senate,” Heitman says.

Ludlam has now signed on for another six years with the WA Greens for the 2013 election and says one of his main priorities is to turn the ship around on the debate about climate change. Eventually, he would like to see solar power stations dotted around the Australian landscape.

During his time in parliament, Ludlam says he's learned that politicians are just ordinary people who are trying to do their best.

“Politicians all look like pieces of cardboard on the other side of the TV screen, but you get in here and you suddenly realise it’s just a bunch of stressed, chronically tired human beings doing the best that they can under the remarkable forms of pressure from time-to-time,” the senator says.

“And there’s a lot of laziness and mendacity as well. I’m not trying to give the profession honour that it doesn’t deserve, but it’s just people and a lot of what’s brought people in here is a desire to serve. I think some of them do that in utterly warped and maladaptive ways, but they’re just people.”

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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