Protecting Australia beyond its traditional borders: infrastructure and investment

The federal government’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill is no paper tiger.

In ending Victoria’s link with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Commonwealth has reasserted Australian sovereignty in terms of responsibility and power to ensure national security as bilateral relations with China become increasingly unstable.

The re-evaluation of the Darwin Port lease to a Chinese company seems to indicate the government is not done yet.

The Morrison government appears ready to act on national security issues by asserting Commonwealth influence in spheres it has not previously felt it had to. It also raises questions about what sovereignty means today in the context of influences such as ‘big tech’ corporations, digital economies and major technological advances.

This is not an aggressive policy change. There’s no way a local prefecture in China would have been allowed to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Australian government. Nor could an Australian company lease a Chinese port for 99 years.

Australia needs to update its understanding of the responsibility and influence that goes with sovereignty to match the strategic environment of the digital age.

The digital age has blurred the boundaries of sovereignty once clearly marked by physical borders. Now that the ‘border’ of a country stretches far off into cyberspace in the deeply interconnected fifth industrial revolution world of digital economies and globalised threats, has the nation-state lost the capacity to draw a new line around its ‘territory’ to administer it in a meaningful way?

There are very real security implications in applying an outdated understanding of sovereignty to challenges such as transnational social-media corporations influencing election outcomes, the activities of global political movements and efforts to inhibit government information and health policies.

With few exceptions, domestic legislation doesn’t reach beyond the border but the influence of a new breed of non-state actor surely reaches in—as seen with the rise of far-right extremist ideologies in Australia. Ever more of our individual and collective lives happen in the international spaces and platforms created by the internet where the sovereign power responsible for ensuring our democracy and security cannot always follow, at least not with the force it has offline.

The answer is not to embrace authoritarian policing of the digital landscape à la Skynet. Nor is it to extend Australian laws beyond our borders by using extra-terrestrial legislation like a Magnitsky Act with broad strokes (which should only be used as a targeted law enforcement tool or to strategically assert key tenets of international law). Eroding civil liberties is not the answer and would exacerbate the problem, because what is a transnational corporation influencing the lives and security of a population who did not elect it but a catastrophic erosion of civil liberty and sovereignty?

In the context of our shifting strategic environment, it’s critical to national security that Australia’s government and public rethink what sovereignty means in terms of responsibility, reach and influence.

Sovereignty means reinserting state power and the democratic responsibility of government to build people’s opinions and rights into dealings with transnational corporations that operate online.

The stand-off earlier this year between Facebook and the Commonwealth was about ensuring rightful profits went to Australian news outlets from digital platforms. Money now flows from platforms to large media outlets (government win) while Facebook argued some concessions into the government’s media bargaining code (platform win).

But that’s not why the world watched on with interest. What was at stake here was a democratic nation’s power to govern the internet as it’s used by its people, and Australia did not win. The concessions included in the bargaining code bill mean Facebook still has the upper hand. The code now functions as a tool intended to coerce platforms into negotiating agreements with media outlets to avoid being designated as subject to the bargaining code. That means the strict rules by which the code should guard against power imbalances in negotiations are not, and probably never will be, enforced on platforms.

Public interest remains at the mercy of a foreign-based, privately held tech conglomerate. Plus, small—meaning regional—news outlets won’t qualify for the code and will get nothing. And Facebook retains its right to block Australian news content again in future.

Facebook learned that the Australian government will bow to corporate pressure online. That information is arguably well worth the few million dollars it cost the company in the fees to be paid to some large media outlets.

Australia needs to unflinchingly stand up to transnational corporations who try to erode its capacity to govern online.

Sovereignty also means ensuring investment in tech capabilities that are critical to national security with urgency and accountability.

The public sector needs to curb its reliance on the private sector to invest in and deliver digital projects and resources we cannot do without from an economic and national security perspective. The private sector is rightfully subject to the preferences of individuals and companies, market forces and the plausibility of raising enough equity (among other things) to get big infrastructure projects going.

We’re lucky the private sector is building Australia’s first hyperscale national fibre internet network. This infrastructure is critical to connecting Australia domestically and internationally and supporting economic development into the future. It could also be strategically significant in the case of a regional military confrontation by connecting Australia to key allies via submarine cables outside Southeast Asia.

But now that we’re talking about being inside the historical ‘10 years’ warning time’ for potential regional conflict, was it not extremely risky to wait for a private company with the vision, and enough risk appetite and capital, to build such critical infrastructure?

And while this network is undeniably a boon, a similar investment in critical public infrastructure by a tech entrepreneur not driven by the same values and vision of enabling and securing Australia’s future could have the opposite effect. It could mean private, monopolistic control of critical infrastructure, where private profit is prioritised over public interest and opinion, and the elected government bows to private interests.

This is not to suggest that the government should seek to coerce or control the private sector and the market. But it has a responsibility to secure Australia’s digital and tech capabilities. It should strategically invest and support projects and industries critical to our national security, even if that means wearing greater risk in terms of equity investments than Canberra generally has appetite for.

We stand at the brink of the fifth industrial revolution, which will bring cooperation between people and machines, while our understanding of sovereignty is still grappling with the third revolution, digitisation and the internet. It’s imperative that we get up to speed.

The next part of this series will deal with proactive digital sovereignty by policing the internet, securing data domestically and internationally among trusted allies with legislative protections for privacy and civil liberties, and digital human rights.