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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 01 November 2019, 4:00 pm

Here's a weekly update from TechBlog editor Paul Brislen.


This year's TIN100 report puts the industry firmly on the map and after 15 reports and 20 years it's astonishing to think how far we've come.

I remember well when this guy called Greg wanted to promote his TIN report claiming, laughably, that New Zealand had nearly 100 high tech companies that would take the world by storm.

For today's report the TIN team has surveyed more than 1,000 companies and the top 200 have broken through the $12 billion mark in terms of revenue with $8 billion of that made up in export earnings. That's up more than 10% on last year and suggests we're starting to get some serious traction in terms of capability here in New Zealand. The number of employees in the sector has broken through the 50,000 barrier for the first time and the salary bill has topped $4 billion, making it a rich hunting ground for employees. The average revenue per employee sits at more than $230,000 - something I am sure Sir Paul Callaghan would have shouted from the rooftops.

That puts the tech sector firmly on the map in terms of economic impact, in terms of employment and opportunity and in terms of mana - perhaps finally New Zealanders will start to take the tech sector seriously as something we can and should encourage in New Zealand.

Two trends stick out for me: the growth of tech in the regions and the amount we export to the world.

I have long advocated for regional tech innovation because why on earth would you build a business on the overpriced real estate that we find in our major cities when you could live at the beach, earn just as much but live like a king (or queen)? It puzzles me why the regions don't promote their capabilities more often and more loudly but for some reason they tend to focus more on the primary sectors.

This year the greater Wellington region grew by a whopping 17.5% to nearly hit $2.6 billion in revenue making it the fastest growing region in terms of tech and innovation in the land.

Export-wise we're also charging ahead, with growth of around 11% year on year. Export earnings this year hit $8.7 billion for the first time with Australia and North America continuing to be our favourite export destinations accounting for half of all tech exports. Europe is charging in at a very fast clip, however, growing by 18.5% year on year.

This is very good news and my hat's off to the team (including our very own cartoonist Brendan Boughan) for their excellent work putting this report together.

Maybe finally we can start to convince policy makers that the ICT sector is the extra string to our economic bow that New Zealand has been looking for.

Technology Innovation Network - TIN100 Report

Techblog - TIN Report shows tech export sector in good heart


Donut forsake me, Facebook

A Dunedin café's troubles with Facebook are a microcosm of the larger issue we all have with social media giants. It's a lack of communication, of process, of access, of fairness and of control. It's about the total imbalance of power that lies at the heart of the social media - user relationship.

The café, Number 7 Balmac, has a Facebook page and a loyal following among customers. Each week the café posts a photo of its donuts so that customers will know what's on offer in store.

But the company's Facebook page is regularly reported for abuse and suspended for 14 days while the company reviews the case. Each time it has been told it is in breach of Facebook's community standards and that the posts are "causing people to like or engage with it unintentionally in a misleading way" and pushing "abusive messages".

Each time the page is eventually admitted back into the world of Facebook only to be reported and shuttered again. The owner suspects a competitor is playing games but whatever the reason, Facebook's response is slack, to say the least.

And this is the core of the problem. These social media platforms demand that we the users conform to their business models and yet there is no process, no explanation for decisions, not ability to review or appeal, no customer service whatsoever.

Of course, the reason for that is we aren't the customer, we're the product, but for many people that distinction hasn't been made yet.

It will though because along with upsetting Dunedin's café set, Facebook has also decided that the best thing it can do for democracy is allow political candidates to tell lies unchecked and that this is due to free speech.

It's not, it's about reducing costs and maximising profits but they do like to dress it up in the US flag when they make decisions and that's got to be a worry, not only for watchers of US politics but also closer to home. We also have elections and we also have an Electoral Act that outlines just how political advertising is managed during an election cycle.

Do you think Facebook will comply with New Zealand law and make sure advertising includes the correct details, that spending limits aren't breached and that accuracy is maintained, or do you think Facebook will ignore all of that in favour of its bottom line?

If you're still unsure about Facebook's motives then you probably need to read the rest of the New Zealand Herald story on the café. Its owners were told they could avoid losing revenue if they were to advertise more on Facebook. Yes, Facebook will block the company's site but for a fee will promote its posts.

When it's donuts that's funny. When it's our electoral system, that's really alarming.

Stuff - Labour reject Facebook ad transparency tools until National get onboard

NZ Herald - Dunedin restaurateur's David and Goliath battle with Facebook (PAID)

NY Times - Dissent Erupts at Facebook Over Hands-Off Stance on Political Ads

Stuff - Twitter bans all political ads; Republicans lash out

NY Times - Your Move, Facebook

NZ Herald - Fact-checking Facebook's fantasies

New Yorker - The problem of political advertising on social media

Rand - Hostile Social Manipulation: Present Realities and Emerging Trends

Knight Columbia - Facebook and Free Speech Are Different Things

Electoral Commission -  Campaign rules for parties


The future of our country

This week the Australian consumer watchdog, the ACCC, is taking Google to court for having engaged in "misleading conduct and made false or misleading representations to consumers" related to location data.

Users signing up to a Google account on their Android phones in 2017 and 2018 were given the option of turning off "location history" something Google told users would prevent location-based data from being collected. Except Google continued to track such users unless they also switched off "Web and App Activity" in a separate part of the Android menu structure.

While for some this seems like a trivial issue, for others location data is the ultimate red line in the sand and one that companies cross at their peril. Having a company track your movements on a daily basis is fine if it's carefully controlled and for a specific customer-selected purpose, like having phone calls directed to your mobile device for instance, but knowing a company will gather this data and then sell it to advertisers or other nefarious persons is a step too far for many.

This kind of issue is key to both the relationship between tech giants and users and also to the way in which countries can manage that relationship. On the one hand we want our tech companies to innovate, to push boundaries and to try new things, but on the other we want them to be mindful of our information, truthful in their dealings with us and to respect our wishes as individuals even when we are but a single data point in a very large data set.

All of this has been pressing on the mind of our Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards, who spoke at the  International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) annual conference in Sydney this week.

In his keynote presentation, Edwards discussed the asymmetry of the relationship between individuals and tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and others. He rightly points out that we have no ability to influence companies that are far larger than New Zealand.

"Facebook's 'population' of over two billion, none of whom has voting or regulatory rights there. They move fast and break things, innovate at the speed of fibre optic broadband, deliver fantastic services that improve the lives of billions, and leave regulators in the dust; unable to keep up, unable to match their resources unable to assert effectively that their 'one size fits all product' does not in fact, fit all,"

It's a sobering point that mirrors my own view on the situation and isn't a million miles away from the situation with the Dunedin café. We have no ability to interact in a meaningful way with the decision makers at Facebook. We cannot expect Facebook or Google to abide by New Zealand laws because they're big and powerful and based far away and they'd just turn off our services if we complain too loudly (reader, they will not). We have no ability to engage with these companies on policy matters in any reasonable way and we cannot get them to abide by our law.

The disruption that is the internet's main driving force is coming to our political structures, like regulation, like taxation, like policy making, and we don't have any real way to influence the outcomes because (once again) we're not the customer or the citizen of Facebook - we are the product.

CNN - Australia sues Google over alleged misuse of location data

Innovation Australia - ACCC sues Google over location data

Privacy Commission - Privacy Commissioner's IAPP ANZ Summit 2019 keynote presentation


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