Australia’s regulatory approach to digital technology is a “dog’s breakfast” that is off-putting for international workers and investors, a Labor MP has warned.

Speaking on a panel at last week’s ACS Reimagination Thought Leaders’ Summit, Shadow Cyber security Minister Tim Watts took aim about what he called an un-coordinated government approach to technology regulation.

“We have been doing a lot of job creation for compliance managers and regulatory affairs managers in the technology space,” he said with a wry smile.

“Over the last three years there have been 18 substantive policy consultation processes and substantive regulatory obligations imposed on digital platforms. There are nine processes currently underway.

“If you look at an area like age verification and identity verification there are five parallel policy development processes in Australia at the moment.

“If we’re trying to attract international talent, attract international capital, make our case as a place for a thriving technology sector, we need a bit of co-ordination and rationality in the way we’re approaching these regulatory issues.

“At the moment we’ve got this dog’s breakfast approach.”

Legislation like the Critical Infrastructure Bill which passed last November was criticised for the extra red-tape it heaped on organisations.

Industry has also hit-out at the government’s decision to begin reforming Australia’s electronic surveillance framework after passing legislation that gives law enforcement the power to compel IT professionals to provide technical assistance.

Following the ACCC's 2019 Digital Platforms Inquiry, the government prioritised the News Media Bargaining Code – which was designed to force Facebook and Google to pay local news outlets for content – over its overhaul of the Privacy Act which was also recommended by the ACCC and is still in its early stages.

More regulation, new policies

At the Reimagination panel, Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg leapt to the government’s defense, saying regulation was a necessary step in mitigating the effects of Silicon Valley giants.

“The big tech companies have got more power than any other group of companies since the Gilded Age,” he said.

“The trend is going to be for more regulation in the tech space, not less, while we’re in parliament.”

One of Senator Bragg’s particular areas of concern has been cryptocurrency and digital assets.

He told the Reimagination audience that, if the aim is to attract international talent and international capital – a theme among speakers at this year’s summit – then the government is taking the right steps through its policy shift around cryptocurrency.

“We’ve always been in competition for the best brains and for foreign capital,” he said.

“One of the things that has fallen out of the pandemic is that the Reserve Bank [of Australia] (RBA) and some other regulators, frankly, were doing far too much around payments, the technology there, and on cryptocurrency and digital assets.

“So, last year the government announced a new policy that we would effectively bring back into the Treasury Department the purview of digital assets and cryptocurrency and payments policy.

“If you look at Singapore and the UK, both jurisdictions we’re competing with in this space, they’re both way ahead of us in terms of policies on digital assets.

“In an environment where capital is so mobile, and highly skilled people can go anywhere, why wouldn’t you want to go somewhere that didn’t have a decent [cryptocurrency] policy?”

ACS launched its 2022 Election Platform at the Reimagination Thought Leaders’ Summit last week, calling on the next government to renew its focus on boosting Australia’s digital economy.