Key Points:

A group of experts has descended on Queenstown for a three-day Netsafe conference that aims to unlock the mysteries of our internet future.

Cybercitizens: Risks, Rights and Responsibilities of Participation in the Information Age covers internet safety and law and plays host a range of experts on aspects of web life.

One of those experts is Peter Dengate Thrush, a New Zealand lawyer who now heads ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).

He spoke to about how New Zealand stacks up in the scheme of things and what we need to avoid as the internet becomes more complicated and more widely accessible.

Tell us about the Cybercitizens conference

"It's run by Netsafe obviously, with a whole range of speakers across a number of disciplines. My involvement in it is in three particular areas, two substantively and on the final day I'll be helping the chairman of Netsafe sum up as we send delegates back to their home towns. My key areas relate to a discussion about freedom of information on the internet - well that's how I categorise it - and the second one is in relation to copyright on the internet."

In terms of safety is the web getting better or worse?

"The internet is neutral about these things - it's really a question about the users. One of the reasons I'm participating in this is to assist with the constant requirement for user education - in this case we'll be educating the educators. It's a bit like saying is fire a good thing or is the wheel a good thing. It's good when it's done properly."

We're in an age where social networking sites like Bebo that are popular amongst teens are being painted as cyberdemons - is awareness of what can go wrong on these sites increasing?

"There's certainly a problem, and do all parents understand all of the issues? No, I don't think they do. It's just as whether we know all of the ramifications of lowering the drinking age to 18 - we can only do the best we can with the information we have available.

"This is new - we've never had the facility to put teenagers in touch with each other and for other people to get in contact with teenagers and young children in this very direct and intimate, and often unsupervised, kind of way. And we have to develop a culture, basically, to deal with that. By culture I mean all of the necessary elements of culture - training, education, belief systems, practises, habits and institutions - to develop it and to support it."

How are mobile internet devices effecting the use of the internet?

"There's about 1.2 or 3 billion internet users connected directly through static devices, we think, and there are 3.3 billion mobile telephone accounts. Not all of those mobiles are connecting to the internet, but they all will and the days where there will be all six billion people on the planet connected is a coming reality."

What are the biggest threats to our internet freedom?

"The biggest threat to the internet itself is developing the wrong culture along the lines that I was just talking about. If we get that wrong, it'll be humans and the way that humans use this particular tool that will cause the problems. You've got to be clear - there's nothing inherently good or bad in the technology itself, it's what we choose to do with it.

Our own stupidity that could trip us up?

"Yes. The sort of threats at the moment come from people attempting to impose controls and that runs into all the usual problems that we've struggled with over the centuries of this civilisation.

"Where the boundaries are between harmful knowledge and harmful expression and the right to freedom of expression. Getting the balance right is always very difficult. It seems clearer in war time for example when there's an acknowledged crisis, civil liberties are curtailed. Absent those circumstances we struggle to be as clear as we can. Another clear example is the universal prohibition on child pornography and the exploitation of children. Those don't cause much debate - it's in political expression and inciting racial hatred and these sorts of areas where the current debate is raging.

Copyright is an interesting area at the moment with England lining up its own legislation in reaction to file-sharing and other copyright threats, and France even adopting a three strikes approach.

"Just be careful about enshrining that three strikes - one of the complaints that people are making about the current piece of legislation here is that we don't know what repeated infringe means. That's the new definition in the Amendments to Copyright Act at the moment we don't know what a repeated infringer is. Is it someone that does it twice, or 20 times? I know Internet New Zealand has made strong submissions on that point, and doesn't think that's appropriate to leave to the judges to come up with some test of repeaters."

Do you think we'll be left with another toothless law with one test case that will fall over at appeal and leave us back at square one?

"There's a worse case than it being toothless and that's it being very toothful - ISPs having to go around closing down all sorts of relatively routine and safe and stable websites because they happen to be hosting - even if it's against their knowledge - some infringing material.

Should it be up to ISPs to police the behaviour of their customers? It's almost like Transit NZ being blamed for a road crash.

"Occasionally Transit are responsible for that if they've designed the road badly, but in this case, I take the view that ISPs have a role that's supposed to be no greater that that of other citizens in relation to infringements. I particularly disagree with the thrust of the current amendment, which turns the ISPs into enforcement agents for copyright owners. I'm a copyright lawyer and I've acted for copyright owners and I've written on the value of copyright to the community. It's not an attack on copyright but we do need to get the balance right between copyright interests and the rights of ordinary citizens and what's good for the internet industries.

"Copyright owners have a problem, and that is that they cannot find who the infringer is. So there could be a site set up somewhere in the jurisdiction which is causing real economic damage to the copyright owner by making infringing counterfeit copies of work available. And that's a real problem in law to stop.

"The problem for the owner is that they can't find them - they're hidden behind the various screens that the internet allows to operate. They've targeted the ISP because it will know who that person is because they're charging them. What the worry is, and what's happened overseas in countries where this is applied when the copyright owner complains to the ISP, under the current law the ISP either has to take the material down or become a joint infringer with the owner if it turns out to be infringing.

"Now that puts them in a very difficult position, and most ISPs in New Zealand are not going to have the time or the resources to do a proper job of inspecting the claim made by the copyright owner, inspecting the material on the allegedly infringing website and asking both parties for further information if the matter isn't clear, perhaps asking for submissions and then making a judgment on whether this is actually infringing or not. You put the ISP into a judicial position. All they're going to say is 'My God, we've got another complaint, let's close it down and get out of here'.

"I don't think that balance is right when there's a much better solution suggested to MED (Ministry of Economic Development) on this and that is the obligation of the ISP should be to inform its customer that a complaint has been made, give them the details and one day, ten days or three days - whatever's appropriate - to take it down. If the owner of the website then doesn't respond to the copyright complainant, then it should be taken down. That would remove the ISP from any kind of judicial or enforcement role in the middle?

That could put ISPs in position where expenses are higher, which will convert to more expensive data for Kiwi internet users.

"And the other thing that it may do as an unintended consequence is that it may be encouraging ISPs to start examining the content of websites of clients. Do you really want your ISP to become the nanny of your business? This is a role that they may take up. If this goes wrong, they may feel that they need to start taking a role of pro-active intervention."

In terms of the next-step internet protocol IPv6 - what do we need to do as the planet moves towards changing over? Is New Zealand where it needs to be, or is there more to be done?

"That's a hard question, and it's also a question that's just been asked by the Commerce Commission who have commissioned a survey of next-generation networks. It is currently running through an industry consultation process which also asks that very question. The answer is not immediately clear but what I think what we need to do is start with the reasons for the change and the primary one is that we're going to run out eventually of IPv4 addresses or else they'll become very costly and effectively be priced off the market.

"The predicted deletion rate means that we will run out of fresh ones to allocate in about 2011. There's argument about that because there's a considerable amount of address space in the legacy space that has been allocated to people years and years ago that have never been used. At ICANN there's considerable discussion about steps to be taken to recover that, who should do and under what sort of terms and conditions.

"That's part of the problem. It's not a crisis. The solution of course is, as you know, IPv6, which carries with it a great deal of other advantages in that it's a much larger address and is actually capable of carrying much more information and doing much more work, if you like, in internet terms. But the systems are not going to be backwards and forwards compatible, so systems are going to have to run what we call 'dual stack' for a while where if you encounter an IPv6-based system you'll have to operate that, but you may want to go back to a legacy site which will keep running IPv4 for many years. There's a cost involved in the new technology - it's a bit like if you were running an old black and white TV set and a colour one when they came in. Of course, in the colour TV example, the colour sets continued playing black and white - this system's not quite so straight forward.

"It's something else that we just have to move on - there's enhanced security and various other advantages in IPv6. It is coming - it's not like a Y2K potential problem, this is an actual transition that the industry is going to have to make and people will have to start making one or two year plans. I think the decision for most people is going to be based on what their customer base is doing.

"If you're in the business of international trade, and you want people to reach you on an international level through your website, more and more across the world people are going to be shifting to IPv6, especially in developing markets like China and India. So if that's where your customer base is, or that's where your suppliers are, then that's going to drive you into that kind of decision.

What do you hope to achieve from the Cybercitizen conference this week?

"An airing and debate on the sort of issues that we've been talking about - the safety online one is a very important one, there's an education requirement. We need to be forming this culture that I spoke about, and you do that by getting experts and participants together and thrashing the issues out."