Ten things we learned from NetHui 2013

By Bill Bennett

Three busy days, a total of 65 sessions and hundreds of conversations meant NetHui gave everyone who took part plenty to think about. It’s an open conference, organisers encourage delegates to participate. That makes it New Zealand’s biggest technology learning experience.

There’s no way to squeeze all the insights into a single, simple blog post. However a few big themes emerged:

1. We can change the internet

If I came away from NetHui with just one thought, it is that New Zealand’s internet community wields the power to change things. The message came up again and again in different guises. Monday’s InTAC workshop was specifically about influencing New Zealand’s internet future, many of us attending committed to small tasks pushing those goals forward.

2. We can change politics

A remark from Labour communications spokesperson Clare Curran may have sparked a movement. She suggested the audience adopt an MP to tell them about matters like copyright law and other online issues. Within a couple of hours a team of NetHui geek women, Aurynn Shaw, Merrin Macleod and Megan Bowra-Dean whipped up a site to make that task easier. Brilliant work. See more at

3. Information security and privacy hot button

People may feel powerless to do much about information security and privacy, but that doesn’t mean they are happy with the status quo and it doesn’t mean they aren’t groping for ways to regain control. While they may have belonged to geeks in the past, I sensed a definite mood that these issues are moving onto the broader political agenda. That’s something our leaders need to watch closely.

4. The establishment position on surveillance isn’t monolithic

The panel on state surveillance didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but it’s clear New Zealand’s establishment doesn’t present a united front when it comes to spying on citizens. Meanwhile there were clear and well articulated objections from delegates. Going by the mood at NetHui the government is out of touch with popular feeling and with the expert security community on this one – that’s a politically awkward place to be.

5. Poorer schools have more to gain from the internet than rich ones

Technology can do wonderful things for education. As Point England principal Russell Burt made clear, it can transform the lives of those students at the bottom of the economic heap and give people a voice.

6. There’s little love for Sky TV

I lost count of how many negative things people said about Sky TV at NetHui. I didn’t hear one remotely positive comment. Does this matter? More than you might imagine. While people at NetHui like to think of themselves as ordinary New Zealanders, in reality they are in the technology vanguard. Many, if not most, live post-TV lives. Soon the rest of New Zealand will catch up.

7. Limited optimism on rural broadband

We’re seeing real traction getting broadband out to remote areas of New Zealand, but huge barriers remain to filling in the “nooks and crannies”. The biggest issue seems to be dealing with low income consumers and places like marae. There are parts of this job that simply can’t be left to market forces. My gut feeling is that politicians and industry players are putting the more difficult rural connections in the “too hard” basket. This may not be fixed without more public money.

8. The future is uncertain, that’s not a bad thing

Blogger and keynote speaker Quinn Norton is watching the social changes driven by an open Internet. She talks of an “emergent and feral collective”. While this functions far better than you might expect, it is unpredictable and chaotic. There’s also uncertainty about what the UFB network will deliver, discussions on possible “killer apps” hit a brick wall.

9. New Zealand recorded music is a worse shape than we thought

Everyone knows the recorded music industry is in a bad way and that digital sales in no way make up the shortfall. What wasn’t obvious until NetHui is the utter collapse of recorded music sales. Music lawyer Chris Hocquard says even The Warehouse isn’t trying any more. Retail music sales have collapsed with shift away from physical. NetHui’s music panel isn’t sure if the sales have gone digital.

10. The people have spoken

Participation is NetHui’s greatest strength. Delegates don’t just get to hear from industry experts and gurus – there are many chances to contribute. I suspect this is especially true for women and other groups which can at times struggle to get a hearing at technology-focused events. I’m convinced I learned more from the crowd than from the stage over the three days of NetHui.

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