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Here’s Who Actually Invented the Internet in Australia

In June, Australia’s telecommunications minister announced the government was updating the country’s digital strategy. The new plan includes several ambitious projects, among which more focus on big data storage solutions, updated legal policies for startups, and more online accessibility on the part of government agencies. Since the land down under is, by all accounts, preparing for a heated election, it comes as no surprise that the announcement was met with a mixed response of criticism, heated statements, as well as enthusiasms. On the one hand, startup organizations welcomed the strategy, albeit they were somewhat critical regarding its rather vague treatment of aspects like big data. On the other, opposition leader Tony Abbott rushed to speak before Parliament about the country’s broadband policy in late June – and inadvertently committed a faux-pas of sorts.

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Abbott came in for a lot of heat after his statement that Malcolm Turnbull virtually invented the Internet in Australia. The leader of the coalition made this statement during a speech which credited Turnbull with devising the local broadband policy and its implementation. The statement was quickly cited by numerous platforms across the Internet and became the target of many jokes – while Abbott’s supporters claimed the statement itself had been meant in jest. Several influential bloggers in the realms of digital technologies, IT, and tech in Australia chimed in to say that Turnbull in fact invented nothing whatsoever. He did, indeed, leave his mark by being among the first to acknowledge the potential for profit which the Internet could bring, but this is far from commending him as a genius, visionary, or inventor.

More virulent reactions include those that say Abbott should be forbidden from tackling any subject remotely related to the digital or tech field. But the truly important issue in this case is that Abbott’s statement failed to give credit where credit is due. Australia certainly has its fair share of innovators and pioneers when it comes to Internet presence and access. Some media outlets have cited Geoff Huston, who stands among the founding members of the Australian Academic Research Network and nowadays acts as the top researcher at the Asia Pacific Information Center. Others listed Melbourne University’s own Robert Elz, Alan Coulter from the University of Queensland, and ANU’s Robin Erskine.

Huston has been repeatedly been named among one of the world’s first researchers to genuinely understand and implement what the Internet had to offer back in the late eighties. Had he not connected Australia’s universities in a communications network, Australia would have probably spent a lot more time without Internet connectivity. Huston reports it all happened on June 23, 1989 – a fateful night which subsequently encouraged the emergence of Australia’s first Internet provider for the general public. Without the researcher’s vision, Australia could not be offering cloud based virtual offices to its startups, not boast such high levels of mobile broadband connectivity.

The awkwardness of Tony Abbott’s statements becomes all the more apparent if one reads into Huston’s criticism of the Opposition’s plan to bring faster and cheaper broadband Internet to Australia’s populace. This is one of the major points on the Coalition’s election agenda: they plan to save $10 billion to the federal budget, yet some experts see their plan as having little to do with reality. The plan is to use the existing copper cables which provide Internet access across Australia and update the network with fiber optics. The goal is to bring download speeds in suburban Australia up to 25 MB per second. However, unlike Labor’s plan, which also took into account future developments in the field, the Opposition seems solely concerned with being voted more popular in the here and the now. And, as Huston put it, 25 MB/s is going to be anything but impressive in a decade’s time.

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