Time to position Australia as a digital player in a world online

Time to position Australia as a digital player in a world online

Australia has yet to grasp the significance of digital technology in expanding its relations with Asia

Australia exists in a world well and truly on its way to digital saturation. While we are likely decades away from the terrifying concept of ‘peak digital’, a complete renovation of how the public, organisations, governments and countries engage with and influence one another is occurring all around us.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s 7.4 billion people use a mobile phone. Globally, one in three people are active social media users and 85 per cent of these are accessing accounts from mobile phones. This shift to mobile-only internet means it’s now mandatory for internationally facing organisations to take a mobile-first approach in their engagement.

The changes occurring in our neighbourhood are even starker. With 94 per cent of the Asia–Pacific’s 4.1 billion citizens on a mobile phone, it is the most mobile-connected region in the world. East Asia also has 1.2 billion social media users, more than North America, South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined

But the real story here is understanding how these online users are disrupting international relations and what that means for Australia.

Within hours of the recent Orlando terror shooting, ISIS members and sympathisers took to the encrypted chat app Telegram to encourage others to recreate the attacks and quickly share and circulate messages and memes.

Hong Kong protests

In 2014, high-school student Joshua Wong used Facebook to encourage Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement to download the FireChat app, which can be used without a wi-fi connection or even a SIM card. The app has been picked up by activists around the world who, for obvious reasons, want an offline communication tool. During the protests the app was downloaded over 460,000 times, resulting in 5.1 million chat sessions across one million new chat rooms.

FireChat was only one of many new tools that facilitated a change in the way activists could coordinate, strategise and fund their existence. Hong Kong’s protesters also maintained publicly accessible Google Docs to coordinate supplies, used crowdsourcing sites to attract donations and build online hubs to store livestream footage and geo-coded maps. The protesters then became the inspiration behind the mobile app game Yellow Umbrella that allows players to experience what it’s been like to be a part of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement by defending key sites from police officers, triads, politicians and anti-Occupy protesters.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong’s activists also became the target of state-enabled and private hackers who, among other things, targeted the activists with spyware distributed via WhatsApp. The discussion boards the activists first used were quickly bombarded with disinformation.

Online warfare

Last year, in one of the largest cyber developments across the world, China deployed a new online warfare tool that, according to academics at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, represents a significant escalation in state-level information control. Called the Great Cannon, the tool is an offensive attack system that is linked to the Great Firewall, China’s domestic censorship tool. The Great Cannon allows the Chinese government to hijack traffic from IP addresses and weaponise those addresses by redirecting the traffic towards websites the government wishes to attack. These resulting huge distributed denial-of-service attacks were used last year to target anti-censorship sites run by Chinese expats.

This new capability attracted very little media attention or analysis in Australia. One exception was a Lowy Institute blog post by academic Sarah Logan. In Logan’s words ‘this capacity and willingness to conduct powerful attacks on sensitive material outside the Great Firewall demonstrates the extent of the Chinese government’s ability to control political discourse outside its borders’.

It is vital that developments like this are discussed and understood. Unlike military capabilities, which take years and even decades to develop, cyber advancements—both defensive and offensive—can develop, be deployed, rejigged, redeployed and resonate around the world quickly and widely.

Digital diplomacy

In Thailand, reporting continues to circulate alleging the military government is creating what the Thai media refers to as a ‘China-inspired’ single gateway that will enable it to block access and control online information flows. Legislation recently passed by Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly gives the government unprecedented executive powers, including over tech giants Facebook and Google. Then there is digital diplomacy.

The Indian government is now one of the world’s most dynamic actors in this field, with Prime Minister Modi’s government taking a coordinated and proactive approach to promoting Indian soft power and engaging in public discourse. Simultaneously, the Indian government leads the world in requests to remove content from Facebook.

This contrast is just one drop in a rapidly expanding ocean. Whether we like it or not, digital technologies are disrupting and rewriting the rules which once governed how international engagement took place. And it is imperative Australia invests more in understanding this so we can counter unwelcome cyber developments while taking advantage of others.


In Asia, businesses, brands and media agencies are flocking to chatbots to engage mobile-savvy populations, and tens of millions are signing up. Incredibly easy to program, chatbots give organisations a direct route to end users on themes of their choosing that arrive instantly and in multiple languages. Most importantly, the user is the curator. It’s not hard to imagine how Australia could benefit from this.

New tools like these give governments an added avenue for international outreach and the perfect vehicle to expand diplomacy and influence opinion in Asia. Such tools could form an important part of how Australian products attempt to access markets, connect with customers and shape brands. Universities could better tap into key international markets and stay connected with former students as they progress through careers. Even niche technology news sites have signed up hundreds of thousands.

Whether we like it or not, technology has and is continuing to disrupt and rewrite the rules of relations between international actors, state and non-state

All these interactions, from digital activism and diplomacy to cyber espionage, online censorship and customer app engagement, fall under the increasingly expanding sphere of international relations. Whether we like it or not, technology has and is continuing to disrupt and rewrite the rules of relations between international actors, state and non-state.

In Australia, we have not grasped that yet. The Asia–Pacific region is there for the taking. More than a billion social media users live on Australia’s doorstop and we should be engaging them daily as they interact with friends, news, products, concepts, narratives and new ideas. These developments, many of which are happening in real time, should be consuming immense resources within Australia’s international policy community. Advisers, trade officials, academics, politicians, intelligence officers, think-tankers, military personnel and diplomats should be given space to work on innovative ways to reach, engage, study and influence these users.

While methods differ between these international professions, the overarching objective is the same—to contribute to better understanding Australia’s place in the world. Few think tanks, universities, government departments or ministers, however, have hired staff with expertise in digital politics or international cyber developments.

This lack of expertise is only the tip of the iceberg. There is scant public investment in research dedicated to understanding the digitalisation of global developments and what this means for Australia. Without such research to inform and underpin policy-making, Australia is flying blind in international cyberspace.

In order to pull Australia into the 21st century the government’s already-announced international cyber strategy offers an opportunity to think longer term and act big picture. This strategy should go beyond the concepts of cyber security and official-to-official engagement and set out a funded plan for how Australia can better understand, shape and capitalise on being a part of the most digitally dynamic region in the world. This will facilitate Australia’s transformation from digital minnow to digital player in a world now online.

Featured image
Demonstration by Hong Kong’s Yellow Umbrella Movement in 2014. Demonstrators communicated with one another via the FireChat app, which can be used without a wi-fi connection or even a SIM card. Photo: Flickr.

Danielle Cave is a PhD scholar at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. This is an edited abstract of a speech she delivered on 16 June 2016 to an ANU symposium to mark the tenth anniversary of specialist academic blog, New Mandala.

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