Aussies question whether Google and Facebook are overstepping boundaries

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is shining the light of concern on Google and Facebook, seemingly one of the first steps towards regulatory overhaul.

Of course, there is no question the internet giants should be under greater regulatory scrutiny, though creating the red-tape maze does take time. The Digital Platforms Inquiry Preliminary Report released by the ACCC is just the first bureaucratic step in the dance which will take place over the coming months. Google and Facebook are in the crosshairs, though how long it will take to overhaul the dated and swiss-cheese like rules is anybody’s guess.

“The ACCC considers that the strong market position of digital platforms like Google and Facebook justifies a greater level of regulatory oversight,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

“Australian law does not prohibit a business from possessing significant market power or using its efficiencies or skills to ‘out compete’ its rivals. But when their dominant position is at risk of creating competitive or consumer harm, governments should stay ahead of the game and act to protect consumers and businesses through regulation.”

There are several issues which are being raised through the report, though the important one seems to be the breadth and depth of influence which the internet players can wield. These are platforms which did begin their journey as curators or hosts of information, and despite pleas this position continues, their role in society has evolved at the same rate at which their bank accounts have grown. The ACCC is suggesting these platforms have an incredible influence on society, which they of course do, and this should be reflected in future regulation.

For the likes of Google and Facebook, there is another fight on the horizon. These are organizations which have enjoyed a relatively light-touch regulatory landscape, perhaps owing to the fact rule makers are not able to keep pace with the evolution of technology and the digital economy, though the world is starting to wake up. Recent scandals concerning privacy, location tracking, the dissemination of information and the depth of knowledge on the consumer are ensuring governments are taking this segment seriously now.

Looking at the specifics of this report, the ACCC is concerned about echo chambers being created thanks to personalisation algorithms. The lack of transparency is a concern here, as users might be unknowingly led down a biased news feed. Perhaps this would explain the polarised opinions we are seeing nowadays; not enough people are being exposed to both sides of the argument.

Other points raised by the report focuses on the depth of information collected on the user by these platforms, which far exceeds what the user has expressly given permission for, and also the ‘take it or leave it’ approach to T&Cs. The influence of these platforms due to the amount of information collected and the opaque ranking system might well be creating beasts which could favour certain businesses or political parties, a position which might be considered dangerous.

One of the proposals put forward in the report is to prevent Chrome being installed as a default browser on mobile devices, computers and tablets and Google’s search engine being installed as a default search engine on internet browsers. This is one example of how the Australian government is aiming to dilute the influence of Google, though it is important to note this report is not specifically directed at Google alone. Other proposals include modifications to the Privacy Act, which would (in theory) offer the consumer more choice and power.

For any fundamental changes to happen in government there are appropriate and measured steps to take. These steps involve research, consultations, as well (seemingly) endless debates and lobbying. This should be viewed as the first steps towards gaining greater regulatory influence over the internet players who have enjoyed greater freedoms over other businesses.

The world is starting to wake up and realise the internet players cannot be regulated in the same way as traditional businesses. It might be long overdue, but sooner or later the balance of power and influence will shift into a fairer and more sustainable position.