Federal Government to crack down on tech giants

Federal Government to crack down on tech giants

A $27 million investment into the ACCC and a brand new code of conduct are part of the Federal Government's raft of reforms intended to crack down on unregulated American tech giants.

The reforms come in response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry, which slammed tech heavyweights like Google and Facebook for their impact on the Australian media landscape.

The Federal Government has taken the ACCC's recommendations on board, revealing several changes to be made to better protect the Australian media and consumer rights.

"Digital technologies are going to be an increasingly important part of our economic and social landscape," says the Federal Government.

"The Government wants to get the right regulations in place so Australia can be a leading digital economy."

"That also means ensuring the protections that exist in the real world also exist in the digital world."

The Government's immediate response is to invest $26.9 million in a new unit at the ACCC.

This unit's task will be to monitor and report on the state of competition and consumer protection in digital platform markets, taking enforcement action if necessary, and undertaking inquiries as directed by the Treasurer.

This new task force already has been given its first mandate: to investigate the supply of online advertising and ad-tech services.

The Federal Government has also commenced a staged process to reform media regulation towards a platform-neutral framework, covering both online and offline media content.

Additionally, the ACCC has been asked to prepare and implement voluntary codes to address the concerns news media businesses have with the power of digital platforms like Facebook and Google. This code is to be finalised no later than November 2020.

While initially voluntary, the Federal Government has not ruled out the prospect of making this code of conduct mandatory if the tech giants are unwilling to sign on initially.

The Privacy Act will also receive a shakeup as part of the Government's program of reform. This review will look into privacy settings used by tech giants and will ensure that these settings do in fact protect Australian user data.

"Through our response, the Government will deliver a regulatory framework that is fit for purpose and better protects and informs Australian consumers, addresses bargaining power imbalances between digital platforms and media companies, and ensures privacy settings remain appropriate in the digital age," says the Federal Government.

The announcement form the Federal Government has been welcomed by ACCC chair Rod Sims, who says the reforms properly address the watchdog's concerns as documented in the Digital Platforms Inquiry.

"We're proud that Australia will now be one of the first countries in the world to develop such a comprehensive roadmap for broad reforms relating to digital platforms," says Sims.

"Google and Facebook have grown to have almost unfettered market power with significant impacts on consumers that must be addressed."

Sims in particular is pleased with the Government's approach to supporting news media businesses and local journalism.

"The impact of digitalisation and digital platforms on the Australian media and, in particular, vitally important local and regional news and journalism has been stark and extremely concerning," says Sims.

"We are pleased that this is being addressed by the Government, along with the regulatory imbalance between the platforms and media businesses. An additional code of conduct will also be developed to address disinformation, which is a growing concern globally."

The watchdog released its report into American tech giants back in July, with the ACCC especially critical of Facebook and Google.

Since then the ACCC has launched legal proceedings against Google in the Federal Court, alleging the tech giant misused users' location data.

The case revolves around allegations that Google mislead customers by not directing them to switch off two separate Google Account settings if they did not want Google to store user location data.

In order to direct Google to not retain user location data both the 'Location History' setting and the 'Web & App Activity' setting had to be switched off.

The ACCC alleges that because Google did not make it clear to consumers that both had to be switched off this amounted to misleading conduct.

"The world is waking up to the very real harms that stem from the power the digital platforms hold in our society and for our economy," says Sims.

"The good news is it is not too late to ensure Australian businesses, consumers and society can benefit from the advances offered by digital platforms, while ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place to address the negative impacts."

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