Big Tech in new ACCC squeeze

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

With government expected to formally respond to the ACCC’s landmark digital platforms inquiry in the coming weeks, pressure must be maintained on the world’s biggest tech companies to ensure there is real change, the competition watchdog’s chair Rod Sims said.

Mr Sims said the competition watchdog has not been idle since completing its “world first” inquiry, with multiple court actions launched against major tech companies, and more in its crosshairs.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) handed a report with 23 recommendations for “significant, holistic reform” to government in July.

Government has consulted with industry on the report in the months since, and will respond to the recommendations by the end of the year. Submissions to Treasury on the ACCC report closed nearly two months ago, but are yet to be made public.

Addressing the Consumer Policy Research 2019 conference on Tuesday, ACCC chair Rod Sims said recent privacy and data security-focused policies from Facebook and Google had vindicated its wide-ranging inquiry.

Facebook recently rolled out new privacy controls that let users clear their browsing history, suspended a number of apps related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and announced new partnerships with Australian media companies, while Google has altered its algorithm to prioritise original journalism.

“These recent announcements are vindication of our recommendations; when there is sufficient pressure on their behaviour, the digital platforms are willing to have genuine negotiations and recognise the role they perform in news distribution,” Mr Sims told the conference.

“While we are already seeing some fightback by vested interests, we are also seeing some initial change from the digital platforms. Concerted pressure produces change, and the change also emphasises the need to maintain the pressure.”

In the months since finalising its report, the ACCC has instituted Federal Court proceedings against health booking startup HealthEngine over the sharing of consumer information with insurance brokers and editing of patient reviews.

It also recently commenced court action against Google alleging the tech giant engaged in “misleading conduct and made false or misleading representations” to its users over its collection of location data.

A number of rulings against these tech companies around the world have also provided important precedences for Australia, Mr Sims said, with Google handed a $2.42 billion Euro fine from the European Commission, and Facebook being fined $US5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission for deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.

“We have not been alone in acting against the digital platforms. If anyone was to doubt the influence and commercial effect on consumer markets, you only have to look at some of the verdicts and the penalties coming from investigations around the world,” Mr Sims said.

“All these cases and subsequent judgements provide welcome precedents for regulators worldwide. Some not only set the bar for penalties but invariably provide insight into the often opaque operations of the digital platforms.

“Certainly these actions and penalties emphasise the size of the issues we are all dealing with in relation to digital platforms.”

Mr Sims also questioned Google’s recent acquisition of FitBit, saying that he was concerned that FitBits robust privacy policies and policies won’t be maintained following the merger.

He said it was a “stretch” to believe that the commitment from Google that the health data will not be used for advertising will still be in place in five years time.

“It is also worth noting that while the FitBit users’ health and wellbeing data may not be used for Google Ads it may potentially be used by Google for other purposes. It may also be the case that the data collected by FitBit which is not ‘health and wellbeing’ data could be used for Google Ads,” he said.

The ACCC has already been working closely with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner on its recommendations relating to data privacy and security. The report recommended that a code of practice be implemented for digital platforms, regulating their data practices, and that the Privacy Act be strengthened.

The Coalition will be revealing which of the ACCC’s 23 recommendations it will be implementing by the end of the year. Treasury has been running consultations on the report, with submissions closing in September. These submissions were expected to be made public several months ago, but still haven’t been released.

Some organisations, including tech industry group Digi, Facebook, Google and the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, have released their own submissions separately.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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