Govt must prepare for life after Big Tech: Report

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The government needs to fast-track significant privacy reforms, put a cap on contracts handed to tech giants and invest in the startup sector in order to address an over-reliance on the likes of Facebook and Google, according to a new Australia Institute report.

The federal government has been at loggerheads with Facebook and Google this year over its plan to force the tech giants to enter into revenue-sharing agreements with local news organisations for the use of their content.

This has led Facebook to threaten to block all Australian news from its platforms, and Google to threaten that its free services would be at risk if this bargaining code is implemented.

A new report from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology looks at if Australia could survive without Facebook or Google operating in the country. It found that there are significant risks to businesses, government services and consumers if these services are withdrawn, and that government needs to act now to reduce this reliance.

Parliament House
Get ready: Australia must look to reduce reliance on the global tech giants

“Whether or not they make good on their threats, it is incumbent on all Australians to ensure we are not in a position where we are held hostage to their commercial interests. As the power of the major platforms continues to grow, it is essential Australia has plans for our ongoing digital sovereignty,” Centre for Responsible Technology director Peter Lewis said.

“While many people are uncomfortable with the power and the business models of Google and Facebook, they are so pervasive it’s hard to imagine how we can live without them. But with sensible, long-term policy development and investment in the public square, we think it is possible to ensure those companies serve our interest.”

The Commonwealth should develop a National Risk Mitigation Strategy that includes strengthening of privacy laws, a crackdown on procurement from tech giants and significant investment in the local tech and startup sectors, the report found.

While much of the focus of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) digital platforms inquiry has been on the news media bargaining code, the government should look to implementing its recommendations around protecting user data and giving greater control to users urgently, according to the report.

This includes an update to the definition of “personal information” in the Privacy Act to include digital data such as IP address and location data, stronger and clearer consent requirements online and allowing users to request the deletion of their personal information from tech platforms.

The Coalition has committed to implementing these reforms but it is unclear when this will be done.

The report also called for a “more robust” procurement process looking at existing relationships across public service departments, and a cap on the number of government contracts a single big tech company can win.

Another avenue to reduce reliance on the big global tech companies would be to greatly increase funding of the local startup sector, the report said

“To mitigate against foreign-owned technology companies dominating our ecosystem, we propose a significantly higher investment in Australian technology and startup companies,” the report said.

“This would not only create a healthier and more competitive technology industry, but would also allow Australians the opportunity to envisage different ways of doing business online, with possible alternative models different from those foreign-owned companies bring locally,” it said.

“A stronger local startup scene would allow uniquely Australian perspectives in developing technology to solve uniquely Australian challenges and opportunities. It would also ensure local technologists and talent feel that they have real perspectives locally and not need to move overseas to fulfil their potential.”

The risk mitigation strategy could be an extension of the government’s 2020 Cyber Security Strategy, which does not address the threats posed over a dependence on these big tech firms, the report said.

“This is of particular concern when there are disagreements on policy and regulation like we are seeing now. When a process like the ACCC Digital Platforms inquiry, which has taken over 18 months to develop, with wide consultation and due diligence given towards participants and the community, is undermined by a private business, the sovereignty of the Australian Government and its agencies is diminished,” it said.

The experts behind the report also suggested the development of viable alternatives to Facebook and Google, potentially through a publicly owned, public-purpose social network housed through the ABC.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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