The government’s response to the competition watchdog’s inquiry into digital platforms would lead to a “backlog of policy work” heading into the new year, with the Opposition criticising the delays and further consultations that were unveiled.
The Coalition on Thursday revealed its response to the 23 recommendations put forward by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission earlier this year after its 18 month inquiry into digital platforms.
The government has supported six recommendations in full, supported another 10 in principle, noted five and rejected two outright. It plans to implement a handful of recommendations immediately, and consult further over the next two years on the more contentious areas of reform.
As part of the response, the ACCC has been given a $27 million cash injection to establish a new Digital Platforms Unit, tech giants will be compelled to develop voluntary codes of conduct for dealing with misinformation and media companies, and a review will be undertaken into the Privacy Act.
The Opposition has come out swinging against the response, saying the government’s “heart was never in the reform agenda” or in the ACCC’s inquiry.
In a joint statement, shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and shadow innovation minister Clare O’Neil said the response is an “admission the Liberals have spent six years delaying long-overdue reforms and wasting time and resources on Groundhog Day processes that have gone nowhere”.
“Much of the work the government says they’re going to do now could and should have been done years ago and Australia faces 2020 with a backlog of policy work that has piled up under the Liberals and Nationals,” they said.
“It is deeply concerning that the Morrison government still doesn’t get it when it comes to public interest journalism, particularly in regional areas, which was the core impetus of this inquiry in the first place.
“While the pace of digital change in our economy gathers speed, this government has a track record of going slow and industry, consumers and citizens can hardly be filled with confidence that the regulatory asymmetry, uncertainty and delay will end any time soon.”
The government’s response is “very lack lustre” and too heavily favours the tech giants, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.
“Morrison, despite all the chest thumping, has buckled to the lobbying of the tech giants, and failed to deliver protections for Australian journalists and content creators,” Senator Hanson-Young tweeted.
The relevant tech companies responded to the government’s announcement on Thursday through DIGI, an industry group whose founding members include Google and Facebook.
DIGI managing director Sunita Bose said the group will “closely” examine the government’s response and continue to contribute to the ongoing consultations.
“We recognise the importance of the issues raised in relation to maintaining competition in the news and advertising markets, and ensuring consumer privacy is protected online. We’ll be studying the proposals in detail to ensure that the consumer protections are fit for a digital era and that there are no unintended consequences for Australia’s digital future, economic growth and global competitiveness,” Ms Bose said.
The industry organisation also backed the announcement of a review into the Privacy Act.
“We welcome an economy-wide review of the Privacy Act, as consumers will have the same expectations of privacy, regardless of the specific company they interact with or the sector within which the company sits,” Ms Bose said.
“At the same time, we also recognise that privacy needs to be central to digital products and services and have been engaging with the OAIC on the government’s proposed digital platforms code.
“DIGI is supportive of efforts to modernise relevant media laws for a digital era, and we look forward to contributing to the development of a regulatory framework that duly recognises some of the fundamental differences between digital products and media businesses.”
As part of its response, the Coalition announced there would be a full review of the current Privacy Act, including a focus on the several recommendations made in the ACCC report regarding data privacy.
Communications Alliance chief executive John Stanton said the review needed to consider the impact of these law changes to other sectors, not just for the digital platforms.
“It is important that Australia’s privacy framework be fit-for-purpose in the digital age – but equally vital that any overhaul of the Privacy Act be underpinned by a full analysis of the economy-wide impact of proposed reforms; not just the impact on digital platforms,” Mr Stanton said.
“If the review pushed to include communications metadata as part of the definition under ‘personal information’ under privacy laws, for example, it must be demonstrated that this would create an actual benefit for consumers, and that this benefit would outweigh the enormous potential costs involved.”
The Communications Alliance said it was “pleased” that government had opted against pursuing a mandatory take-down code for assisting in enforcing copyright.
Another ACCC recommendation that the government rejected was for reforms to merger and acquisition laws which would have placed more of an emphasis on whether a company is a potential competitor, and how much data would be transferred as part of a deal.
This is a positive move for the tech sector, StartupAUS chief executive Alex McCauley said, with many companies raising concerns that this would block potential exits.
“The government has taken the views of industry into account in its response on the M&A recommendations, which is heartening,” Mr McCauley told InnovationAus.
“The tech sector made it clear the proposed M&A changes would be harmful, and the response suggests the government heard us and agrees. It’s a positive sign that well-reasoned, constructive engagement from the sector can produce good results.”
The government will next year launch a pilot external dispute resolution scheme, to be assessed over the course of 2020, with a final decision made on whether a Digital Platforms Ombudsman is needed to be made in 2021.
This was welcomed by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), which is likely to take on the additional role if it is made permanent.
“Ensuring digital platform users have access to a single complaint framework accommodating the converging communications landscape is required and appropriate. The digital platform landscape is complex and the appropriate regulatory and legislative reform will take time to settle,” TIO chair Professor Michael Lavarch said.
“A Digital Platforms Ombudsman pilot with a clear remit to support users already experiencing detriment is a step that can be taken while the broader issues continue to be assessed.”