Australia to establish office to police Facebook, Google

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Australia said it would establish the world’s first dedicated office to police Facebook Inc and Google as part of reforms designed to rein in the US technology giants, potentially setting a precedent for global lawmakers.

The move tightens the regulatory screws on the online platforms, which have governments from the United States to Europe scrambling to address concerns ranging from anti-trust issues to the spread of “fake news” and hate speech.

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the $5 billion fine slapped on Facebook in the United States this month for privacy breaches showed regulators were now taking such issues extremely seriously.

“These companies are among the most powerful and valuable in the world,” Frydenberg told reporters in Sydney after the release of a much-anticipated report on future regulation of the dominant digital platforms.

“They need to be held to account and their activities need to be more transparent.”

Canberra would form a special branch of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the antitrust watchdog, to scrutinize how the companies used algorithms to match advertisements with viewers, giving them a stronghold on the main income generator of media operators.

The new office was one of 23 recommendations in the ACCC’s report, including strengthening privacy laws, protections for the news media and creating a code of conduct - requiring regulatory approval - to govern how internet giants profit from users’ content.

Frydenberg said the government intended to “lift the veil” on how the firms collected and monetized users’ data, and accepted the ACCC’s “overriding conclusion that there is a need for reform”.

The proposals would be subject to a 12-week public consultation process before the government acts on the report, he added.

Google and Facebook have opposed tighter regulation while traditional media owners, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, have backed reform.

A Google representative said in an email that the company would “continue to engage with the government during the consultation process on the recommendations put forward in this report”.

A Facebook representative was not immediately available for comment.

Five investigations ongoing

ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said the regulator studied Facebook and Google for 18 months before delivering the report, and learned that the law let the firms collect and use personal data in ways users did not understand.

“There needs to be a lot more transparency and oversight of Google and Facebook and their operations and practices,” he said.
The regulator had five investigations of the platforms under way, and “I believe more will follow”, he added.

Under new laws already in place the ACCC can levy fines up to 10% of Australian turnover for breaches of consumer laws.

Among other recommendations in the report, the ACCC said it wanted privacy law updated to give people the right to erase personal data stored online, aligning Australia with some elements of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

“We cannot leave these issues to be dealt with by commercial entities with substantial reach and market power. It’s really up to government and regulators to get up to date and stay up to date in relation to all these issues,” he said.

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