Australia will make sure Google and Facebook obey its laws or wave goodbye to the tech giants — that’s the message Rod Sims, the chair of consumer watchdog the ACCC, is sending to the market.
The ACCC released the findings of its investigation into the digital media landscape in July, making 23 recommendations aimed at evening the playing field for traditional media companies and curbing the power of Google and Facebook.
Now, Sims has made clear he is serious about following up on the inquiry and ensuring the tech giants play by the new rules, once they are approved by the government.
“Australia can, if necessary, act alone,” Sims said in a speech to the Melbourne Press Club on Tuesday.
“Facebook and Google are clearly subject to our laws. They either comply or do not do business in Australia.”
Adopting some uncharacteristic sass, Sims reminded the tech giants they are free to “withdraw their services” from a country if they don’t like the regulatory environment, but added he “[doesn’t] think that will happen here”.
The watchdog also hit back at suggestions that its efforts to regulate the tech giants could “stifle innovation”, in a thinly-veiled swipe at DIGI, the lobbyist representing Facebook, Google and other US-headquartered digital platforms in Australia.
“Some argue that increasing regulation in digital markets will stifle innovation,” he said.
“But this fails to recognise that while digital innovations have the potential to transform societies for the better, there are also forms of innovation that can be harmful or corrosive; as fake news and the promotion of extremist content online illustrates.”
DIGI used precisely those words — “stifle innovation” — in its official response to the release of the ACCC report, warning of “unintended consequences”. The lobbyist has declined invitations to speak to Business Insider Australia in the wake of the report’s release.
Sims also reminded his audience that Google and Facebook are corporate organisations primarily concerned with increasing profits and that they should be regulated accordingly.
“These are not community based, not for profit, companies, no matter how much they seek to portray themselves as benevolent enablers of human interaction and knowledge sharing,” he said.
“While they might provide a wide array of services to their customers, at zero monetary cost, like any other successful public company, their success is measured in shareholder returns.”
Being a dominant market player is not a crime in Australia, he said — but disadvantaging other market players by engaging in unfair behaviour is.
A reading watchdog
In a bid to show he is serious about protecting quality journalism against anti-competitive threats, Sims also revealed some of his personal media consumption habits.
“I read the [Australian Financial Review] and The Australian every day, and also other Nine and News [Corp] papers daily but mainly the Age and the Herald Sun,” he said.
“I use Google many times a day, from Google maps to get here today to learning more about Hawthorn’s new debutant. I am not on Facebook, as there are only so many hours in the day, but nearly all of the ACCC’s digital platforms team are Facebook users.
“I also read think pieces from The Conversation, The Monthly, and Crikey, and my media team has self-set KPIs to get me written up in Buzzfeed, Pedestrian TV and Junkee, which I am told they meet.”
Going it alone — or is he?
Despite saying that Australia will act unilaterally against the tech giants if it has to, Sims readily admits the ACCC’s efforts are one of a number of global initiatives to protect users and their data from harm.
Sims pointed to the US Federal Trade Commission’s record US$5 billion penalty for consumer privacy violations by Facebook in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the EU$1.5 billion fine copped by Google from the European Commission for anti-competitive behaviour.
Up against tough talk like this, lobbyists like DIGI will have a rough time prosecuting their “unintended consequences” line.