Australia's 'World-First' Crackdown On Facebook And Google

Social media giants could face huge tax and regulatory changes in Australia, with a major crackdown on fake news and disinformation also on the way.

A wide-ranging Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) report has recommended major clamping down on the practices of Facebook, Google and more, a sign of the alarm government feels over the near-monopoly the two have over social media and online searches respectively.

Some 70 percent of Aussies use Google search every day, with more than 19 million people using it each month. Facebook has 17.3 million Australian monthly users, with 58 percent logging on daily.

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A major focus of the report is fake news, disinformation and digital literacy. In April, journalism academic Professor Peter Fray -- co-director of the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney -- told 10 daily that social media platforms had "weaponised fake news".

Recent consumption figures show Australians spend six times as much time on Facebook as they do on news websites. By contrast, Australians spend as much time on Snapchat as they do on news sites.

An 18-month review into digital platforms has culminated in a 619-page report and 23 recommendations covering privacy, media regulation, competition and consumer protections. The ACCC expressed concern overuse and misuse of personal data, privacy, and informed consent -- or lack thereof -- of internet users to have their information collected and used.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Facebook and Google "need to be held to account and their activities need to be more transparent." He called the inquiry "groundbreaking" and a "world-first".

The ACCC report recommends setting up an enforceable privacy code for digital platforms; a code of conduct between platforms and media companies; more support for journalism through government grants and encouraging philanthropic grants to media organisations to undertake serious reporting; and a mandatory system to force social media companies to address copyright breaches.

Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook is under scrutiny. Photo: Getty

ACCC chairman Rod Sims is "very concerned" about privacy for ordinary consumers. He claimed users are given "the illusion of control" but that companies have "broad discretion about how they can use consumers' data", including sharing with advertisers.

Just this week, American regulators levelled a US$5 billion (AUD$7 billion) on Facebook for a range of privacy violations and ordered a major overhaul of the social media network's data policies.

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The ACCC report recommends Australian users of Android devices be given a choice for their default search engine and web browser, rather than automatically being forced to use Google.

An industry association representing the digital sector in Australia, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, has urged the government to be cautious when implementing the recommendations.

"We're closely reviewing these recommendations to ensure they don't bring unintended consequences to all digital businesses and the choice of digital products available to Australian consumers," Digital Industry Group (DIGI) managing director Sunita Bose said in a statement.

The ACCC wants more oversight of Facebook, Google and more. Photo: Getty

But while the headline news centres on privacy and data use, deeper within the report is a series of recommendations and concerns about 'disinformation', media literacy and fake news. The ACCC calls for community centres, libraries, schools and seniors centres to deliver resources and training to help internet users parse through information they find online, and better decide what is legitimate and what is false.

Central to this is a call for an independent regulator to monitor how platforms like Google and Facebook themselves deal with fake news, such as recent initiatives where false information is deprioritised and hidden in news feeds.

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This has come in response to attempts to influence political elections in the USA and around the world -- the ACCC recommendations specifically notes that government and platforms should target "bad-faith actors with the intent to cause harm, particularly to democratic processes".

Facebook unveiled a raft of sweeping changes to "safeguard elections in Australia" in April ahead of the May election, including of a third-party fact-checking tool to scrutinise news being shared.

"Once a story is rated as false, we show it lower in the News Feed... once a story is rated as false, we've been able to reduce its future views by more than 80 percent on average," Facebook's director of policy for Australia Mia Garlick said at the time.

Photo: Reuters

In September 2018, an Oxford University report found one in three news articles shared on social media about the Swedish election came from websites publishing deliberately misleading information.

A 2018 Australian National University study found people are more likely to believe something that isn't true if the claim is placed next to a loosely relevant photograph, such as in a Facebook meme -- even if it doesn't show any proof of the claim.

The ACCC recommends platforms with more than one million monthly Australian users -- which, according to Neilsen figures, includes all major social networks including Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Youtube -- be compelled to implement a code of conduct to deal with complaints about disinformation and fake news, or content presented as news, if it could represent a "serious public detriment".

A regulator would be able to "impose sufficiently large sanctions" if companies fail to act.

The platforms are yet to respond at length to the recommendations, and it is to be seen how many the federal parliament will look to implement.

With AAP.