The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) investigation was seen as a forensic examination of the market dominance of digital platforms and its implications for Australian media and citizens’ rights around privacy and data security.
The final report of the inquiry, which was released last month, is analyzed in terms of competition policy, consumer protection, and future journalism.
However, the major limitation facing the ACCC and the Australian government in developing new regulations for digital platforms is jurisdictional authority – given these companies are headquartered in the United States.
Platform neutrality is more important
The ACCC’s 23 recommendations include a proposal for reforming media regulations. This would move away from the current “platform-specific” approaches (different rules applied to television, radio, and print media) towards a more “platform-neutral approach.”
This will ensure that similar functions are regulated effectively and consistently:
The current approach to media regulation is inconsistent in Australia […]
Digital platforms are increasingly performing functions similar to those of media businesses. They select and curate content, evaluate content, and rank and arrange content online. Digital platforms are virtually unregulated by media regulations.
The ACCC’s recommendation to harmonize media regulations draws on the major Australian public inquiries from early 2010, such as the Review of Convergence and the Australian Law Reform Commission Review. These reports highlighted the inadequacy of “siloed” media laws and regulation at a time of digital convergence.
Read more: What Australia’s competition boss has in store for Google and Facebook
The ACCC also questions the continued appropriateness of the distinction between platforms and publishers in an age where the largest digital platforms are not simply the carriers of messages circulated among their users.
This report notes that digital content is increasingly distributed through these platforms. Online users increasingly access news via platforms like Facebook and Google as well as video through YouTube.
The ACCC investigation focused on digital platforms and their impact on news. However, we can also see how they’ve transformed the media landscape in general and the issues that arise for the public good.
The dominance of advertising by these companies has undermined the traditional media business model. About 50% of all advertising is now spent online. According to the ACCC, 71 cents out of every dollar on digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook.
The migration of advertising to the internet is affecting all media, since platforms are able to better target consumers than mass media.
This is because the data that digital giants collect about their users will be a bigger problem for potential competitors. The lack of transparency in algorithmic sorting and the ability to apply powerful predictive analytics on “big data” are all factors.
The ACCC, in line with criticisms about platform capitalism, is concerned that consumers are not informed about the data platforms they have and how they use them.
The ” winner takes-most ” nature of digital markets has a serious impact on the media industry and is a major concern for journalists working in the public interest.
Digital platform companies are not easily categorized into a single industry, as they span across content media, advertising, and information technology.
They are also different. While they all rely heavily on the ability to collect and use consumer data, their models are very different.
The ACCC focused only on Google and Facebook. However, they are two very different entities.
Google dominates the search advertising market and is a major content aggregator. Facebook, on the other hand, provides display ads that accompany user-generated social media. The rise of digital platform giants presents its own set of challenges when it comes to crafting a response.
The first question is whether digital platforms are media businesses or businesses in a broader sense.
In the 1990s and even into the 2000s, digital platforms were often referred to as carriers. They were then exempted from any laws or regulations that may have been imposed on the content uploaded by users to their websites.
This distinction between carriage and content has always been accompanied by active measures taken by platform companies to control what is hosted on their websites. In recent years, the debates around content moderation and platform providers’ legal and ethical obligations have intensified.